Another prison hunger strike is looming in California, where more than 200 inmates at the Pelican Bay supermax have been in solitary confinement for between five and ten years and nearly 100 have been shut off from most human contact for 20 years or more. Across the nation, on any given day, more than 100,000 inmates suffer in solitary – about 25,000 in the federal system and another 80,000 or so in state facilities. That’s the equivalent of locking up every man, woman and child in Charleston, South Carolina, in their own little 8 by 12 foot box – for an eternity. Nothing like this American form of mass human torment has ever existed on the face of the earth: systematic, industrial strength torture, multiplied 100,000 times per day. Solitary confinement as a form of routine, mass punishment is beyond barbarity. Nowhere in human history do we find barbarians who tortured hundreds of thousands of people every day for decades at a time. Only in America.
Solitary confinement, by its very nature, is designed to ensure that no one but the torturers hears the cries of the tormented. However, knowledge of such monstrous evil compels decent men and women to action, in solidarity with those who have been wronged. The prisoners of Pelican Bay, who went on hunger strike in 2011, have sent word that they will do so again, on July 8, if the state of California does not meet their core demands. One demand is fundamental: that inmates not be confined to solitary unless they have been charged, “and found guilty of, committing a serious offense… a felony!” Instead, inmates are consigned to a life of oblivion based on anonymous allegations that they are affiliated with a gang, or for exhibiting the slightest hint of political thought – or for no discernable reason, at all. Not only is lengthy solitary confinement unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, and a form of torture under international law, it is totally arbitrary and capricious.
In California, alone, more than 14,000 prisoners are held in isolation. The Pelican Bay inmates anticipate many of them will join the hunger strike, as thousands did in 2011, when 13 prisons were involved in the protest, and three inmates committed suicide. This time around, prison organizers have invited the participation of “all male and female prisoners across the U.S. prison systems,” both state and federal. Inmates in Georgia went on hunger strike in 2011 and again last year, pressing a range of demands.
If the California prisoners are forced to put their lives on the line again, on July 8, support networks need to be in place, beforehand. The Stop Mass Incarceration Network is putting out the call, so that the inmates at Pelican Bay and throughout the vast U.S. prison gulag will know that folks on the outside have their back. June 21, 22 and 23 have been designated as Days of Solidarity With the Struggle to End Prison Torture, and to immediately disband the torture chambers. You can sign up by going to StopMassIncarceration.org.
Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
Imagine spending a month alone in a windowless cell the size of a small bathroom. Now multiply that by 100, and you can begin to understand the average period of solitary confinement endured by prisoners held in the Security House Unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.
The SHU, as the unit is called, houses more than 1,000 men, most of them remaining in solitary confinement for years, even decades.
According to official prison statistics, more than 500 prisoners at the SHU (or about half the total population) have been held there for more than 10 years. What is more, 78 prisoners have been held at the SHU for more than 20 years.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit public interest law firm, filed a class action complaint in federal court last week on behalf of ten named plaintiffs who are incarcerated in the SHU, calling the SHU’s solitary confinement regime “inhumane and debilitating.” The plaintiffs, who had originally filed the case without legal assistance, have each been held in solitary confinement for between 11 and 22 years.
These numbers are stunning no matter how one looks at them. A recent European human rights court case condemned Russia for holding a prisoner in solitary confinement for three years, which, compared to the length of prisoners’ stays in the SHU, is a short stint. In the aggregate, prisoners held at the SHU spend thousands of years in their cells alone. It is a large-scale experiment in sensory deprivation and social isolation.
Communication as a Disciplinary Offense
The complaint paints a stark picture of daily life in the SHU. Prisoners in the SHU “normally spend between 22 and one-half and 24 hours a day in their cells. They are typically allowed to leave their cells only for ‘exercise’ and to shower.”
The cells are made entirely of concrete and measure approximately 80 square feet. They contain a concrete bed, a sink, and a toilet, as well as a concrete desk and stool. Prisoners’ personal belongings are extremely limited. The cell doors are made up of solid steel, not bars, and have small round perforations that allow a partial view into the hallway.
The only means prisoners have to communicate is to yell or speak loudly to their neighbors, which may be deemed to be a disciplinary offense.
“Exercise,” according to the complaint (which puts the word in quotes), takes place in “a barren, solid concrete exercise pen, known as the ‘dog run.’” Until last year, the exercise pen was empty. Following an organized hunger strike by prisoners, the authorities added a handball to the pen.
Phone calls are not allowed, except in exceptional circumstances like a death in the family, and even then permission to make a call is granted at the prison authorities’ discretion. The complaint describes how one of the plaintiffs, Gabriel Reyes, “was denied a telephone call home after his stepfather died, because he had been allowed a telephone call several months earlier when his biological father died.”
Family members are limited to non-contact visits, behind plexiglass, with communication taking place over a telephone handset. The prison gets few visitors, as it is located far from most prisoners’ home cities, near the state’s northern border with Oregon, and visiting hours are extremely limited. As the complaint explains, many prisoners have “been without face-to-face contact with people other than prison staff for decades.”
Prisoners have no access to recreational or vocational programming. Psychological counseling is minimal, despite the obvious mental health risks at issue. When one plaintiff requested mental health care, the complaint asserts, “he was referred to a ‘self-help’ library book.”
While most prisoners are held in solitary confinement, a few are double-celled. The complaint suggests that the only thing nearly as bad as solitary confinement is being locked in close quarters with one other person, with no possibility of leaving the room. “[D]ouble-celling,” the complaint says, “requires two strangers to live around-the-clock in intolerably cramped conditions, in a cell barely large enough for a single human being to stand or sit.”
No judge ever sentences a prisoner to serve time at the Pelican Bay SHU. Instead, it is the state prison bureaucracy that puts people there and keeps them there. California has a serious problem of gang violence, both in the prisons and beyond, and segregation in the SHU, where prisoners’ ability to act and communicate is extremely limited, is viewed as an effective control mechanism.
Prisoners end up at the SHU via a process called prison gang validation, which often relies on information provided by confidential informants. Prisoners who are believed to be associated with a gang—even without any indication of gang activity, or even actual gang membership—are “validated” as gang affiliates. They then can be placed in the SHU for an indefinite term.
The only real way to exit the SHU, short of being released from prison after serving one’s sentence(s), is to “debrief” to the prison authorities, i.e., to formally renounce any association with a gang and to report on other prisoners’ gang activity. This is an obviously dangerous option, and many prisoners refuse to try it.
After six years in the SHU, there is supposed to be another way out, but the complaint alleges that it does not operate as it should. Prisoners receive a six-year review to evaluate whether they are “active” with a gang or have gained “inactive” status. But, the complaint states, the review lacks seriousness, with the prison authorities pointing to reading material, artwork, and minor disciplinary offenses such as talking to other prisoners as grounds for denying inactive status.
The empty promise of the six-year review is especially damaging for prisoners who are eligible for parole. One such prisoner is George Ruiz, is a 69-year-old Latino man who has spent the last 28 years of his life in solitary confinement, 22 of those years at the SHU. Ruiz has been eligible for parole since 1993, but the parole board has reportedly told him that he will never obtain parole as long as he is held at the SHU.
A recent UN report, issued by the UN special rapporteur on torture, criticized this sort of indeterminate segregation. It explained that “[t]he feeling of uncertainty when not informed of the length of solitary confinement exacerbates the pain and suffering of the individuals who are subjected to it.” “Indefinite solitary confinement,” the report concluded, “should be abolished.”
The Outer Bounds of Psychological Tolerance
Conditions at the Pelican Bay SHU have been challenged in court before. In the early 1990s, a few years after the prison opened, a class action suit was brought on behalf of prisoners there. The resulting court decision found SHU conditions to be unconstitutional for mentally ill prisoners and prisoners who were at high risk of mental illness.
Although the court emphasized that the harsh conditions at the SHU “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate,” it did not find them to constitute cruel and unusual punishment for all prisoners held there. The court emphasized, however, that its ruling covered people who had been held at the SHU for a few years—mostly three years or less—and that it could “not even begin to speculate on the impact on inmates confined in the SHU for periods of 10 to 20 years or more.”
The present case poses exactly the situation that the previous court did not reach. It catalogues a range of psychological harms stemming from confinement at the SHU, including depression, nervousness, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, fears of an impending nervous breakdown, hallucinations, and multiple suicide attempts.
“I feel dead,” said Luis Esquivel, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, to his lawyers. “It’s been thirteen years since I have shaken someone’s hand and I fear I’ll forget the feel of human contact.”
Joanne Mariner, a Justia columnist, is the director of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program. She is an expert on human rights, counterterrorism, and international humanitarian law. She is the author of the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.
- Prisoners in Solitary Confinement in Ohio Stage Two-Week Hunger Strike (moorbey.wordpress.com)
- Pelican Bay prisoners sue to end ‘torture’ of long-term solitary confinement (thegrio.com)