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Excerpts from Survivors Manual: Surviving in Solitary

November 10, 2009

Survivors Manual: Surviving in Solitary – A Manual Written by and for People Living in Control Units. Edited by Bonnie Kerness, AFSC

For copies of the full pamphlet, write to: Bonnie Kerness, AFSC Prison Watch Project, 89 Market Street, Newark, NJ 07102. Prisoners are asked to send $2.50 for postage if possible, but free copies are available as well. The Manual, along with other materials, can be downloaded at

What survival is


Survival is being spiritually and mentally filled by the Angels of Justice fighting the fight for our liberation from Pelican Bay SHU.

Survival is possessing the intellect to know when the psych comes into the housing unit to ask the mentally unstable if they need a psych line, and you realize how ridiculous he sounds — you’re surviving.

Survival is waking up in the morning, in a sound mind, realizing that one was not killed during the night or moved to some unknown destination.

Survival is hearing one’s neighbor laughing out loud because his son or daughter received a good grade in school or a great report card.
Survival is when one can assist his neighbor in his time of need, no matter what his racial, political, or cultural views may be.

Survival is hearing one’s neighbor call out to make sure the man is not taking advantage of one, and to let the man know you’re not alone.

Survival is being able to state to oneself that I have made it through another day — without being killed, beaten half to death or made to stand in a shower or holding cell naked, hand-cuffed for hours (for not moving fast enough, or having the wrong look, not using the right words, or for speaking out on injustices) — having one’s dignity at the end of the day still intact to fight another day.

And giving thanks to whatever God one might believe in, before closing one’s eyes for sleep. You smile because you have survived another day at Pelican Bay.



As for doing time in the Control Unit, my suggestions are to establish and maintain contact with activists out there; use the time productively by studying law, theology; reading; exercising and working to improve your mind and body.

Maintaining outside contacts is very important. Without such contacts, the prisoncrats will abuse prisoners, knowing they don’t have anyone to answer to.

Unity is also important since prisoners are often pitted against others, by design.

It’s a bad environment, both mentally and physically, so you need to set a program for yourself to try and maintain any form of sanity. Long-term isolation causes Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well, so those in contact with prisoners should always work to keep them in touch with reality.

I know for years I was in the Us v. Them mode, where it was the feeling you’re at war, which in reality you are, since the whole purpose of the control unit is to break your spirit. But you have to keep a semblance of future goals in mind too, or you can self-destruct.

It’s important for everyone out there to send as much literature as possible, and try to establish one-on-one contact with those in the control units. Outside support should be a priority, as well as an emergency response network for crises.

Tips from a transgender woman in a men’s facility on surviving in AdSeg (higher levels)


Try to maintain a respectful stance with inmates and staff alike because staff control who stays and who leaves. Even though other inmates are in your situation, it’s best to be respectful to them because you could very well create a situation with another inmate that will follow you for years unresolved.

Find things to do to spend your time productively such as writing songs, poems, reading. Idle hands are the devil’s playground.

Remember that guys hate rejection. There are ways to tell someone you’re not interested that doesn’t hurt his pride so much. If you’re too harsh in your tone, he may be concerned about how others think and will try to show off for their behalf.

It’s best to remain single but if you must, be cautious of “getting with” more than one guy. You’re playing a dangerous game when you toy with someone’s emotions. There’s no safe way to have sexual intercourse. Many guys have different health problems that they hide. Ask for paperwork ensuring his health is up to code (at that moment). Be watchful that he isn’t messing around with more than one partner. Some choices don’t end well.

Focus on a goal; build a time table of when you’d like to be released or your custody reduced. Remain misconduct free.

Choose your friends closely. Remember you’re locked up with prisoners who are locked up for being in some type of trouble so some people enjoy continuing that same behavior. Don’t gossip or spread rumors as this will only keep you in constant conflict.

Some guys (predators) will do anything to get with you against your will, creating situations where you’d need his assistance! Remember it’s only a ploy. He could very well be behind the situation. Don’t go into debt. If someone wanted to squeeze you for money, they’d be able to continuously keep you owing them simply by taking you. Or your debt could be passed on from inmate to inmate. Guys look at transsexuals as being the weakest link and will play off of that. If you don’t have it, consider going without it or if the risk is worth it!

Many transsexuals and homosexuals get with other inmates in a relationship for money. Remember if a guy feels used he may cause you harm. Many guys believe that they own you after they’ve bought you so much. Then think about that if you realize his money is gone, then what? Many guys are in prison because they felt betrayed by family, friends, wives, or girlfriends and once betrayed again, you could be in a situation that’s hard if not impossible to get out of.

Controlling the control unit


To me the overriding thing of importance in surviving my various stints in control units was to refuse to relinquish control! By that I mean: keeping always in mind the purpose of the control unit — i.e., remembering what the state was trying to accomplish by putting me there, and then using my own powers of understanding to resist their plan. Among other things, this meant:

Making a schedule for my days, instead of allowing the cops to determine my days.

Having several different schedules, and alternating them, to avoid having the days all melt into sameness, and to keep track of what day and date it was, etc.

Using exterior signals, such as changes in light, shift changes, regular noises from outside my cell, to keep track of time. The first few weeks I’d note a sound or other objective occurrence, then yell for the cops to find out what time it was, etc.

Developing several different forms of exercise for different days and conditions. One technique of control used in every unit I’ve been in is withholding or postponing rec time. Since exercise was a very important way I controlled my anger so that I didn’t become upset or stressed, it was crucial for me to develop ways to avoid letting this necessity for exercise become one more tool for them to use against me. I learned yoga and did isometric weight-training in my cell, and I ran on the occasions I was able to go out to the rec yards.

Developed some creative activity that allowed me to admire my own human creativity— i.e., draw, write, make things from what is available, etc. Reminding myself that my place in the universe was as a sentient, loving, creative human being, not a caged animal, was helpful. (This is why so many prisoners turn out incredible drawings in ballpoint pen!)

Learn something—undertake to study something and use the mind so I left each unit having grown rather than been diminished by the experience.

Write letters—get pen pals if needed; some active communication with the outside.

For me, as a political creature, it was essential to get a subscription to a major newspaper. (I then managed to share it by smuggling it to another prisoner in the unit.) I was fortunate to have friends who chipped in to get me the paper. I wonder if the Campaign to Stop Control Units could somehow get money or get people to get subs to weekly news magazines — Time or Newsweek, or a decent daily or weekly newspaper— for people in control units? In women’s prisons and most control units, no news media are provided.

I fought for every shred of what I was supposed to have a “right” to, based in the Code of Federal Regs, which governs the BOP. But it’s hard not to get full of rage and frustration while doing this, so once in a while I would write a furious letter to the warden or someone else, saying everything I wanted and then tear it up. Therapeutic, to a point.

Warden Burkhardt of Alderson responded to my BP-9 (fed prison grievance form) protesting my isolation. He said I was being held in solitary because of my “associations and beliefs.” Knowing what your enemy’s goals are helps you a lot in resisting giving ground. In my case, on days when I felt (and was) particularly abused and mistreated, I could always find hope and strength in feeling it was an honor to be held in conditions of control—in the way Chairman Mao meant it in that old quote we used to love so much about it being a good thing to be hated by the enemy.

Finally, one thing about control units is that, since their goal is to dehumanize, to destroy one’s personality, each individual kind of needs to design her/his own program for survival, based in her/his identity and sense of what makes each of us human. How one person expresses and controls rage is not necessarily right for another. For example, for some people, keeping busy is important; for others, maybe stillness and inward thought is important. What resources, internal and external, each prisoner has available make a big difference, too. (One reason why activist groups are so important!)

Finally, really, I do believe that everyone who has spent time in prison, double for control units, suffers physical if not also mental damage. Having this recognized—say, by the international anti-torture forces—helps. I think it was Stuart Grassian who observed that the women in the LexHSU developed illnesses as a result of the unit. When I read that, it helped me understand the damage to my own health that resulted or was exacerbated by the control unit time.


P.S. Have you been able to see the comet? It’s gorgeous! Every morning I get up at 5 to go to a window in our unit from which I can see it; now in the evening we can see it before we’re locked in. Every time I look at it I think of all those in the control units who are robbed of this incredible experience.


Bodies leaning
against steel doors
eyes always watching, missing nothing.
A deep breath taken amid isolated tension.
White walls stretching endlessly,
Silent barriers between two worlds
containing society’s shame, the prisoner.


The men
of nothingness
pursue the endless hours
and the passage through silence.
in lands of half-burned hopes
and shattered dreams
scratched by vengeful winds


He has gone to bed crying
And woke up crying
He has begged for a peace that was never given.
He has plunged into the deepest despair
and fallen into that place
where everything is nothing.
Growing in the darkness, his rage.


Each day
in this place
is a struggle for him;
he’s alive, but not living.
He’s feeling everything, feeling nothing,
tired of existing, and longing to join
those who truly know peace, the dead.


He can hear
it’s there in his head, everywhere.
A voice he prays will not last, but does.
An unrelenting being
that chokes his mind, his vision blurs…
Another creature runs inward, mad.


But the
goes on and on…
running down the walls.
crawling beneath the bunks,
and deep within the cracks
where lay his sanity, lost.

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