CI: Cruel and All Too Usual

October 03, 2012 at 6:50 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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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!

Make Calls and Write Letters to:

Secretary Matthew Cate
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
1515 S Street
Sacramento 95814
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

Solitary Watch

Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of grassroots groups to support the prisoners

California Prison Focus

Black Agenda Report

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Domino14 5 Like

Thanks Nancy...


another insanity that needs to end..


how did we ever get here?   :(

KayWhitlock 4 Like

 @Domino14 It began in the colonial era, Domino, with the creation of the penitentiary - ironically, by liberal religious reformers working to end hideous forms of corporal punishment.  Prisoners went mad over prolonged isolation and confinement in horrifically small spaces.  Today, we've just expanded it geometrically. 


This is not a symptom of a system gone awry; it is a core characteristic of the system itself. 

KayWhitlock 5 Like

Thank you, Nancy - and huge thanks to Solitary Watch, Angola 3 News, and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.


This is a kind of systemic inhumanity that never ends.  Let's keep shining the light and lifting up the humanity of those who endure this perpetual torture.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 5 Like

Special thanks to Solitary Watch, Angola  3 News and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity  for always shining the light on this dark issue


Much gratitude

Vikki 1 Like

 Yes, echoing Nancy's many thanks for all the work you've done to make sure this issue doesn't get swept under the rug.


And thanks for CI and Seeta, as always, for hosting the conversation.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @Vikki thank you vikki!


this practice is an abomination -- it must be expoised and ended

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 5 Like

New York Times:



Having been held captive to their imaginations for weeks, months or, occasionally, years on end, the men — many already struggling with mental illness — brought their paranoia, rage, anxiety and hope to life on the page, with descriptions that were sometimes literary and other times nearly impossible to decipher. More than anything, they conveyed a grisly awareness that their identities were unraveling, a feeling so disconcerting for some that they tried to take their own lives.


The trove of letters from more than 100 inmates to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which corresponded with the men to bolster its attempts to curtail the practice of solitary confinement, gives new insight into a closed-off world usually viewed only one person at a time.


The letters may add fuel to the national debate over whether holding prisoners in extreme isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Many states have recently shifted away from the practice, which was the subject of federal hearings this summer, but it remains widespread in New York.


Nearly 4,500 prisoners in the state are held in segregated housing on any given day, about half in solitary confinement and half in cells with another inmate, according to the N.Y.C.L.U., which planned to publish a 72-page report on its findings on Tuesday, a copy of which was provided in advance to The New York Times....."


  1. […] in the California system  have been addressed consistently at CI — see here, here and here for a start. See also Amnesty International’s report — The Edge of Endurance: […]