The NYCLU created a mock prison cell to show what life is like in solitary confinement. Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Today resumed a hunger strike by the prisoners of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison SHU (Secure Housing Unit). In solidarity, prisoners across the nation have also joined.
The main issue at hand is solitary confinement. Namely, its longterm use. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, stated that any time over 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes torture. Yet California prisoners have been caged in solitary for 10 to 20 years or more. In addition, the prisoners kept under solitary confinement ask for nutritious food and the same educational programming accessible to prisoners in the general populations of state prisons.
Solitary confinement is an invisible cancer to those outside the system and a terror to those within it.
The prisoners — who refer to themselves at The Short Corridor Collective — are returning to protest that began two years ago. Neither Phase One (July/August 2011) and Phase Two (Sept/Oct 2011) secured the policy changes desired, despite promises from the California Department of Corrections to address the specific issues and reasonable demands made. In 2011, over 6,000 California prisoners went on hunger and work strike making it one of the largest peaceful protests in U.S. prison history.
The Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor Collective state:
Our decision does not come lightly. For the past 2 years we’ve patiently kept an open dialogue with state officials, attempting to hold them to their promise to implement meaningful reforms, responsive to our demands. For the past seven months we have repeatedly pointed out CDCR’s failure to honor their word—and we have explained in detail the ways in which they’ve acted in bad faith and what they need to do to avoid the resumption of our protest action.
Five core demands
1. Eliminate group punishments. Instead, practice individual accountability. When an individual prisoner breaks a rule, the prison often punishes a whole group of prisoners of the same race. This policy has been applied to keep prisoners in the SHU indefinitely and to make conditions increasingly harsh.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Prisoners are accused of being active or inactive participants of prison gangs using false or highly dubious evidence, and are then sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape these tortuous conditions only if they “debrief,” that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. This bipartisan commission specifically recommended to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.” Yet as of May 18, 2011, California kept 3,259 prisoners in SHUs and hundreds more in Administrative Segregation waiting for a SHU cell to open up. Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for more than thirty years.
4. Provide adequate food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food that do not conform to prison regulations. There is no accountability or independent quality control of meals.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates. The hunger strikers are pressing for opportunities “to engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” Currently these opportunities are routinely denied, even if the prisoners want to pay for correspondence courses themselves. Examples of privileges the prisoners want are: one phone call per week, and permission to have sweatsuits and watch caps. (Often warm clothing is denied, though the cells and exercise cage can be bitterly cold.) All of the privileges mentioned in the demands are already allowed at other SuperMax prisons (in the federal prison system and other states).
You can download full text document of the demands here.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Sign the petition.
Involvement in the July 13th Mass Mobilization!
Plan a solidarity action!
Use your imagination and your skills; talk to your family and friends about it, and maybe provide them with a handful of shocking facts about the psychological torture that is solitary ? (See below)
Don’t get despondent, get angry.
WHAT IS SOLITARY CONFINEMENT?
In California, nearly 12,000 imprisoned people spend 23 hours-a-day living in a concrete cell smaller than a large bathroom. Across the United states it is conservatively estimated that 20,000 people are in solitary every day. It could be as high as 70,000; it depends on definitions related to time and contact.
In California solitary cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. People in solitary confinement exercise an hour a day in a cage the size of a dog run. They are not allowed to make any phone calls to their loved ones. They cannot touch family members who often travel days for a 90 minute visit. They are not allowed to talk to other imprisoned people. They are denied all educational programs, and their reading materials are censored.
UNFATHOMABLE SCALE AND WIDESPREAD USE
“The [psychological and cognitive effects of long term isolation] is not something that’s easy to study, and not something that prison systems are eager to have people look at,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who notes that the widespread use of solitary is a very modern phenomena.
We have an overwhelmingly crowded prison system in which the mandate to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners was suspended at the same time as the prison system became overcrowded. Not surprisingly, prison systems faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. And one big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement. They’ve used it without a lot of forethought to its consequences. That policy needs to be rethought.
Writing for the New Yorker (Hellhole) in 2009, physician Atul Gawande quoted extensively from Haney’s research and added:
After months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving” (Haney). [They] become essentially catatonic.
Keep yourself informed; keep progressing; keep honest; follow news on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website.
In solidarity, Pete.