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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.
The image above was drawn by Katherine Fontaine, a San Francisco based architect, prison-questioner, friend to all, and book-art-space-collective co-runner.
“There are very few pictures of SHUs. The last drawing that was found at the Freedom Archives in San Francisco was from when Reagan was the Governor of California,” says Fontaine.
With solitary confinement, such a hot news topic, Fontaine was compelled to sketch when she realised there were very few images of solitary cells in circulation.
“I was given the few photos that exist from other similar prisons and a diagram that was used in a previous court case drawn by a prisoner while in an SHU at Pelican Bay. The drawing is what I came up with from the materials I was given,” explains Fontaine who hopes her drawing of a Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) will be used — in media materials and campaigns — by any organizations protesting solitary confinement.
Fontaine’s commitment to make reliable sketches of prison spaces and apparatus was spurred by a chance encounter with some fellow professionals in an unlikely place. She was among a crowd outside the Central California Women’s Facility protesting overcrowding inside the prison.
Fontaine noticed a person within the crowd with a sign that read ‘Architects Against Overcrowding In Prisons.’ On the back of the sign was www.ADPSR.org. The acronym stands for Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility. Despite her day job as an architect, ADPSR was not a group with whom she was familiar. Upon reading the statement for the Prison Alternatives Initiative, one of ADPSR’s projects, Fontaine was all-in.
“Our prison system is both a devastating moral blight on our society and an overwhelming economic burden on our tax dollars, taking away much needed resources from schools, health care and affordable housing. The prison system is corrupting our society and making us more threatened, rather than protecting us as its proponents claim. It is a system built on fear, racism, and the exploitation of poverty. Our current prison system has no place in a society that aspires to liberty, justice, and equality for all. As architects, we are responsible for one of the most expensive parts of the prison system, the construction of new prison buildings. Almost all of us would rather be using our professional skills to design positive social institutions such as universities or playgrounds, but these institutions lack funding because of spending on prisons. If we would rather design schools and community centers, we must stop building prisons.”
Fontaine’s sketches will regularly appear in Actually People Quarterly, partly to inform as partly as a means to focus her thoughts.
“People need to see them,” she says. “Also it was such a powerful thing for me to draw that SHU cell. I wonder if anyone else can have a similar feeling just by looking at it or if I just feel so changed by it because I drew it. Maybe it is because I’ve spent years of my life drawing, studying, measuring and designing spaces that in actually creating that image I imagined that actual space so much more clearly than I had before? To imagine being an architect and *designing* that space is incomprehensible to me.”
Below is Fontaine’s sketch of cage used routinely within the California prison system. The cages are sometimes to hold prisoners during transfer between units but, increasingly, used for group *therapy* — an oxymoron if there ever was one.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to share the work of some other determined prison sketchers, some of whom are prisoners.
From the website, Solitary Watch:
One of the most prolific and talented artists in solitary is 60-year-old Thomas Silverstein, who has been in extreme isolation in the federal prison system under a “no human contact” order for going on 30 years. (He describes the experience here.) His artwork appears on this site. It includes meticulously detailed drawings of some of the cells he has occupied, including one pictured below, which is designed (with built-in shower and remote-controlled door to an exercise yard) so that he never has to leave it or encounter anyone at all.
Next is this cell in Ohio, drawn by prisoner Greg Curry.
When depicting prisons and their abuses there is no hierarchy of medium; sketches, photos, videos and oral testimony conspire to deliver a fuller picture. I will say though that these narrative rich drawings are more powerful than many photographs I come across.
Isolation exercise yard, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay, Crescent City, California, a supermax-type control, high security facility said to house California’s most dangerous prisoners. © Richard Ross
Solitary confinement is in the news … for lots of reasons – a lawsuit brought by prisoners against the Federal Bureau of Prisons; a lawsuit brought by 10 prisoners in solitary against the state of California; a June Senate hearing on the psychological and human rights implications of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (which included the fabrication of a replica sized AdSeg cell in the courtroom); an ACLU report pegging solitary as human rights abuse; a NYCLU report showing arbitrary use of solitary, a NYT Op-Ed by Lisa Guenther; the rising use of solitary at immigration detention centres; and the United Nations’ announcement that solitary is torture.
Recently, journalists from across America have contacted me looking for photographs of solitary confinement to accompany their article. I could only think of three photographers – one of whom wishes to remain anonymous; another, Stefan Ruiz is not releasing his images yet; which leaves Richard Ross‘ work which is well known.
Stefan Ruiz’ photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison, CA made in 1995 for use as court evidence. (See full Prison Photography interview with Ruiz here.)
With a seeming paucity, I went in search of other images. I found an image of a “therapy session” by Lucy Nicholson from her Reuters photo essay Inside San Quentin. A scene that has been taken to task by psychologist and political image blogger Michael Shaw.
Rich Pedroncelli for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Pelican Bay has been hosting media tours and welcoming journalists in the past year – partly due to public pressure and partly through a strategic shift by the CDCR to appear to be responding to public outcry. Maybe the courts have had a say, too?
© Lucy Nicholson / Reuters. Prisoners of San Quentin’s AdSeg unit in group therapy. (Source)
© Shane Bauer. Pelican Bay SHU cell. (Source)
© Shane Bauer. CA CDCR employees show investigative journalist Shane Bauer the Pelcian Bay SHU “Dog run.” (Source)
Correctional Officer Lt. Christopher Acosta is seen in the exercise area in the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. State prison officials allowed the media to tour Pelican’ Bay’s secure housing unit, known as the SHU, where inmates are isolated for 22 1/2 hours a day in windowless, soundproofed cells to counter allegations of mistreatment made during an inmate hunger strike last month. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP/SF (Source)
The amount of visual evidence still seems limited. It’s not that reporting on solitary confinement is lax or missing. To the contrary, I’ve listed at the foot of this piece some excellent recent journalism on the issue form the past year. We lack images.
Look Inside A Supermax a piece done with text and not images is typical of the invisibility of these sites. National Geographic tried a couple of years to bring solitary confinement to a screen near you. ABC News journalist Dan Harris spent the “two worst days of his life” in solitary to report the issue.
Why do we need to see these super-locked facilities? Well, depending on your sources there are between 15,000 and 80,000 people held in isolation daily (definitions of isolation differ). My conservative estimate is that 20,000 men, women and children are held in single occupancy cells 23 hours a day.
Gabriel Reyes, prisoner at Pelican Bay SHU writes about his experience for the San Francisco Chronicle:
“For the past 16 years, I have spent at least 22 1/2 hours of every day completely isolated within a tiny, windowless cell. [...] The circumstances of my case are not unique; in fact, about a third of Pelican Bay’s 3,400 prisoners are in solitary confinement; more than 500 have been there for 10 years, including 78 who have been here for more than 20 years.”
Solitary confinement is a “living death”; an isolating “gray box” and “life in a black hole.” Imagine locking yourself in a space the size of your bathroom for 23 hours a day. As James Ridgeway, currently the most prolific and reliable reporter on American solitary confinement, writes:
“A growing body of academic research suggests that solitary confinement can cause severe psychological damage, and may in fact increase both violent behavior and suicide rates among prisoners. In recent years, criminal justice reformers and human rights and civil liberties advocates have increasingly questioned the widespread and routine use of solitary confinement in America’s prisons and jails, and states from Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce the number of inmates they hold in isolation.”
The over zealous and under regulated use of solitary confinement to control risk and populations within U.S. prisons is a cancer within already broken corrections systems. I’m posting a few more image that Google images afforded me – but I urge caution – these are just a glimpse and may not be indicative of solitary/SHU conditions. Windows are a rarity in solitary despite three images below showing them.
The main reason I’m posting here is to ask for your help in sourcing all the photography of U.S. solitary confinement we can. Please post links in the comments section and I’ll add them to the article as time goes on.
© Alice Lynd. Front view of cell D1-119. Todd Ashker has been in a Security Housing Unit (SHU) for more than 25 years, since August 1986, and in the Pelican Bay SHU nearly 22 years, since May 2, 1990. “The locked tray slot is where I get my food trays, mail.” (Source)
A typical special housing unit (SHU) cell for two prisoners, in use at Upstate Correctional Facility and SHU 20.0.s in New York. Photo: Unknown. (Source)
Bunk in Secure Housing Unit cell, Pelican Bay, California © Rina Palta/KALW. (Source)
Solitary Confinement at the Carter Youth Facility. Since the arrival of the girls’ program at Carter, the administration has created a new seclusion cell. This cell contains no pillow, sheet, pillow case or blanket. In fact, there is nothing in the cell other than a mattress, which was added after numerous requests from the monitor. Girls are routinely placed in this room for “time out.” Photo: Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit. (Source)
© Rina Palta, KALW. “More than 3,000 prisoners in California endure inhuman conditions in solitary confinement.” This photo, taken in August 2011 of a corridor inside the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, illustrated Amnesty’s report. (Source)
© National Geographic. In Colorado State Penitentiary 756 inmates are held in “administrative segregation” alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. 5 times a week they are allowed into the rec room where they can exercise and breath fresh air through a grated window. (Source)
Eddie Griffin, prisoner in s Supermax prison in Marion, IL writes about “Breaking Men’s Minds” [PDF.]
Boxed In NYCLU campaign and report with resources and video against use of solitary confinement. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Gray Box, an investigative journalism series and film about solitary across the U.S., by Susan Greene. (Dart Society) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
ACLU – Stop Solitary Confinement - Resources - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
ACLU _ State specific reports on solitary confinement
Andrew Cohen’s three part series on “The American Gulag” (Atlantic)
Atul Gawande’s take on the psychological impacts of solitary confinement (New Yorker)
Sharon Shalev, author of Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, here writes about conditions. (New Humanist)
The shocking abuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (Amnesty)
SOLITARY ELSEWHERE ON PRISON PHOTOGRAPHY
Interview with Isaac Ontiveros, Director of Communications with Critical Resistance, about Pelican Bay solitary and community activism.
The invention of solitary confinement.
RIGO 23, Michelle Vignes, the Black Panthers and Leonard Peltier
Chilean Miners, Russian Cosmonauts and 20,000 American Prisoners
Robert King, of the Angola 3, writes for the Guardian
You’d think after 26 months in an Iranian prison, Shane Bauer would not be interested in seeing the inside of another cell. Think again. As I’ve noted before, Bauer is a journalist with human rights at the core of his stories.
Since his return to the U.S. he has been increasingly involved in describing the real problem we have with our approach to corrections. From Bauer’s Mother Jones feature piece:
I’ve been corresponding with at least 20 inmates in SHUs around California as part of an investigation into why and how people end up here. While at Pelican Bay, I’m not allowed to see or speak to any of them. Since 1996, California law has given prison authorities full control of which inmates journalists can interview. The only one I’m permitted to speak to is the same person the New York Times was allowed to interview months before. He is getting out of the SHU because he informed on other prisoners. In fact, this SHU pod—the only one I am allowed to see—is populated entirely by prison informants. I ask repeatedly why I’m not allowed to visit another pod or speak to other SHU inmates. Eventually, Acosta snaps: “You’re just not.”
Bauer excavates the policy and the logic, if you can call it that, used by the CDCR in their categorisation of prisoners and how those policies lands individuals in solitary. Pelican Bay State Prison, the oldest state-built Supermax, is Kafkaesque in its imprisonment of prisoners classified as gang affiliated. Bauer describes the *evidence* used by the CDCR in its case tying Dietrich Pennington to gang activity.
In Pennington’s file, the “direct link” is his possession of an article published in the San Francisco Bay View, an African American newspaper with a circulation of around 15,000. The paper is approved for distribution in California prisons, and Pennington’s right to receive it is protected under state law. In the op-ed style article he had in his cell, titled “Guards confiscate ‘revolutionary’ materials at Pelican Bay,” a validated member of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang complains about the seizure of literature and pictures from his cell and accuses the prison of pursuing “racist policy.” In Pennington’s validation documents, the gang investigator contends that, by naming the confiscated materials, the author “communicates to associates of the BGF…as to which material needs to be studied.” No one alleges that Pennington ever attempted to contact the author. It is enough that he possessed the article.
Getting out is a Catch-22 that is best described by Bauer than I.
For the longest time, there was a media blackout in California prisons and very few journalists got in to the SHU. I have heard from a few reporters and photographers this year who have visited Pelican Bay’s SHU but on a very tightly controlled media tour. Ultimately, Bauer wants to decode what purposes are served by solitary confinement. The CDCR argues it keeps prison violence down, but …
Prison violence fluctuates for myriad reasons, among them overcrowding, gang politics, and prison conditions. It’s impossible to say for certain what role SHUs play; what is clear is that in states that have reduced solitary confinement — Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi — violence has not increased. […] Since Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman released 75 percent of inmates from solitary in the mid-2000s, violence has dropped 50 percent. CDCR officials claim California is different because the gang problem is worse here, though they don’t have data to confirm this.
Bauer goes on to compare the correspondences he received as a prisoner with the letters he receives from Californian prisoners during his investigation. He describes the extreme psychological stress of solitary confinement and possibility of less labyrinthine regulation of SHUs with forthcoming CDCR policy changes (which may or may not transpire.)
He also offers readers to chance to contact the prisoners in the article.
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UPDATED: Oct 23rd, 2012