The Antithesis of Oppression: How I Survived 20 Years of Solitary Confinement

By Joka Heshima Jinsai

“We are not contending with fools who will allow us to simply walk in and organize people to war against them. All serious challenges will be met with panic and repression.” – George Jackson, “Blood in My Eye,” pages 43-44

In recent months, renewed interest in the lives of those who were released to the mainline after decades in California’s infamous SHU torture units has prompted many to ask us the question: How did you survive decades of solitary confinement? To understand how I survived almost two decades of solitary confinement, you must first understand why the state subjected us to these torture units in the first place.

The mistake many of us make in this culture is we often view things in their isolation as opposed to their interconnection. We experience social life through soundbites: tweets, Facebook posts and highly edited newsclips, basing our social awareness on this narrow, easily manipulated view of the world.

This completely divorces us from the historical materialist ideology of social phenomena and the many influences linked to that development. As a result, our perception of social and political reality rarely mirrors the truth.

Perhaps the single most poorly understood mechanism of the Amerikan social control apparatus is the purpose and function of solitary confinement. This misconception of purpose and function of solitary confinement – like misconceptions of other mechanisms of U.S. authoritarian institutions – is consistent with the fascist organization of U.S. society. This means it is not by chance or happenstance; it is by design.

The purpose of contemporary solitary confinement “is to control revolutionary attitudes in prison systems and in the society at large,” observed Ralph Aron, former warden of the Marion Control Unit.

It is a mechanism of social control with the specific political intent of destroying the sources of new ideas that possess the potential to transform the nature and structure of authoritarian society. Those who, in the state’s determination, conform with such revolutionary ideas are condemned to this mechanism, designed to break the mind and further dehumanize us, in a society where torture already finds acceptance, as long as the state carries it out in service to “American interests and the public safety of the American people,” according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on enhanced interrogation techniques. Our minds, our social ties and our very humanity are targeted for eradication.

The U.S. Defense torture program carried out in SHU-style control units finds its origins at a meeting of social scientists in prison posts held in Washington, D.C., in 1962. They adopted the findings of Dr. Edgar Schein, delivered in his presentation, “Man against Man: Brainwashing,” as the basis of the program. In addressing the group, Dr Schein stated: “I would like you to think of brainwashing, not in terms of politics, ethics or morals, but in terms of the deliberate changing of human behavior and attitudes by a group of men who have relatively complete control over the environment in which the captive population lives.”

To be effective, the techniques he espoused would require a new type of environment, conducive to altering the very foundations of one’s perception of reality. For this, the state took Dr. Levinson’s sensory deprivation prison unit design and a form of Skinnerian operant conditioning called “learned helplessness” and applied it to the very structure of SHUs.

Learned helplessness is a systematic process of conditioning, designed to crystalize in the imprisoned victim’s mind that he has no control over the regulation of his existence and that he is helpless and must admit to the state’s power and control in order to “survive.” In many ways, this process reflects the process of social conformity by the U.S. population to the dictates of capitalist society.

This course runs contrary to core human consciousness and compels a linear thought conversion in two options: resistance or escape. The program is designed to apply the maximum punitive coercion against resistance and maximum pressure to explore the second option: escape. For those who are not immediately up for parole, there are only two escape options: debrief or die. To become broken men – or simply cease to exist.

I and those of like mind were placed in hell in indefinite solitary confinement FOR DECADES, based solely on our ideological adherence to New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalism (NARN), our world view of revolutionary scientific socialism and our art and desire to end the oppression of man and woman by man and woman.

The reactionary response of the authoritarian state was to contain this revolutionary participation through repression, to delegitimize and criminalize it in hopes of diminishing its resonance amongst the prison population and society at large. Criminalizing labels like “gang member” and “terrorist” are joined with the isolation of other lumpen in order to criminalize legitimate revolutionaries by proxy. The characters of the two are falsely intertwined, to manufacture public acceptance of a practice which is wholly unacceptable in a humane society.

This point must be clear: The NARN prisoners in California were not consigned to indefinite solitary confinement because of any “criminal” act or “gang activity,” but solely based on our political, social and cultural ideas and their transformative potential. We are unique in this regard.

But this does not truly encompass the depravity of the authoritarian state. Even our resistance was used against us. Those NARN prisoners capable of indefinite resistance to these torture techniques were held up as examples to the rest of the prison population of what fate awaits those following the path of principle, much as the Romans used crucifixion.

It served as such a powerful deterrent to ideological political development for many that what I can only describe as a “philistine psychosis” has set in. Many New Afrikans, not only those who identify with NARN but actually deride learning their own history and culture in general and the history and culture of the New Afrikan resistance in particular for fear of a similar fate, that the state would subject us or others of like mind around the nation to decades of torture, with the express intent of breaking our minds in order to preclude the potential for the progressive transformation of U.S. society, exhibiting today’s fascist character.

Nevertheless, in a crucible of this concentrated repression, our wills DID NOT wilt. Our purpose DID NOT waiver. Our minds DID NOT break. No, like a spear is plunged into the fire 10,000 times to hone the strongest blade, the crucible of torture only tempered my dedication to purpose. The SHU torture unit reveals the true nature of authoritarian society in those who govern it, offering a degree of clarity no amount of study or abstract political theorization could ever produce.

From the depths of this hell we reach forth to nurture and defend our communities, the people and this world: an ABSOLUTE commitment, an absolute commitment to end oppression of man and woman by man and woman. THIS is how I survived solitary confinement.

I survived solitary confinement by being transformed into its antithesis: the New Afrikan REVOLUTIONARY MAN.

Instead of filling me with despair and resentment, it fueled my resistance to magnify my love and commitment to the poor oppressed masses who suffer from the cradle to the grave. For me, the torture unit acted as a window to the mind and heart of Amerikkka. It revealed the national character, bent on absolute despotism and a heart as hollow as the void. Opposition to it requires us to give up our lives, so the origin of this evil is not allowed to spread unchecked.

I view my decades-long confinement in the SHU just as I do my recent release to general population. It’s just the latest front in the same ever-evolving, 400-year-long struggle for freedom, justice and equality begun on the shores of Afrika and continuing on the streets of capitalist Amerikkka.

There exists no greater expression of concentrated racism and absolute despotism in the U.S. capitalist arrangement than the indefinite solitary confinement unit. Dialectically, there exists no higher expression of humanity than the committed revolutionary. Not only does he continue to serve the people in spite of that repression, but he’s constantly seeking ways to improve the quantity and quality of their service.

It was this dedication to purpose, this resolve to oppose tyranny, even while in its clutches, expressed by so many, which led to the organized resistance that paved our way to the prison mainline after so many years.

In the final analysis, it is the act of oppression, the deification of greed, the institutionalization of hate, and the imposition of unequal social, political and economic relationships which produce its opposite, the New Afrikan revolutionary. We exist because fascism, capitalism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, colonialism and imperialism compelled us to exist.

The fact that the fascist organization of society has legitimized the use of domestic torture units across the U.S. should not come as a great shock to any of us. Such brutal repression is consistent with the history of America.

From the thousands of slave ships and the strange fruit of the Jim Crow South, violence is the underlying basis of power and profit in Amerikan society. But that repression always breathes its antithesis: Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Harriet Tubman, Bunchy Carter, W.L. Nolen and so many others came into being as living embodiments to resisting this evil.

That legacy, that legacy has not passed from us. We will always come into being, so long as freedom, justice and equality does not shine down on all of humanity like a star in the night. Revolutionary resistance, transformative opposition to this system of hate, is the very foundation of the survival of New Afrikan people in this age who want to see themselves free of the evils and injustice of capitalism.

I and those of like mind will continue to survive, continue to fight on, continue to serve the people, so long as this system exists, and beyond. We will NEVER surrender, NEVER give up, NEVER give in and, in the end, we will win.

Think on these things. They are cause for great meditation.

Send our brother some love and light: J. Heshima Denham, J-38283, KVSP B2-117, P.O. Box 5102, Delano, CA 93216. Or email the organization he founded,, at, and outside coordinators will respond.