Guest Post by Bonnie Kerness
Editor’s Note: As coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project, Bonnie Kerness is a leading voice for humanitarian reform of U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. Kerness is also a pioneer in raising awareness about the use of prolonged solitary confinement, and in uncompromisingly identifying the practice as a form of torture. Since the 1990s, she has coordinated AFSC’s STOPMAX Campaign, which ”works to eliminate the use of isolation and segregation in U.S. prisons” through “research, grassroots organizing, public education and policy advocacy.”
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Between the 1913 closing of Eastern State Penitentiary’s isolation cages and the 1983 lockdown of the federal facility in Marion, Illinois (recently recounted in Nancy Kurshan’s book Out of Control) is a history of struggle against the use of extended solitary confinement in New Jersey, which is little known.
In 1975, after the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, the Viet Nam War and the prisoners’ rights movement, Trenton State Prison (now New Jersey State Prison) established an administrative isolation unit for politically dissident prisoners. The warden and his staff decided to use this technique, which was modeled after a unit in Soledad Prison in California. The Management Control Unit housed those prisoners who had not broken institutional rules, but who were, as a result of their political convictions and expressions, seen to be a threat by prison administrators. Thus, the New Jersey MCU pre-dated the advent of the control unit in federal system.
Sundiata Acoli was one of the first people interred in this new unit. Sundiata writes, the warden “began rounding up prisoners, 250 all told, of which I was the first. They took me to a cell block, another guard brought my property, stopped in front of a prisoner’s cell, took him out, put me in his cell, and escorted him and his property to my old cell. They switched prisoners all night like this so the next morning they had rounded up, switched 250 prisoners to create an instant Management Control Unit. In less than a month, they had released 200 of the MCU prisoners back into population and kept the 50 prisoners in the MCU for which the roundup was actually intended.”