The following interview was conducted by Bonnie Kerness with Sundiata Acoli from Allenwood’s federal prison for the hearings on Control Units held on Apri 27, 1996 in Philadelphia.
Bonnie: Sundiata, how are you?
Sundiata: I’m doing fine, Bonnie. How are you? Bonnie: Good. Sundiata you were one of the earliest people in a control unit in the United States in Trenton State prison and then again at Marion. Can you tell us about your experiences, both the impact of the experiences on you, and your asessment of how control units are used in this country.
Sundiata: Yes. At Trenton State Prison they created a control unit over night by rounding up two hundred-fifty prisoners. They cleared out an entire unit and began to pile us up in this unit. We had to leave all our property in the old cell and we were put in a new cell. Trenton was built before the civil war, I think 1835, so the cells were very small. You could outstretch your arms and touch both walls, you could reach over your head and touch the ceiling and they had fold-up bunk beds and in order to walk around in the cell you had to fold the bunk bed back into the wall. The space was actually smaller than the space requirement for a ninety-pound German Shepherd dog.
Anyway they rounded two-hundred-fifty of us up and it was really a smoke screen to round up about fifty or sixty either Political Prisoners or prisoners that were involved in African study classes, because within a month of rounding all of us up they had let everyone else out except for about fifty or sixty of us who were more politically inclined.
We had no contact visits. They immediately took our contact visits. We had no access to the law libraries or any programs, and recreation was cut to two hours twice a week in an alleyway between two buildings. The only equipment there was one parallel bar, one basketball and one basketball hoop.
And there was a tremendous amount of uproar. The main question the prisoners were asking was “why were we rounded up,” and they never sufficiently answered that. And that’s the nature of control units, that they never do answer that, because it’s built to be able to select which prisoners they want to round up, you know, which prisoners they want to put in there and hold them in there for an indeterminate amount of time.
Bonnie: Did anyone have any charges?
Sundiata: No. None of us had charges.
Bonnie: I know now in Trenton State Prison the control unit is pretty much a brand new state of the art sensory deprivation unit. Was the control unit at that time, and I think you’re talking about the early 70’s?
Sundiata: Yeah, 1975.
Bonnie: Was it also a sensory deprivation unit?
Sundiata: Definitely sensory deprivation. Because we had to spend 231/2 hours a day, really 23 hours and 50 minutes in these cells all day, 10 minutes out to shower. And to be cramped in a cell that small is definitely sensory deprivation. But also there is a tremendous amount of noise in the cells because prisoners are hollering up and down the range. You have to holler up to one range to the other and there is concern about why they’re locked up, you know, uproars. And in the meantime the guards are harassing and instituting provocations on prisoners. So it’s a continuous uproar and confusion going on.
Bonnie: Which is very much the opposite of what it is today. The folks say the silence there is eerie.
Sundiata: Yeah, it’s deafening, right.
Bonnie: Can you talk a little about the time you spent in the Marion (IL) Control Unit?
Sundiata: Marion was basically the same way. When I first went to Marion, it was a general population prison, you had the control unit but the prisoners in the Marion facility itself was a general population. The same thing happened while I was at Marion that happened at Trenton State Prison. In 1983, they locked Marion down completely and turned the entire prison into a controlled prison and instituted the same basic measures. Recreation twice a week, no programs and provocations and harassment and beatings. The same thing happened at MCU (Trenton). They begin to arbitrarily implement rules that were geared to put you in a position where they could brutalize you. At Marion-the same thing. They locked down the unit and began to take prisoners out of the cells and beat them and throw them in the hole and the same thing.
There’s a report on the whole Marion thing where for nine months they roamed the prison beating prisoners at random.
Bonnie: One of the things they did in the Management Control Unit (MCU) in Trenton was they spent one entire summer, waking folks up dressed in full riot gear with the dogs. They’d wake them up at one o’clock in the morning, make them pack up and switch cages. Then two weeks later, they would do the same thing.
Sundiata: When I was in MCU (Trenton) they started that same procedure. See, what it was is that when we used to go to the yard first, they would pat search us, and we would go to the yard and come back they would pat search us and we would go back to the cell. That was for recreation. One day arbitrarily in the middle of bringing people back from the yard they told a guy to strip search. And he stripped, and they said “spread your anus”, and he spread his cheeks, and they said “not your cheeks, your anus.” And naturally he was concerned at why he was the only one stripped searched and he didn’t do it fast enough so they jumped him and forcibly spread his anus. Behind that, prisoners stopped going to the yard in protest against them beating him and the institution of an anal search.
Then they instituted a rule where every time you change your cell you had to be stripped searched. Since they couldn’t do it to prisoners going to the yard, because we all stopped going to the yard. And then anytime they would change a cell (they would just arbitrarily changed your cells) and say “you’re going to go from cell 16 to cell 20,” you had to strip search and the same thing happened. They would demand that you spread your anus and if you didn’t do it fast enough they’d jump on you and do it forcibly. And they did that to so many prisoners because they could select the prisoners that they wanted to change cells just arbitrarily. And then they would forcibly spread your anus and then they would charge us with assault on them.
All this happened to so many prisoners and caused such an uproar between prisoners’ families in the street and prisoners being charged with assault, which carries a 7 year sen tence, that a federal judge finally stepped in and said you could do the same type of search with a hand held metal detector.
Bonnie: Sundiata, people are going to be listening to this interview all over the country. One of the things we’re hoping is that the panels of listeners which will be listening to testimony like this will form conclusions and be willing to write those conclusions. Is there any comment that you specifically want to address to the panel of listeners about the uses of control units?
Sundiata: Yes, in particular the human control and psychological control measures that they use. First, control units were created so that prison officials could select particular people to put in those units. Then they create programs that are designed to punish you physically and terrorize you psychologically. And when all is said and done, it’s an experiment in human control, how to change entire populations into informers or collaborators. Or either to break your spirit or to destroy your image and possibly destroy your person. So that’s what it does, they are practicing all these experiments on prisoners& in settings where they can manipulate it whichever way they want. But these techniques that they are practicing and learning in the control units, they eventually export these same techniques to manipulate,control and divide communities in the street. So that people in general can never get together to unite against their common oppressor.
Bonnie: I always think of Angela Davis’ quote “if they come for me in the morning, they going to come for you in the night.”
Sundiata: Right. That’s the real sinister part about these control units. That they’re experimentation factories. And that they really take these techniques, once they get them perfected and apply them in the street. And the other danger, is when people think the control units only pertain to prisoners, but it doesn’t work like that.
Bonnie: Sundiata, thank you so much.
Sundiata: Thank you.