Local Journalism Happens With YouSupport
First Person

The View From Inside: On Surviving Solitary

When Mwalimu Shakur started associating with political radicals inside California prisons in the 1990s, he was classified as a “gang” member and held in solitary for 14 straight years. Now out of solitary, but still behind bars in Corcoran, he tells his story.

A Black man stands in front of a colorful mural. He wears a white sweatshirt and a cross necklace.
Mwalimu Shakur, also known as Ajamu. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

I went to prison for the first time in 1994, and I landed in the security housing unit (SHU) — California’s euphemism for solitary confinement — for the first time in 1995. But 1998 was the year that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) “validated” me (officially labeled me as a prison gang member) and kept me in SHU indefinitely. In total, I’ve served roughly 20 years in solitary, which included one period of 14 consecutive years. At this point, I’ve been out of solitary for about five years. 

I was already being watched before my first time in SHU. “Gang investigators” would watch people they were targeting. Sometimes they’d drop little hints and clues that they were watching you, but they always had informants that were feeding them information so that they could eventually validate you. I was targeted for my association with the New Afrikans — not actually a gang, but a political organization that they wanted to keep separated from the general population. 

The parole departments would work with the investigators, so you could be monitored even on the outside, on parole. One time, prior to my validation, I was at my aunt’s house. While taking out the trash, I saw an unmarked car across the street. As I left the house later, the car was still there. Two men approached me and showed me their badges: “Drug Enforcement Administration.” They knew my name and knew I was just out on parole. They talked to me like they knew me.

It wasn’t hard for the investigators. All they had to do is rack up the “points” that they had from what they thought you’d done. (There were various categories of violations, and each strike against you was called a point.) They’d consider some of the books you’d read. And whether you had any direct links with validated members. (All it took was having a cellie.) And they could give you another point for communication, like if you spoke Swahili or used revolutionary jargon. They’d call that “coded conversation.” 

Anything that they determined to be how a gang — whatever they considered a gang — would function, they would use that to validate. They would go after people like us who were politically conscious and who were challenging the conditions of prison. 

The Office of Criminal Safety in Sacramento would make the final decision. All it would take would be three points. A note from a confidential informant. Study materials. Communication. Self-admittance (they heard you tell somebody something). Tattoos. You could get points for any of these things.

And it was a system designed to keep you in solitary. Once they had you, you were stuck, pretty much. Unless you became a rat and went through their debriefing process and informed on others. Or if you paroled. Or if you died. Those were the only ways to get out of SHU. When I first got the validation packet, I knew I was never gonna come out. The writing was on the wall. It was an indeterminate sentence: They had enough to hold me permanently.

Because they were organized and self-governing, and challenging prison conditions, and CDCR weren’t able to control them, the New Afrikans were called a gang. When I first got to the SHU, the elder New Afrikans were already there. Before 1998, when I was in and out of SHU, I ran across a few of them whenever I went in. It was a history lesson every time I met one of them. They gave me their stories, what they studied and why, and then I started studying, and it started making sense to me. 

My mother and father, they had been Black Panthers. What they and some of my uncles and aunts had shared with me growing up about the movement of the sixties and early seventies, it started making sense. Why we were struggling, why things were the way that they were, why we were conditioned to think and act and believe in the way that we did.

Some of the elders had been in solitary since before they had even created the SHU — since the seventies. They kept the leaders in solitary so that CDCR could win back control of the prison system, after events such as the Attica rebellion. A lot of them were back there for between 30 and 40 years. They created the SHU for those elders, to bury them alive. My guess would be that there were over 500 New Afrikans kept in SHU, out of a total SHU population of over 10,000 (at that time). Mexicans were the majority, but there were a lot of us as well, and a lot of whites. 

In SHU, you would only see prisoners within your own section. Here in Corcoran you have around 24 cells in one section. So, in that one section, you would know who was in every cell. There might be only two other cells with Black inmates in that section with you, and chances of being on the yard with them would be slim. You might pass by somebody’s door on the way to the shower. But anybody else in the prison, in any of the other sections, you wouldn’t see.

In the SHU, you can get books from loved ones. You can get mail, but no phone calls. You can get visits, but they’re only for an hour and they’re behind glass. You get a shower every three days. You go to the yard three times a week, for roughly three and half hours each time. You can talk here and there. We’d exercise mostly — the yard gave us the opportunity to get fresh air. We also knew how to make a homemade chess board — drawing it out on your bunk, putting the numbers on the squares, making pieces out of soap and toilet paper.

In the cell, you can talk, because they have screen doors. We also communicate on paper — we call it “fishing,” where we make lines, put a little weight on the end of that line so it can slide up and down, and pass notes back and forth.

Once I started my long term, I didn’t think I would ever get out. I coped by turning my cell into a laboratory, into a college classroom. I studied religiously, everything I could: politics, economics, sociology, military history, African history, other cultures’ histories. I started with the Bible. 

My mind was alive. I looked at it as “I’m alive and learning,” so I kept doing just that — finding ways to keep being creative. I studied psychology, I studied the law. I realized how the law came about — from William Blackstone. I studied the works of Solon and how he started democracy. I studied the Europeans inside and out, how they came up with stealing everything we invented. I kept studying, and then I started applying it. And as I applied it, I looked at the world in a different way. I stopped thinking the way I used to. Taking on the ways of the revolution allowed me to have strength beyond measure. I was able to think outside the box, a lot more clearly. I could understand and break down different types of shows I was seeing on TV, the news — just everything.

A broad desert landscape, lush with plants is in the foreground. Several nondescript buildings and guard towers are visible in the distance, with a backdrop of mountains and a partly cloudy blue sky.
Cocoran State Prison. (Photo: Center for Land Use Interpretation)

We fought for many years to be released from solitary and to change the SHU policies and practices. Around 2011, we started doing hunger strikes, which were organized by word of mouth. I participated in all three hunger strikes. For the last one, I went almost 60 days without eating. I think I passed out around day 50. I got dehydrated. They had to rush me over to the little makeshift hospital out on the prison grounds. I sat in there with an IV in me. 

There were a couple others in there as well. So, while people were trying to force-feed me, I heard somebody say “Hey, it’s over, bruh, You can eat, it’s over.” I didn’t believe the voices at first, but then I started to recognize them. So then I said “OK, it must be over.” 

After the hunger strikes, the concessions started. But we didn’t settle for the little trinkets they were giving us — extra bars of soap, an extra pair of tennis shoes, a sweatsuit, unlimited soups, speakers, a TV with a digital antenna, college courses. We didn’t settle for things like that. We kept pushing.

And around 2015, they started letting people out. In 2018 I was finally released from solitary.

The change came about through our organizing, outside organizing, the hunger strikes, and the Agreement to End Hostilities. On the outside we had San Francisco Bay View, who gave us a voice to let the public know what was going on inside. We had California Prison Focus, Critical Resistance, Families to Amend Three Strikes… We were able to create the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on the inside, those of us that were members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

There were a lot of activists in the Bay Area — old heads coming out of the woodwork to support the movement. They were setting up outside Corcoran SHU, demonstrating outside Pelican Bay SHU. They were going to the park and setting up a makeshift SHU cell to show how we lived. There was a lot that went into it, and we felt the love, and we so much appreciated it. And all those organizers in the governor’s ear, in the warden’s ear at Pelican Bay, it sent a message.

The Agreement to End Hostilities was forged among us social groups that CDCR deemed a threat. We came up with the agreement to let CDCR know: You let us out the SHU, none of our groups are gonna bump heads and have riots. And mainly because we understood how those riots had come about: CDCR was pitting people from different racial groups against each other. That’s how those “gladiator” fights were established in Corcoran back in the day.

Everybody was in agreement including whites and Mexicans — so much so that the Southern Mexicans and the Northern Mexicans formed an alliance, for the first time in their history. And we New Afrikans reached an understanding with the white supremacists. Everybody agreed, everybody signed on, and it’s working smoothly. It’s still in effect: People are getting along, playing basketball, football, handball. There have been no gladiator fights among the groups. 

The system is a lot different now. When they let all the New Afrikans out, they stopped doing the SHU like they had been doing. They stopped throwing you back there just for validation — that part was over. The only thing they can do now is put you back there for SHUable offenses (like assaulting another inmate, selling or possessing drugs, or assaulting a corrections officer.)

For those of us who have been in the SHU for long terms, it is difficult to get used to being out. Everything is structured so differently. It’s still kind of surreal and surprising. I program in my cell like I’m still in the SHU. Being back in general population makes a huge difference: No restraints, you are not handcuffed or nothing. You don’t have guard escorts. And you have more people to talk to. 

But, while SHU policies have changed, SHU practices are still inhumane. 

If you want to know what solitary is like, go to a dog pound. That’s how it feels when you’re out there in a cage. The authorities believe that it’s not torture, because they give you a TV. But it is psychological torture. It breaks people down mentally. It ends their will to resist. 

There’s nothing therapeutic about it. 

Read the first installment of Ajamu’s column.

Learn about Knock LA’s Incarceration Reporting Initiative.