Diaspora of Practice: Northern Irish Imprisonment and the Transnational Rise of Cellular Isolation

Author: Denis O’Hearn

I would like to thank participants in seminars hosted by the following for their gracious comments: Bellek ve Kültür Sosyolojisi Çalışmaları Derneği (BEKS), Istanbul; Keough-Naughton Institute of Irish Studies, The University of Notre Dame; Department of Sociology, The University of Notre Dame; Department of Sociology, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. Bilge Firat O’Hearn provided attentive guidance, support, and translations. Bomani Shakur, Jason Robb, Todd Ashker, Richard Starrett, Carlito Cabana, Alice Lynd, Staughton Lynd, Andrej Grubacic, Seçil Doguç, Mustafa Eren, Zafer Kıraç, and Arda İbikoğlu provided advice, material help, and friendship. Comments on this article are welcome and may be sent to the author at dohearn@binghamton.edu.


When we think of diaspora, we think of people. The Irish have been pushed or drawn across the world for centuries, and study of their diaspora is a near-industry.[1] But ideas and practices move, too, sometimes along with people, sometimes ahead of them. In this article I examine how ideas, policies, and practices about and in prisons have moved since the 1970s, when a social experiment began in Britain and Ireland to isolate prisoners who were considered to be the “worst of the worst.”[2] Since then, policies and models of isolation have spread around the world, especially to the United States and Turkey, where the strict isolation of prisoners is used to “solve” key political and social problems; so, too, have ideas and practices about how prisoners in isolation can defend themselves.

During Ireland’s long ordeal with colonialism, the country was a laboratory for practices that were subsequently moved throughout the British Empire: plantation, surrender and regrant, direct and indirect rule, and, arguably, even genocide. Mike Davis, in Late Victorian Holocausts, even proposes that the Third World was built through state-induced famines associated with El Niño and that famine-related policies were adapted from the Great Hunger of 1840s Ireland.[3] If Davis is correct, Ireland was not simply England’s first colony; it was also a testing ground for policies—some achieved by accident—that later migrated around throughout the empire, into other empires, and eventually helped build what we came to know as the “Third World.”

Migration of colonial practice continued after partition. John McGuffin argues that sensory deprivation techniques used against the Irish, such as white noise and hooding, were a trial run for their uses elsewhere, including the inner cities of Britain.[4] The same could be true of a multitude of security and surveillance techniques used in Northern Ireland. As surveillance policies from the British-Irish conflict migrated to British inner cities “at war,” Britain became the most surveilled society on the planet, with more CCTV cameras than the rest of Europe combined.[5]

One of the latest and most profound movements of ideas and practices to come out of Ireland’s colonial history and, specifically, out of Northern Ireland, involves imprisonment. Specifically, a new model of long-term mass isolation of prisoners who are considered the “worst of the worst” was applied against the Irish in the 1970s and then spread throughout the world. The model of imprisonment that emerged partly by accident in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh after 1976 is, as I will demonstrate, now used in adapted form to pacify and control political prisoners in Turkey and racialized poor captives from the ghettoes of the United States.[6] There is also a countermovement: prisoners around the world have learned how Irish prisoners responded to their conditions and applied those practices to their own conditions.


Policy Transfer, Learning

For all its fuzziness, the rise of the concept “globalization” provoked new ways of seeing connections across the world. Many were economic or geopolitical but scholars also observed policy “convergence,” “transfer,” and “lesson-drawing” between different jurisdictions.[7] Put simply, “policy transfer” is “the process by which knowledge about policies, administrative arrangements, institutions and ideas in one political system (past or present) is used in the development of policies, administrative arrangements, institutions and ideas in another political system.”[8] If theories about globalization are correct, the increasing ease of traveling and communicating across borders should translate into shared learning among policymakers and even policy convergence.

Such an argument has been made with respect to prisons and imprisonment. Newburn contends that a network of international policy experts and think tanks comprise a “neoliberal penal policy complex.”[9] Prison populations have grown in many countries since the 1980s, partly corresponding to shared interests of a global industrial-penal complex.[10] Jones and Newburn demonstrate how Britain “learned from Uncle Sam” in the use of zero tolerance and prison privatization.[11] John Muncie shows a “remarkable correspondence in the nature of juvenile/youth justice reform particularly across many western societies in the past 40 years” including a “shift from a welfare model based on meeting individual needs to a justice model more concerned with the offence than the offender.” He finds “accelerations in processes of policy transfer and diffusion […] symptomatic of a rapid homogenisation of criminal justice policies.”[12] This is not necessarily to say that global policy transference has made prison complexes more “efficient”—if Foucault is correct, they have created an inefficient reproduction of delinquency that, nonetheless, serves certain class and power interests.[13] But it does indicate that in recent decades policymakers have shared their experiences and technologies with each other, especially with respect to social problems that are particularly acute, including juvenile delinquency and the war against “terrorists” and “gangs.”[14]

Policy transfer takes many forms and travels through various agencies. Dolowitz and Marsh cite elected officials, political parties, bureaucrats, experts and policy entrepreneurs, and supra-national institutions as agents of transfer.[15] Claudio M. Radaelli speaks of the European Union as a “massive transfer platform” that distributes policy among its member states and beyond.[16] Dolowitz and Marsh distinguish between voluntary and coercive transfer, the former of which is the domain of “lesson drawing” or, in other words, “set[s] of actions that government can consider in the light of experience elsewhere.” [17] A government may copy, adapt, hybridize, synthesize, and be inspired. Policy makers draw both positive and negative lessons in experiences from elsewhere.[18]

Fewer serious studies chart “policy transfer” and learning on the popular side. In an analysis similar to “lesson drawing,” Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht develop a model of cross-national diffusion of movement ideas that involves “(1) a person, group, or organization that serves as the emitter or transmitter; (2) a person, group, or organization that is the adopter; (3) the item that is diffused, such as material goods, information, skills, and the like; and (4) a channel of diffusion that may consist of persons or media that link the transmitter and the adopter.”[19] They distinguish between “relational diffusion,” or, direct contact between transmitters and adopters and “non-relational channels” such as the mass media and the diffusion of writings. For example, leaders of the German New Left travelled to the United States and met its New Left. Scholarly and radical writings from the U.S. also influenced them. In this case, relational diffusion combined with non-relational diffusion, one building on the other. In the end, transnational diffusion of ideas (and, presumably, practice),

depends more on the interplay of relational and nonrelational channels than on the replacement of the former by the latter. Early relational ties encourage the identification of adopters with transmitters, thereby amplifying the information available through nonrelational channels.[20]

Yet this is not necessarily a new pattern or one that is associated with modern European movements. Michael Hannagan reminds us that Irish Diasporas have done these things for at least a century and a half: “Despite the lack of websites, fax machines, or jet planes, Irish nationalists managed to build a remarkably coherent and enduring transnational movement.”[21] They were enabled by a communications revolution in the 1850s and 1860s—the regular steam packet between Galway and New York from 1858, as well as the transatlantic cable laid in 1866—along with an enormous wave of Irish migrants, many of whom were familiar with the politics and techniques of Irish nationalist and agrarian insurgency. As Marx succinctly put it in 1867, “the Irishman, banished by the sheep and the ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian.”[22]

Gregory Maney argues that such transnational forces congeal into “transnational issue networks,” which are “coalitions of non-governmental and/or governmental organizations based in more than one society, engaging in, with some degree of cross-societal communication and exchange, activities to promote a common explicit objective on an issue of mutual concern.”[23] Price goes even further when he refers to a “transnational civil society” with “pedagogical techniques” that stimulate change across borders: disseminating information, establishing networks to generate support for change, and so forth.[24] That this could happen with social movements is obvious, but can such techniques and forms of dissemination cross even the most secure prison walls and communications barriers?

While scholars of diaspora, policy transfer, and transnational social movement work in parallel streams without communicating much, there are important potential gains from combining insights of each literature. Obviously, people who move carry important ideas. Time and space collapse, so that ideas and practices move back and forth more easily and with greater impact. Ideas and practices move among authorities, but they also move among activists and insurgents. We often analyze policy and protest/resistance relationally on the national scale but fail to do so transnationally. If policies that deal with social problems move across borders and oceans, so do ideas and practices about how to resist and change them. In what follows, I outline how these two strands of “policy diaspora” have interacted with regard to prisons and prisoner insurgency.


Migration of Prison Policies, Stage I: Isolation Emerges as Policy in Britain and Ireland

Recent history has seen the rising use of isolation in prisons as a way of dealing with sections of the population that are identified as the “worst of the worst.” Since the mass cellular isolation of Northern Irish political prisoners in the mid-1970s, the strategy of isolating large numbers of prisoners became popular elsewhere, especially in the U.S. and Turkey. The practice also spread to other countries on a less systematic level. Canada, England, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, Australia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Russia all have “super-maximum security” (popularly known as supermax) facilities, not to mention Guantánamo and other secret facilities run by the CIA and various governments.

Isolation was used briefly by prison reformers in the nineteenth century after Quakers lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to build a prison “based on the idea of reform through solitude and reflection.” The Quakers thought that an inmate, given time in solitude, would reflect upon his life of crime and become penitent—thus, the term penitentiary. From its opening in Philadelphia in 1829, prisoners at Eastern State Penitentiary were led, hooded, into solitary cells, disallowed from knowing other prisoners’ names or seeing their faces. In their first years at the penitentiary they were allowed no visits and no reading materials. They were kept “inside a bubble which no outside, uncontrolled influences could penetrate, […] sealed off from the outside world like unwilling monks.”[25]

Like prisoners everywhere, inmates of Eastern State found pores through which they could communicate. Some talked through the sewer pipes and developed tapping codes on heating pipes and walls. They threw notes over their exercise yard walls to prisoners in adjacent yards.[26] This was in the mid-1800s, yet these exact covert forms of communication happen even in the present day, wherever isolation is imposed on prisoners.

The Eastern State experiment soon came into disrepute on the basis that it produced not penitents, but madmen.[27] The practice of strict isolation was abandoned for more than a century. When it was revived in Britain in the 1960s, it was, as one expert puts it, “the reincarnation of Eastern State Penitentiary without its humanitarian ideals.”[28]

Britain established Special Security Units (SSUs) in three prisons in 1965, after the 1964 escape of Charles Frederick Wilson, one of the so-called Great Train Robbers. The SSUs were designed as small-group rather than total isolation prisons to hold inmates “who are judged to be so great a security risk that they cannot be contained safely without additional security precautions.”[29] By early 1967, SSUs in four British prisons held 84 men, who were not allowed to leave the Units except to go to court or hospital. They could not go to the library, gym, sports fields, prison chapel, education, or work facilities. Association was limited to fewer than ten people. Prisoners were held in tiny cells with a fixed bed, desk, bench and toilet. Prison Medical Officers called the cells “claustrophobic” and “cramped.” In some, there was a lack of natural light. The exercise yards were covered by metal grids and mesh so that the prisoners never had a clear view of the sky.”[30]

The units quickly came under intense criticism for their poor conditions. Louis Battenberg (a.k.a. Lord Mountbatten) wrote that the SSUs “can in [his] view be no more than a temporary expedient. The conditions in these blocks are such as no country with a record of civilized behaviour ought to tolerate any longer than is absolutely necessary as a stop gap measure.”[31] Not that Battenberg was opposed to isolation. Rather, in a moment of conception of the supermax prison that would later be adopted in the United States, he recommended that,

a purpose-built prison is required at the earliest possible date to house those prisoners who must in no circumstances be allowed to get out, whether because of the security conditions affecting spies, or because their violent behaviour is such that members of the public or the police would be in danger of their lives if they were to get out. I call these prisoners Category A.[32]

This was also the conception of formally classifying certain prisoners as particularly unmanageable or, in contemporary terminology, as the “worst of the worst.” Although the category was initially designed for those who presented a high danger of escaping, it was soon extended: SSUs and “Category A” status became long-term British prison policies after the reemergence of conflict in Northern Ireland. By the time Amnesty International wrote a report condemning the procedure of small-group isolation in SSUs in March 1997—32 years after they were established—half of the prisoners held there were Irish.

Meanwhile, in August 1971 the British began mass internment of Irish terror suspects without trial. The vast majority of internees were young, male, and Catholic. After a hunger strike by IRA prisoners in 1972, the British government granted “special category” status to all internees and prisoners who were convicted of offences related to the conflict in Ireland. The prisoners were moved to Long Kesh prison camp, where they lived in dormitory-style huts and self-organized their education (including guerrilla training), work, recreation, and escape attempts. The prisoners used their relative freedom to raise their consciousness about their struggle and their role in that struggle, reading international revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Irish socialists such as James Connolly. This was, in turn, a foundation for rebuilding the IRA as a more politically conscious organization.

In response, the British government changed tack. All prisoners found guilty of offences committed after March 1976 were stripped of special category status and committed to cellular confinement in the newly-built “H-Blocks” of Long Kesh. There were eight cellblocks built in the shape of an “H” (later copied by the apartheid South African government on Robben Island and by the Turkish government), with 25 cells on each wing and an administrative area on the crossbar of the “H.”

In degrading “initiation ceremonies” prison guards literally stripped a prisoner of his clothes and his name. After circling naked in front of prison staff, he was offered a prison uniform and told that he was not a political prisoner but an ordinary criminal. When IRA prisoners refused to wear the uniform they were put into cells without clothing, reading materials, pens, paper, or radio. The 8 x 10 feet cells included only basic furniture—bed, desk, and locker. The only personal items they were allowed were soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and tissues. Having no clothing, the prisoners wore their blankets and, thus, became known as “blanketmen.” They were kept in such bare lockup 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowed out of their cells only on Sunday to attend mass in the block cafeteria or to go on monthly visits with family or friends.

There followed several years of accelerated collective action by the prisoners and repression by the authorities. Under the guidance of leaders such as Bobby Sands, prisoners began to accept their monthly visit despite having to wear the prison uniform to do so. On visits, the uniform turned from a symbol of capitulation to a means for appropriating prison spaces: by smuggling, prisoners could maintain communications with the outside movement; their accounts of their conditions helped build a support campaign; and they acquired small comforts including tobacco, ballpoint pen refills, cigarette papers (for writing on), reading materials (tiny writing on rice paper), and plastic wrap (to keep everything protected from bodily fluids when secreted inside the prisoner’s body, either in the mouth or the anus). Smuggling raised the prisoners’ morale by improving their lives while giving them a feeling that they were moving the protest to a higher plane. Visits also heightened solidarity because each act of smuggling was a tremendous risk taken on behalf of the community.

Blanketmen soon regarded visits as acts of resistance, especially when the guards complained that smuggling small comforts like tobacco presented a major threat to their control. The corridors became battlegrounds as the guards introduced new measures designed to regain control: strip searches, “mirror searches,” “table searches.” Action and reaction combined in an escalating process until, in spring 1978, protests and punishment reached extreme heights. When young prisoners were refused showers, all prisoners refused to wash. When the authorities sent men to the punishment block, the prisoners refused to “slop out” (meaning, to empty their buckets of human waste). Each Monday the prisoners heightened their protest by introducing a new action. The guards reacted to each act with new and harsher punishments. They took the furniture out of the cells, leaving only sponge rubber mattresses. They reduced the monthly parcels to three small packets of tissues. When the prisoners began slopping their urine under the doors the guards squeegeed it back so that they woke up on sopping wet foam mattresses. The prisoners threw their solid waste out the window but the guards threw it back. In response, the blanketmen began spreading their feces on the cell walls and threw their food waste into the corner.

Surprisingly, as these horrors worsened, the prisoners’ morale rose. They felt they were in control. The more the authorities took from them and the more violence they inflicted, the more powerful the prisoners seemed to become. The more they were stripped of material things, the more they discussed, debated, planned and did a collective response where they not only confronted the authorities but also built remarkable collective practices based primarily on oral communication.

In a 2009 article, I outline three collective projects that helped the prisoners develop a solidary culture of resistance: learning the Irish language, cultural production, and propaganda.[33] Learning Irish gave them a sense of agency because they could communicate among themselves knowing the guards would not understand them. In a few months, four hundred blanketmen spoke Irish daily. They shared poems and articles orally across the wing. After the guards left at night, they distributed cigarettes, shared news, and had political debates. Then they started the “book at bedtime,” where the best storytellers entertained the wing. By creating such collective activities, the prisoners built an intensely solidary community. Finally, they created “a factory for comms” (communications). Each blanketman wrote several letters a day to influential people across the world, in tiny writing on toilet paper or smuggled cigarette papers. This stream of communications provided the raw material for a support campaign outside of prison.

The collective mobilization of blanketmen enabled them to raise their struggle to national and international prominence. Eventually, the Irish and British states, U.S. government, and the Vatican joined to try to resolve the conflict. Although sections of the British state apparatus wanted a resolution, this proved impossible while Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.  Eventually, her unwillingness to recognize any form of political status led dozens of blanketmen to embark on two hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981. Ten prisoners died, led by Bobby Sands, seemingly without achieving their objective. Yet they won a clear moral victory. The world’s media, like the New York Times, agreed that Bobby Sands, who won election as a member of British parliament before he died, “bested an implacable British Prime Minister.”[34] National parliaments honored the hunger strikers with resolutions and moments of silence. 

Within months of the end of the strike the prisoners attained de facto political status. By the mid-1980s they regained substantial control over prison spaces, which they ran again on collective lines.[35]


Prison Isolation Policies Migrate: The United States and Turkey

It was not long before Britain’s example of isolating the “worst of the worst” was taken up in the United States. We do not know specific details of U.S.-British penal cooperation in this regard, or even the degree to which certain policies were borrowed from British experience or were simply obvious reactions to changing prison conditions. We do know that the U.S.-British “special relationship” was enhanced in the early 1980s by the personal relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. We also know that U.S. authorities were highly sensitized to what was happening in the H-Blocks during the 1980-1981 hunger strikes. Much further work remains to be done about the details of U.S.-British co-operation in penal policies and, especially, about the awareness of British isolation policies on the part of U.S. prison experts and policymakers. Most literature stresses the eastward flow of policies from the U.S. to Britain, yet it is difficult to imagine that the U.S. did not consult British experts about their experiences in isolating “difficult” prisoners.[36] The headlines about Irish prison protests and hunger strikes were fresh in U.S. minds when the supermax emerged in the 1980s.

Shortly after Britain, the U.S. began its own small experiment isolating the “worst of the worst” in 1968 after 500 high-security prisoners were moved from Alcatraz to the newly built Marion prison in Illinois. Prisoners in Marion spent 23 to 24 hours a day in single-celled solitary confinement as part of a behavior modification program called “Control and Rehabilitation Effort” (CARE). In 1972, this policy was extended with the creation of a “special control unit” in part of the prison to house prisoners who were involved in a strike against the behavior of certain guards (in other words, prisoners who practiced solidary resistance).

In 1975, Trenton State Prison in New Jersey established a Management Control Unit for prisoners who regarded as a political threat by prison administrators. They included members of groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The first prisoner was BLA activist Sundiata Acoli, one of 50 politically active prisoners who were kept in the unit over an extended period, some for many years. According to a former prison guard, “The guys singled out for the MCU were viewed as potential troublemakers or political leaders who needed to be segregated to keep them from influencing the rest of the population.” In 1984, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean signed an order mandating that “any persons believed to be a member of a terrorist organization or other similar groups committed to violence, murder or mayhem as a means to achieve their purpose could be placed in the Management Control Unit pre-trial.”[37]

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, the authorities in California began a new system of classifying prisoners they considered to be the “worst of the worst” and in 1978 the authorities at Marion followed suit with a new “Category 6” designation that closely resembled Britain’s “Category A.”[38]

The U.S. prison system fell into full-scale isolation after an uprising in Marion in October 1983, where two prison guards were killed. In response, the authorities put Marion into “permanent lockdown” for 23 years. Prisoners were put in long-term solitary isolation for 23 to 24 hours a day with no communal dining, exercise, or religious services. This was effectively a “supermax” prison. In the years that followed, most states built either a supermax or “secure housing units” (SHUs)—another variety of solitary confinement—within existing prisons.

Alice Lynd evocatively describes the supermax as follows:

Supermax prisoners are locked into small cells for approximately 23 hours a day. They have almost no contact with other human beings. There are no group activities: no work, no educational opportunities, no eating together, no sports, no getting together with other people for religious services, and no attempts at rehabilitation. 

There are no contact visits: prisoners sit behind a plexiglass window. Phone calls and visitation privileges are strictly limited. Books and magazines may be denied and pens restricted. TV and radios may be prohibited or, if allowed, are controlled by guards. 

Prisoners have little or no personal privacy. Guards monitor the inmates’ movements by video cameras. Communication between prisoners and control booth officers is mostly through speakers and microphones. An officer at a control center may be able to monitor cells and corridors and control all doors electronically.

Typically, the cells have no windows. Lights are controlled by guards who may leave them on night and day. For exercise there is usually only a room with high concrete walls and a chin-up bar. Showers may be limited to three per week for not more than ten minutes. 

Prisoners are confined to a concrete world in which they never see a blade of grass, earth, trees or any part of the natural world.[39]

This model became universal with only minor modifications among states, and has eerie parallels with the H-Blocks, although U.S. authorities adapted to avoid the conflicts that arose between the authorities and blanketmen. Key policy modifications, which may indicate “learning” on the part of U.S. authorities, include the lack of contact visits. Prisoners are kept in chains to and from visits and are even shackled in the visiting booth. They are often strip-searched before and after visits, although there are virtually no opportunities for them to give or receive any form of contraband. H-Block-style appropriations of spaces or smuggling campaigns are impossible. On the other hand, TVs are often permitted to distract prisoners and discourage solidarity and serious oral communication.

Other learning factors are significant. Take political organizations in prisons. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, there was a strong political presence in U.S. prisons. Organized groups of prisoners like the Black Panthers espoused a radical political philosophy and organized resistance, notably in California (George Jackson’s Black Guerilla Family) and New York (Attica). Moves to neutralize these groups in U.S. society and specifically in the prisons began before the Irish prison conflict broke out from around 1976 to 1981 (the killing of George Jackson and the Attica prison uprising both took place in 1971). A strategy to deal with radical political organizations in prisons was to establish authority over prisoners through divide and conquer, often by allowing other imprisoned gangs to subvert them. George Jackson, for instance, was provoked into violent resistance by the killing of a friend by guards during a fight with the Aryan Brotherhood that may have been stage-managed by prison authorities.[40]  This strategy remains, with modifications, and many prisoners believe that fights between prison gangs are often started by authorities as a cover that enables armed guards to target prison leaders.[41] Gangs are preferred to political organizations because it is easier to encourage gang members to inform on each other through punishment/reward structures.

But gangs can themselves be notoriously hard to control, and an alternative, and more reliable, means of deterrence was necessary, a means of deterrence which I wish to suggest was learned from the Northern Irish and British examples. Isolation is not a policy to deal with prisoners generally. Rather, it is used to subdue certain groups of prisoners who require special control. These are not necessarily the most violent offenders. Rather, the “worst of the worst” are those who, like leaders of political organizations, are most likely to disrupt the rule of authority, often by refusing to snitch on other prisoners or by encouraging solidarity and support practices such as legal aid among prisoners. The H-Blocks and “Category A” assignation were pioneering experiments in long-term targeted isolation as a way to deal with subversive prisoners. The U.S. expanded the British model nationwide.

Over the 20 years after Marion locked down, some 30 states built supermaxes. The first major example was the construction of Pelican Bay State Prison in California in 1989. By 2006, 25,000 prisoners were held in isolation but perhaps as many as 80,000 were held either in supermaxes or in isolation units within prisons.[42] To put this into perspective, the number of prisoners held in isolation in the U.S. exceeds the total prisoner populations in Britain or Germany.

Let me clarify the argument I have made so far. Prison policy innovations in Britain, or introduced by Britain in Ireland, were followed by similar policies in the U.S. SSUs and “Category A” classification in 1965 and 1966 was followed in the 1970s in Marion Federal Prison and the state of California. The experiment in long-term mass isolation in the H-Blocks from 1976 to 1981 was followed by the erection of full-scale supermax prisons in Marion in 1983, Pelican Bay in 1989, and then by dozens of U.S. states. Conditions on the two sides of the Atlantic were very different. Britain faced a prisoner population that was explicitly political and that had to be moved from open ward prisons to cellular isolation while the U.S. had no prior policy of granting political status even to politically-motivated groups like the Black Panthers. The problem both systems did face in common was the need to identify and isolate in separate prison environments groups of prisoners who were considered to be viral, both among themselves and to the general prison population. Just because British policy innovations against the Irish were followed by similar U.S. policy innovations does not necessarily mean that the U.S. “copied” the British; we have insufficient data to determine whether this happened or not. Nonetheless, given British-U.S. cooperation in criminology and penology, there was surely sharing and mutual learning.

Following the examples of Northern Ireland and the United States, and with strong encouragement from the European Union, Turkey became the third country to institute widespread cellular isolation for its “worst of the worst.” In a brutal operation by the army in 2000, Turkey moved 524 prisoners from dormitory-style prisons into newly-built “F-type” prisons, where they were kept in strict isolation, with one or three prisoners to a cell. Today, 13 F-type prisons accommodate 368 prisoners each, including revolutionary leftists, activists from the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), and organized criminals. Turkey also runs two D-type prisons with similar isolation for 750 prisoners each and five H-type prisons holding 500 prisoners each in one- or three-person cells.

The new F-type prisons were based on the 1991 Turkish Anti-Terror Law, which requires that the sentences of leftist, Kurdish, and Islamist militants “will be served in special penal institutions built on a system of cells constructed for one or three people […]. Convicted prisoners will not be permitted contact or communication with other convicted prisoners.”[43] The law defines “terrorism” in extremely wide terms, including nonviolent political activities as well as violence and conspiracy to commit violence. After the law was passed, more than a hundred prisoners were forcibly transferred to the newly-built Eskişehir Special Type Prison but a hunger strike and public outcry against isolation soon forced the government to close Eskişehir. In early 1999, however, the government began a regime of small group isolation in Kartal Special Type Prison, a proto-type for new F-types.[44]

The parallels with British policy in Northern Ireland are striking. Turkish prisoners from left and Kurdish movements spent the 1990s in conditions like IRA prisoners before the H-Blocks were built: open ward prisons where the guards had little authority and the prisoners self-organized into communes for education, military training, maintaining chains of command, and the like. This of course was anathema to the Turkish government, which had exercised violent control over political prisoners after the 1980 coup d’état. By the 1990s, militant prisoners had won self-government and maintained that right, as in Ireland, through hunger strike. The Turkish government claimed that ward-style prisons were unsafe, pointing to incidents where prisoners accused of spying were punished, forced onto hunger strike, and even executed. They even lobbied international entities like the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to support them in following the British example of transferring guerrilla prisoners from open wards to cellular confinement.

In the case of the rise of U.S. supermax prisons, I have traced policy transfer by an “informed inference” based on what we know about the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain and the associated policy sharing that took place between experts and practitioners in security, criminology, and penology. In the Turkish case, however, we have a smoking gun. There is widespread agreement that the idea to build F-type prisons emerged from a 1996 visit to Turkey by the CPT, after the closure of Eskişehir Special Type Prison.[45]

Eskişehir held a hundred remand prisoners arrested under the Turkish anti-terror law in cellular confinement.[46] It was designed in the shape of an “H” with administrative areas in the center and cellular wings. The government claimed that the only way to control political organizations would be to limit prisoner interactions by isolating them in cells. In response, political prisoners from the PKK and leftist parties embarked on a hunger strike, which turned into a death fast when a new rightist government came into office in June 1996 and announced a hardline stance against them. After 12 men on the fast died within four days in July, the government was forced to close Eskişehir.[47] It then invited the CPT to investigate.

The CPT’s report in August 1996 strongly advised the Turkish government to resume the transition to cellular confinement:

In fact, large-capacity dormitories are for various reasons not a satisfactory means of accommodating inmates. They inevitably imply a lack of privacy for prisoners in their everyday lives. Further, the risk of intimidation and violence is very high, particularly in dormitories such as those in Turkey which have no means of direct supervision from outside. Such accommodation arrangements can facilitate the maintenance of the cohesion of criminal organisations—whether of a terrorist or non-terrorist nature.[48]

The lead expert in the CPT delegation was Gordon Lakes, a veteran of British prison policies against the IRA. At the time of the H-Block protests, Lakes was Governor of Gartree Prison, a high security unit that housed IRA prisoners in England. After Gartree, he was put in charge of security in the Prison Service of England and Wales. He then became Deputy Director of the Service. Crucially, he led the inquiry into the 1983 mass escape from the H-Blocks by IRA prisoners, the largest prison escape in European history. The report criticized how prisoners who led the escape—like Brendan “Bik” MacFarlane, Bobby Sands’ right-hand man and leader of the IRA prisoners during the 1981 hunger strike—took control of H-Block 7 by getting appointed as trustees. Lakes’ basic philosophy of prison security is stated in the conclusion to the Inquiry, a lengthy analysis of how the H-Blocks failed and how political prisoners should be treated:

When terrorists are few in number they can be dispersed into small, secure pockets and absorbed into the general prison population. But when they are many the best solution is usually to be found in removing them from the area of conflict and incarcerating them in a fortress prison surrounded by armed guards.[49]

The ideal situation for dealing with IRA prisoners would have been a version of the cellular isolation that emerged in the H-Blocks. But the way it was carried out enabled prisoners to communicate with each other and to resist the authorities while their movement created adverse international publicity. Moreover, the idea at the heart of Thatcher’s prison policy—that IRA prisoners should be treated like ordinary criminals—inhibited “removing them from the area of conflict and incarcerating them in a fortress prison surrounded by armed guards”; that is, in short, F-type. Lakes provided important advice and backing for the Turkish government’s plans to reintroduce isolation while the CPT supported the project. What is more interesting and somewhat puzzling is why such a respected international human rights body as the CPT would invite a security expert rather than a torture expert to head its investigations, and why it allowed human rights concerns to be so clearly subjugated to security concerns in its invited dealings with the Turkish state.

Part of the answer to this question goes, once again, to the H-Blocks. In 1978, four blanketmen filed a case of torture against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights.[50] The Court’s decision went against the prisoners and found that long-term cellular isolation did not necessarily violate article 3 of the European Convention against Torture when there were important security concerns about how prisoners would act if they were held differently. The consequence of the Court’s rulings in this and other cases is that “prisoners are unlikely to be able to rely on article 3 for assistance” and that “solitary confinement regimes are unlikely to attract criticism […]. State interests (such as security considerations or the interests of justice) may even justify solitary confinement involving sensory deprivation.”[51] As the remit of the CPT is taken largely from European case law on torture and ill-treatment, the inclusion of state security experts in “human rights” delegations may not be so surprising.

The CPT report on Eskişehir found that the real reason behind the prisoners’ hunger strike was that “the dormitory system as currently applied could be exploited to consolidate and develop terrorist organisations.”[52] With regard to Turkish plans to build cellular prisons, “in principle, the CPT has no objections to such a development.” In fact, they encouraged them. They only tempered this by recommending that “moves towards smaller living units for prisoners in Turkey must be accompanied by measures to ensure that prisoners spend a reasonable part of the day engaged in purposeful activities outside their living unit,” a recommendation that the Turkish state has never followed in practice.

There is another parallel with Northern Ireland. In 1980, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the H-Blocks were not “concrete tombs,” as they had been described by Bobby Sands.[53] In similar fashion, the CPT found that “the claims according to which Eskişehir Special Type Prison consisted of ‘coffin-cells’ were unjustified.”[54] Newspapers quoted the delegation’s praise for Eskişehir, saying “there are no ‘coffin cells’ here.”[55]

When they were built, the F-types were all that Lakes would have prescribed. While the supermax system disables smuggling and appropriation of prison spaces by strict physical isolation of prisoners from visitors and all other prisoners, F-type prisons maintain a veneer of humanity by placing prisoners three to a cell, except for the most “dangerous” prisoners with “extreme life” sentences who are put into solitary confinement. The cells are relatively spacious: two floors including a bedroom upstairs and living area downstairs, each with its own outdoor exercise yard. The lower area is 25 square meters while the exercise yard is 50 square meters. The prisons also include large workshops for handicrafts, art, and so on (although political prisoners rarely get to use them).

From a security standpoint, the most important architectural feature of the F-Types is that each group of three men has no contact with anyone else. Like Eastern State Penitentiary, they remain in their cells except for rare visits and phone calls. This effectively undermines political or social organizing, or practicing solidarity except among three persons in a given cell. Instead of trying to surveil the prisoners, the authorities, by a network of 169 CCTV cameras, maintain control over corridors and roofs but leave prisoners alone in their cells.[56] This seems to be the opposite of Foucault’s panopticon, shaping the soul via total surveillance. Rather, F-type prisoners tell me that this form of isolation reasserts the ancient idea of throwing enemies in a well, tower, or dungeon. The aim is “not to see but to bury” and thus to neutralize.[57]

The transfer to F-type prisons was achieved through Operation “Return to Life.” On December 19, 2000 the Turkish army and police stormed twenty Turkish prisons with extreme force to transfer prisoners from ward-based regimes to F-type small-group or solitary isolation. The Turkish government claimed, rather cynically, that the move would save the lives of prisoners who were on hunger strike and that cellular confinement would stop the mistreatment of prisoners by their own organizations.

Thirty prisoners and two security force members were killed in the operation. The European (especially the British) hand was omnipresent throughout: it is widely agreed that the Turkish government was emboldened to embark on the operation when the CPT hurriedly published a report on a visit to F-type prisons on December 7th. The CPT’s words delighted the authorities:

The delegation also had the opportunity to visit the construction site of the new F-type prison at Sincan, which is nearing completion. The physical environment of the living units represents a genuine attempt to provide good conditions of detention.[58]

In effect, the CPT publicly endorsed the new prisons and their cellular isolation regime while the government was in full battle with hunger striking prisoners, just as the European Court of Human Rights had endorsed the British authorities in the heat of its battle with the blanketmen.

In a 1999 reply to Human Rights Watch, the Turkish Justice Ministry justified its use of small-group isolation by referring to U.S. and European correctional systems. Its reply contained the views of prison staff that the planned F-type prisons were “not different from American or European prisons.”[59] Human Rights Watch cited Amnesty International’s 1997 report on British Special Security Units and noted that the first prototype of the coming F-Type prisons was particularly informed by the British experience. The continuing importance of U.S. and British models were confirmed to me in private conversations with the Director of the Turkish Prison Service and the Governor of Sincan F-type Prison No. 2 in Ankara. They repeatedly compared the F-types to supermax prisons, confidently asking “how does this compare with your prisons in the U.S.?”[60]


Resistance Migrates: Gangs and “Terrorists”

A policy diaspora compelled movement of the practice of isolating prisoners who are classified as the “worst of the worst,” from its origins in British policy against Irish prisoners, to U.S. supermaxes, and then to Turkish F-types. The evidence is partly inferential and partly direct. What about the targets of these policies? How did they cope with isolation? Did the examples of the blanketmen also migrate? We have direct and explicit evidence about this.

News of Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikers circled the globe. Activists in some places already had their senses heightened by direct contact with Irish guerrillas. A leader of Turkey’s main leftist group in the 1980s, for example, told me that he met IRA guerrillas in training camps in a foreign country.[61] Everyone in the movement, he said, was aware of Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikers. It is no surprise, then, that hunger strikes were introduced to the Turkish repertoire of resistance in the 1980s in response to the torturous prison conditions after the 1980 coup. In September 1982, a year after the Irish hunger strikers died, four Turkish prisoners died on their own hunger strike.[62] In 1996, as discussed above, hunger strikers forced the closure of the Eskişehir Prison, temporarily foreclosing a Turkish repetition of the Northern Irish experience of forcing them from ward compounds to cellular isolation.

By 2000, however, when a stronger Turkish government, with solid backing from European “human rights” groups, reintroduced a more radical form of small-group isolation in the F-type prisons, Turkish leftist prisoners responded with their largest hunger strike. The prisoners had nine demands, most prominent of which were the closure of the F-types and the abolition of the Anti-Terror Law. This followed the H-Block strategy of presenting a limited number of straightforward demands. From 2000 to 2006, 78 prisoners and outside supporters died on hunger strike. This entailed a significant innovation. Turkish prisoners, having studied the durations of time it took for the H-Block hunger strikers to die, found ways—by taking vitamins, for example—to lengthen their time until death. This not only extended the action; it confused the Turkish government, which expected deaths after 50 to 60 days, as had happened in Ireland.

The action was disastrous, however. The hunger strikers lacked support from the PKK, themselves weakened after the state imprisoned their leader Abdullah Öcalan.[63] There was a lack of public support and publicity both in Turkey and abroad, possibly because the prisoners lacked understanding of how the Irish blanketmen had preceded their hunger strike with a long episode of protest and propaganda. Finally, by their architecture the F-type prisons successfully undermined prisoner communications and organization.

Former Turkish hunger strikers have confirmed that the Irish hunger strike was the model for their action. Members of Sinn Fein and the IRA traveled to Turkey to discuss the hunger strikes with the prisoners’ organizations. Early in the hunger strike, one of them told me that the Turkish prisoners used a secret code word when they sent messages about the hunger strike: Bobby Sands.

In 2012, another mass hunger strike emerged among hundreds of PKK prisoners. Before the strike, I corresponded with Kurdish political prisoners in F-type prisons. Without exception, they wrote of their admiration for Bobby Sands. One PKK prisoner wrote, “Bobby Sands succeeded in becoming the guide for those people who wanted to live with honor in this part of the world, too. One can only admire someone who with his naked Irish body resisted the empire where the sun never set.”[64] Another recalled in great (and accurate) detail reading Bobby Sands’ One Day in My Life in Turkish. He said that in his mind Bobby Sands was a Kurd. During the hunger strike, which lasted more than sixty days, my article about the Irish hunger strikers was the most widely read article on the Turkish network bianet.[65] A mention in the article that supporters of the Irish hunger strike wrote “Smash H-Block” on banknotes immediately spurred a campaign of writing on Turkish and European money. The Irish tradition of prisoner-resistance and hunger strike still migrates throughout the world, but as with policy transfer it raises questions about how effectively they migrate.

The familiarity of the world’s political prisoners with Irish prison resistance is not surprising. Perhaps more surprising is the reappearance of the Irish example in U.S. supermax prisons, among populations of relatively uneducated prisoners from poor backgrounds who, until recently, had never heard of Bobby Sands. The stories are remarkable. After two decades of extreme isolation, long-term supermax prisoners have been through cycles of despair and self-discovery. In prisons like Ohio State Penitentiary and Pelican Bay in California, older prisoners—many of them associated with Muslims, Black Nationalists, Latino gangs, and Aryan Brothers—are not only politically aware but have perceived a change of prison culture from solidarity and observance of “prison codes” to an individualized, self-centered, snitch-oriented culture.[66] While they find this distressing, they also try to identify promising young prisoners in order to raise their consciousness. After a wave of prison uprisings—from Attica (1971) to Oklahoma State Prison (1973), from New Mexico (1980) to Lucasville, Ohio (1993)—prison authorities may have considered large-scale prison protests to be a thing of the past, especially since the supermax not only separates prisoners and makes organizing protest extremely difficult but also provides strong disincentives because of the harsh punishment that protests incur.

While uprisings and riots are not common since the rise of the supermax, a wave of new forms of non-violent protests emerged in U.S. prisons during 2010 and 2011. In Georgia, prisoners went on a general strike for living work wages, educational opportunities, decent health care, and nutritional meals. The protest crossed lines of race, religion, and gang-affiliation. In Ohio State Penitentiary in January 2011, three long-term supermax prisoners sentenced to death after the Lucasville uprising went on hunger strike to gain rights held by death row prisoners, including semi-contact visits, conjugal recreation, and the right to research their appeals on computer. They included an unaffiliated former black nationalist, a Muslim, and an Aryan Brother. I have visited and continue to visit these men frequently. In the period before the hunger strike, they informed a few close friends about their intentions. They made it clear that they had nothing to lose, that they had been in extreme solitary isolation for too long, and that they would die if necessary to seek justice. Crucially, they had all recently read about Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikers. One of them said, “Bobby showed what you can achieve if you have the courage to take on the system. If he could do it, so can we.”[67] One prisoner read a collection of memoirs of Irish prisoners about the blanket protest and hunger strikes.[68] He studied their strategies and tactics, and felt confident about what the three could achieve if they acted nonviolently. From their reading of the Irish prison protest, the men recognized the importance of public support and propaganda and they got outside supporters to organize internet campaigns and public protests. Despite the insistence of prison officials that they would not give in to hunger strike, the prisoners won their demands after 12 days without food.[69]

Prisoners in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay Prison in California heard about the action in Ohio. They had also recently read about Bobby Sands and the Irish hunger strikes. According to one inside source,

inmates had been reading Thomas Paine, Howard Zinn, and Mayan cosmology, and “exploring the possibility of a rolling hunger strike.” The strike would be based on “twenty-plus years of torture.” The feeling of the men was that they had nothing to lose by a peaceful protest even if taken “as far as necessary.” More than fifty prisoners were said to have read Denis O’Hearn’s book on the Irish hunger strikers of the 1980s, and it had a “big impact.” And the Ohio victory, they wrote, “inspired us too—we feel the time is ripe!”[70]

One organizer of the hunger strike said that the prisoners started planning for the July hunger strike the previous February, mostly by studying the Irish hunger strike to learn what was effective and what to expect as the strike proceeded.[71] On the nationwide TV program Democracy Now!, a mediator between the hunger strikers and the California authorities stated that, “You know, the only model that these guys got left is the model of Bobby Sands and the Irish strike. That’s their model.”[72]

Like the blanketmen, they made five simple demands: an end to group punishment, an end to “debriefing” (forcing inmates to snitch in order to get out of solitary), an end to long-term solitary confinement, decent food, and extended access to privileges like education. The hunger strike began on July 1, 2011 and at one time more than 20,000 prisoners joined, led by a core of experienced men on the “short corridor” of the Secure Housing Unit that included about 35 whites, 20 African Americans, and 166 Latinos. A dozen representatives were selected to carry on negotiations, including approximately equal numbers of whites, African Americans, northern California Latinos, and southern California Latinos.

As in Northern Ireland, and then Ohio, the prisoners recognized the importance of building support before they began. They received surprising media coverage, including a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Barbarous Confinement” and a lead editorial entitled “Cruel Isolation” stating that nationwide “more than 20,000 inmates are confined in ‘supermax’ facilities under horrid conditions. […] [D]ecency requires limits. Resorting to a dehumanizing form of punishment well known to induce suffering and drive people into mental illness is beyond them.”[73]

The strike was interrupted in late summer to allow the authorities to follow through on reforms. It restarted in the autumn when they appeared to be dragging their feet. The second hunger strike ended hopefully with seemingly successful negotiations about improved conditions and an end to debriefing. Toward the end of the strike, one representative related a visit he had with a lawyer who “told me more than 12,000 people went on hunger strike in support.” This was “very overwhelming and I was physically hurting that day and not used to folks truly caring!!” Then, when he was taken back to the segregation unit where the hunger strike representatives had been moved, “All fourteen men were at their windows with looks of hope for some good news. It was directly akin to [Denis O’Hearn’s] description of how the men acted in the H-Block when Bobby Sands returned from some of his meetings.”[74]



There is significant literature across the disciplines on the Irish diaspora. Less is written about the movement of ideas and practices that accompanies and sometimes precedes people. Authorities and experts share and transfer knowledge, and practices from one country move and take root elsewhere. Practices of people who are subjected to policies also migrate. This study is an initial attempt to see how movements of policies and practice by authorities may be accompanied by movements of ideas and practices “from below.” This is especially true of policies that target segments of the population who are either weak or are excoriated by the mainstream. Prison policy and prisoners are obvious subjects of such a study.

The re-emergence of long-term isolation as a policy for dealing with enemies of the state, the “worst of the worst,” spread rapidly after 1980. It had already become the mainstream way of dealing with Irish insurgents in the 1970s. Special Security Units in Britain provided a way of dealing with “terrorists [who] are few in number.”[75] The H-Blocks and strict cellular isolation became the model for dealing with large numbers of political insurgents by “removing them from the area of conflict and incarcerating them in a fortress prison surrounded by armed guards.”[76] The H-Blocks created as many problems as they solved; nonetheless, with some perfection they became a model for states that sought a way to deal with large recalcitrant populations, whether political insurgents or surplus poor people.

The model of cellular isolation migrated to Turkey and the United States through the exchange of ideas among experts. In Turkey, we can trace the movement directly, through the activities of European bodies like the Committee for the Prevention of Terrorism and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Evidence of policy migration to the U.S. is more circumstantial, and it is likely that mass-isolation began there as a policy in its own right rather than a mere copy-cat of British policy in Ireland. Yet we know that there is a high level of cooperation between penal experts in Britain and the U.S., and that policy regularly flows eastward. It would be strange to imagine that the British experience with cellular isolation did not flow in the other direction. It is important to remember, however, that policies are modified as they move, just as human migrants change and adapt. In Turkey, the authorities settled on a model of mass small group isolation that cut off insurgent prisoners’ ability to communicate, organize, and create a solidary culture, as the blanketmen had done in the H-Blocks. U.S. authorities realized that it would be better to divert prisoners by providing them with televisions rather than “stripping” them and thereby leaving them with nothing to do but communicate and scheme. Both regimes took extreme measures to stop the appropriation of prison spaces and smuggling, at the cost of the mental health of inmates, by totally limiting their human interactions. The head of the Turkish Prison Service told me that no more F-Type prisons would be built, “because we know that people are naturally social and they need to be with other people.” But when I asked one of his aides whether this meant the F-types might be closed one day, the answer was a firm “No! These are terrorists and if we let them start seeing each other they will start plotting again.”[77]

We know more about the movement of practices of resistance. In the Turkish case, political insurgents were aware of the practices of Irish prisoners and their use of hunger strike as a tactic. Through publications and personal encounters, they learned more details of how hunger strike was used, although they were impeded by the language barrier from reading much that was published about Irish prison resistance. Nonetheless, the name Bobby Sands and the Irish experience are known by practically every political prisoner in Turkey. This has advantages and dangers. The general lesson that hunger strike can be effective is not matched in the Turkish case with an ability to study how, why, and when it will be effective or ineffective. As a result, one could argue that Turkish prisoners embarked on their 2000 hunger strike with incomplete knowledge and one could speculate what might have been different had they known what happened in the H-Blocks in greater detail.

Ironically, this last point is less true of the U.S., even though the prisoners who adapted the hunger strike were far less politically literate than Turkish and Kurdish prisoners. In Ohio and California, supermax prisoners read a selection of books that discussed the unfolding of the Irish prison protest in great detail. They studied the timing of strikes, how personnel were chosen, how to plan, and how to use the media. We know they read three books—David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead (1987), Campbell, McKeown and O’Hagan’s Nor Meekly Serve My Time (2004), and O’Hearn’s Nothing But an Unfinished Song (2006)—that analyzed not only the successes and failures of the second hunger strike in 1981, but also the first strike of late 1980, which ended in disaster.[78]

What conclusions emerge from this study? Most importantly, both policy and resistance migrate across borders through different forms of learning. They combine “relational” (interpersonal) and “non-relational” forms of information sharing and learning. Relational interchanges appear to be initially most important, as they create networks of sharing and heighten sensibilities of the receiving populations. In earlier times, this was probably more directly associated with diaspora, for example, in the way that English and Welsh migrants in the 1860s affected the rise of corporate power and state police in areas such as the Pennsylvania coal and iron fields, while Irish and Germans impacted the rise of labor movements and armed insurgencies like the “Molly Maguires.” Today, such networks may be composed of “shuttle” bureaucrats and insurgents, who move in and out of assignments, training camps, and international delegations.

The British securocrat Gordon Lakes visited Turkey briefly in a CPT delegation and later spent time in the Baltic states, where he is credited with rebuilding the Baltic prison system after the fall of the Soviet Union. But the Turkish experts who had to adapt British ideas and penal experiences in Ireland also received knowledge through reading and studying local and international literatures, and by adapting what they learned through their special knowledge of local society and culture. Likewise the subjects of such policy transfer. Activists and prisoners in Turkey and the U.S. met key people who introduced them to the Irish H-Block struggle and hunger strikes. They read and became “experts” on these experiences and used their grounded expertise to apply them to their local environments. All the while, contacts continued. In Ohio and California, prisoners maintained contact through correspondence and visits with people who were familiar with the Irish experience. They asked questions and discussed strategies and contingencies as they planned and embarked on hunger strike. Then, they went back to the literature and studied the historical record.

This has been a brief introduction to a very complex topic: the interactions of movement of people, ideas, and policies. The case involved in this study—isolated imprisonment—involves high politics and people “from below.” Their actions and reactions are intertwined in complex and interesting ways. While I have presented much data, other details of policy sharing, especially between the British and U.S. authorities during the 1960s-1980s, remain to be uncovered. Further research can and should be done to examine the precise nature of the relationships between the movement of people, ideas and practices and how they are related to power/empowerment and “success”/“failure,” not just with regard to prisons/prisoners but also in many other fields of social life.

[1]See Mary J. Hickman, “‘Locating’ the Irish Diaspora,” Irish Journal of Sociology 11, no. 2 (2002): 8-26.

[2] The phrase “worst of the worst” was not actually used with regard to IRA prisoners but was introduced later to justify sending particular groups of prisoners in the United States to “supermax” prisons. It is now routinely used to refer to supermax prisoners there; see, for example, Lance Tapley, “The Worst of the Worst: Supermax Torture in America,” Boston Review 35, no. 6 (November/December 2010): 30-35; and the film The Worst of the Worst: Portrait of a Supermax Prison, directed by Jane Cooper,Valarie Kaur, Allyssa Lamb, Aseem Mehta, Eric Parrie, Sharat Raju, and Ivey Want (2012). Nonetheless, the phrase is an apt description of the way the British and Northern Irish authorities characterized Irish Republicans and, later, how the Turkish authorities characterize both leftist and Kurdish activists.

[3] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Brooklyn: Verso, 2002).

[4] John McGuffin, The Guinea Pigs (Baltimore: Penguin), 1974.

[5] See Roy Coleman, Reclaiming the Streets: Surveillance, the Streets and the City (Portland: Willan), 2004.

[6] Some of the latter are the descendants of the politicized prisoners such as Black Panthers of the 1960s, although they later were considered “gangs” rather than “movements.”

[7] For policy convergence, see Colin J. Bennett, “What Is Policy Convergence and What Causes It?” British Journal of Political Science 21, no. 2 (1991): 215–233. For policy transfer, see Diane Stone, “Learning Lessons and Transferring Policies across Time, Space, and Disciplines,” Politics 19, no.1 (1999): 51–59, and David P. Dolowitz and David Marsh, “Learning from Abroad: The Role of Policy Transfer in Contemporary Policy-Making,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions 13, no. 1 (2000): 5–24. For lesson-drawing, see Richard Rose, “What is Lesson-Drawing?” Journal of Public Policy 11, no. 1 (1991): 3–30, and Trevor Jones and Tim Newburn, “Learning from Uncle Sam? Exploring U.S. Influences on British Crime Control Policy,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions 15, no. 1 (2002): 97–119.

[8] Dolowitz and Marsh, “Learning from Abroad,” 5.

[9] Tim Newburn, “Atlantic crossings: “‘Policy transfer’ and crime control in the USA and Britain,” Punishment & Society 4, no. 2 (2002):165-194.

[10] See Nils Christie, Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style (New York: Routledge, 2000).

[11] Jones and Newburn, “Learning from Uncle Sam?” 97-119.

[12] John Muncie, “The globalisation of crime control—the case of youth and juvenile justice: Neo-liberalism, policy convergence and international conventions,” Theoretical Criminology 9, no. 1 (2005): 36.

[13] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage, 1995).

[14] The similarities and distinctions between political prisoners and prison gang members are both difficult and contentious. For the purpose of this study, it is worth noting two key similarities. First, many gang members like political prisoners become highly conscious in prison. Even members of groups like the Aryan Brotherhood have demonstrated the ability to become quite radicalized. Second, both political prisoners and so-called gangs are considered by prison officials to present a severe challenge to prison order, mostly because they can display extraordinary solidarity among themselves and in opposition to prison authority. Thus, it should come as no surprise that techniques that were often devised to deal with political prisoners are also used to contain prison “gangs.” It is worth noting, however, that enlightened prison authorities in at least one country have given encouragement to “gang” self-government, allowing a “normalized,” all-male population to regain lost “moral status” by occupying respected positions. The prison became more peaceful as gangs “functioned less as parochial defense and conflict groups and more as organizations of self-local governance.” Filomin Candaliza-Gutierrez, “Pangkat: Inmate Gangs at the New Bilibid Prison Maximum Security Compound,” Philippine Sociological Review, 60 (2012):193. This suggests that there is an alternative to isolating prison leaders and, moreover, that the policy of isolation is more about retaining prison authority than it is about retaining prison order.

[15] David Dolowitz and David Marsh, “Who Learns What from Whom: A Review of the Policy Transfer,” Political Studies 44, no. 2 (1996): 345.

[16] Claudio M. Radaelli, “Policy Transfer in the European Union,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions 13, no. 1 (2000): 26.

[17] As defined by Richard Rose, Lesson-Drawing in Public Policy: A Guide to Learning Across Time and Space (Chatham: Chatham House, 1993), 27. See Dolowitz and Marsh, “Who Learns What from Whom,” 343-357.

[18] Rose, Lesson-Drawing, 30.

[19] Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht, “The Cross-National Diffusion of Movement Ideas,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 528 (1993): 59.

[20] McAdam and Rucht, “The Cross-National Diffusion,” 73-74.

[21] Michael Hannagan, “Irish Transnational Social Movements, Deterritorialized Migrants, and the State System: The Last One Hundred and Forty Years,” Mobilization: An International Journal 3, no. 1 (1998): 113.

[22] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (1867; London: Penguin, 1976), 870.

[23] Gregory Maney, “Transnational Mobilization and Civil Rights in Northern Ireland,” Social Problems 47, no. 2 (2000): 153. See also David Meyer and Sam Marullo, “International Change from Below: Activism and the End of the Cold War,” Sociological Practice Review 3 (1992): 189-202; Kathryn Sikkink, “Human Rights, Principled Issue-Networks, and Sovereignty in Latin America,” International Organization 47, no. 3 (1993): 411-441; Ron Pagnucco and David Atwood, “Global Strategies for Justice and Peace,” Peace Review 6, no.4 (1994): 411-418; Thomas Risse-Kappen, Bringing Transnational Relations Back In: Non-State Actors, Domestic Structures, and International Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jackie Smith, “Transnational Political Processes and the Human Rights Movement,” Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change 18 (1995): 185-219; Patrick Coy, “Cooperative Accompaniment and Peace Brigades International in Sri Lanka,” in Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics: Solidarity Beyond the State, eds. Jackie G. Smith, Charles Chatfield, and Ron Pagnucco (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997): 81-100; and Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).

[24] Richard Price, “Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines,” International Organization, 52, no. 3 (1998): 617.

[25] Norman Johnston, “The World’s Most Influential Prison: Success or Failure?” The Prison Journal 84, no. 4 suppl. (2004): 26S.

[26] Ibid., 28S-29S.

[27] Thus began another discourse that would transfer across space and time: medical experts who associate isolation with mental illness. See Stuart Grassian, “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement,” Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 22, (2006): 325-383.

[28] Qtd. in Johnston, “The World’s Most Influential Prison,” 38.

[29] Roy Walmsley, Special Security Units, Home Office Research Study, no. 109 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1989), 1.

[30] Amnesty International, United Kingdom Special Security Units: Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Amnesty International, 1997), 2, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR45/006/1997/en.

[31] Louis Mountbatten, 1966. Report of the Inquiry into Prison Escapes and Security, Cmnd 3175 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1996).

[32] Ibid. See also L. Radzinowicz, The Regime for Long-Term Prisoners in Conditions of Maximum Security, Report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968).

[33] Denis O’Hearn, “Repression and solidary cultures of resistance: Irish political prisoners on protest,” American Journal of Sociology 15, no. 2 (2009): 491-526.

[34] Editorial, “If Mrs. Thatcher were Anwar Sadat,” New York Times, March 6, 1981.

[35] See Laurence McKeown, Out of Time: Irish Republican Prisoners: Long Kesh 1972-2000 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2001).

[36] See Newburn, “Atlantic Crossings,” 165-194, as well as Jones and Newburn, “Learning from Uncle Sam?” 97-119.

[37] Bonnie Kerness, “The Hidden History of Solitary Confinement in New Jersey’s Control Units,” Solitary Watch: News from a Nation in Lockdown (March 13, 2013), accessed on April 3, 2013, http://solitarywatch.com/2013/03/13/the-hidden-history-of-solitary-confinement-in-new-jerseys-control-units/.  

[38] See James Austin and Patricia Hardyman, Objective Prison Classification: A Guide for Correctional Agencies (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections, 2004): xi, accessed November 15, 2012, http://www.jfa-associates.com/publications/pcras/06_ObjClass2004.pdf; and Fay Dowker and Glenn Good, From Alcatraz to Marion to Florence—Control Unit Prisons in the United States (Chicago: Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, 1992), accessed November 15, 2012, http://people.umass.edu/~kastor/ceml_articles/cu_in_us.html. Again, I have not found evidence whether the introduction of “Category 6” was a direct copy or not of the British “Category A,” yet it appears to be more than coincidental.

[39] Lynd, Alice 1996. “What is a Supermax Prison.” Unpublished memo presented to the author by Alice Lynd. The memo was widely reproduced on websites and passed by other means and was very influential in the early understanding of supermax prisons.

[40] On California, see Eric Cummins, The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).

[41] See Geoffrey Hunt, Geoffrey, Stephanie Riegel,Tomas Morales, Dan Waldorf, “Changes in Prison Culture: Prison Gangs and the Case of the ‘Pepsi Generation,’” Social Problems 40, no. 3 (1993): 401.

[42] Committee on Human Rights, Supermax Confinement in U.S. Prisons (New York: New York City Bar Assoc., 2011): 9. http://www2.nycbar.org/pdf/report/uploads/20072165-TheBrutalityofSupermaxConfinement.pdf.

[43] As stated in Human Rights Watch, Turkey: Small Group Isolation in F-type Prisons and the Violent Transfers of Prisoners to Sincan, Kandira, and Edirne Prisons on December 19, 2000 (April 5, 2001), D1302, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3bd023992.html.

[44] Ibid.

[45] See Arda İbikoğlu, “Incarcerating Politics: Prison Reform in Contemporary Turkey” (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 2012), 121.

[46] Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Report to the Turkish Government on the visit to Turkey carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 19 to 23 August 1996 (Strasbourg: Committee for the Prevention of Torture, 2001), 12.

[47] İbikoğlu, “Incarcerating Politics,” 115-17.

[48] Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Report to the Turkish Government, 15.

[49] Lord Hennessy, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Report of an Inquiry by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons into the security arrangements at HM Prison, Maze relative to the escape on Sunday 25th September 1983, including Relevant Recommendations for the Improvement of Security at HM Prison, Maze, (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1984).

[50] McFeeley et al. v. United Kingdom, Application 8317/78, (1980) 3 E.H.R.R. 161, (1984) E.C.H.R. 23.

[51] Jim Murdoch, “CPT standards within the Context of the Council of Europe,” in Protecting Prisoners: The Standards of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, ed. Rod Morgan and Malcolm D. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 116-17.

[52] Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Report to the Turkish Government, 15-16.

[53] Denis O’Hearn, Nothing But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation (New York: Nation Books, 2006), 196.

[54] Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Report to the Turkish Government, 14.

[55] “Umduklarini bulamadilar,” Zaman, August 23, 1996, accessed November 4, 2012, http://arsiv.zaman.com.tr/1996/08/23/guncel/politika.html.

[56] İbikoğlu, “Incarcerating Politics,” 91-92.

[57] Personal correspondence with Kurdish prisoner in Bolu F-type prison, March 2012.

[58] Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Preliminary observations made by the delegation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) which visited Turkey from 16 to 24 July 2000 (Strasbourg: Committee for the Prevention of Torture, 2000), 6.

[59] Human Rights Watch, Turkey.

[60] The Director of the Turkish Prison Service and the Governor of Sincan F-Type Prison No. 2, interview with the author, Ankara, August 2, 2011.

[61] Personal communication with former leader of the Kurtuluş movement, June 2012.

[62] İbikoğlu, “Incarcerating Politics,” 71.

[63] A PKK ex-prisoner told me, “for us, the struggle was on the mountain, not in the prison; our duty was to serve our sentence and then go back to the mountain.” Interview with author, Istanbul, July 2011.

[64] Author’s correspondence with Kurdish prisoner in Bolu F-type prison, March 2012.       

[65] Denis O’Hearn, “Açlık Grevi: İrlanda Deneyimi,” bianet, November 5, 2012, http://www.bianet.org/bianet/dunya/141851-aclik-grevi-irlanda-deneyimi.

[66] See Hunt et al., “Changes in Prison Culture.”

[67] A prisoner, in conversation with the author, Ohio State Penitentiary, December 2010.

[68] Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown, and Felim O’Hagan, Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H-Block Struggle 1976-1981 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 1994).

[69] Denis O’Hearn, “A Welcome Prison Victory at Youngstown,” Monthly Review/MRZine, January 19, 2011, http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/ohearn190111.html.

[70] Staughton Lynd, Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change (Oakland: PM Press, 2012).

[71] Author’s interview with long-term prisoner on the “short corridor” of the Secure Housing Unit, Pelican Bay State Prison, California, November 2012. 

[72] Dorsey Nunn, “Protests Grow in Solidarity with California Prisoners as Hunger Strikes Enter Third Week.” Democracy Now! video, 59:05, July 15, 2011. http://www.democracynow.org/2011/7/15/protests_grow_in_solidarity_with_california.       

[73] Colin Dayan, “Barbarous Confinement,” New York Times, July 17, 2011, and Editorial, “Cruel Isolation: A California prison protest spotlighted widespread use of torturous solitary confinement,” New York Times, August 2, 2011.

[74] Lynd, Accompanying, 143.

[75] Lord Hennessy, Report of an Inquiry by HM Chief Inspector.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Director of the Turkish Prison Service and aide to the Director, interview with the author, Ankara, August 2, 2011.

[78] David Beresford, Ten Men Dead (Grand Rapids: Hunter Publishing, 1987); Campbell, McKeown, and O’Hagan, Nor Meekly Serve My Time; and O’Hearn, Nothing But an Unfinished Song.