† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Cruel and All Too Usual
by nancy a heitzeg
“Do you think you can be this man? Do you in your freedom think enough right now to understand? What a man endures in captivity daily, by his lonesome? Do you think your mind, heart and spirit contains the strength to maintain focus? Behind this steel door 23 hours a day. Or more likely 24 hours. Don’t test your freedom–stay free! This is truth of SMU experience in Georgia by Mr. BigMann.”
Excessive and extensive use of long term solitary confinement is amongst the most egregious of the many human rights violations in US prisons and jails. The practice is now so pervasive that, according to Solitary Watch: “Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.”
These stints are no longer the “proverbial “30 days in the hole” but regular conditions of confinement that last for decades, sometimes, as in the cases of Hugo Pinell, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace — ranging up to 40 years.
The Pelican Bay Hunger Strike of 2011 revealed the pitfalls of this practice in California – the state with the highest number of isolated prisoners - and elsewhere. Still more than 1 year later, inmates at that infamous Supermax have gotten little relief and no satisfaction regarding their Five Core Demands:
1.Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
2.Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
3.Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
4.Provide adequate food;
5.Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
Despite a recent denial of additional media access to inmates by Governor Brown, the spotlight on solitary continues to intensify. Amnesty International has just published a new report — The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Secure Housing Units.
The essence of the report is best captured here in an infographic worth more than my 10, 000 words.
Amnesty International makes the following recommendations to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation:
- Limiting the use of isolation in a SHU or similar environment so that it is imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners whose behaviour constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of others or the security of the institution.
- Improving conditions for all prisoners held in SHUs, including better exercise provision and an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even the most restrictive custody levels.
- Allowing SHU prisoners to make regular phone calls to their families.
- Reducing the length of the SDP and providing meaningful access to programs where prisoners have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at an earlier stage.
- Immediate removal from isolation of prisoner who have already sent years in the SHU under an indeterminate assignment.
Support their campaign by e-mailing these to the CDCR.
Sign the petition in support of the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers
Visit the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Blog for more information, resources, voices from the inside and more
Support the hunger strikers by contacting the CDCR & your representatives and urge them to negotiate with the prisoners and honor their demands!
Secretary Matthew Cate
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
1515 S Street
Phone: (916) 323-6001
Governor Jerry Brown
State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: (916) 445-2841
CDCR Public Affairs Office: (916)445-4950
For More Information on Inhumane Conditions in Solitary Confinement
Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of grassroots groups to support the prisoners