† 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. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Stand Against Solitary
by nancy a heitzeg
For Roses in Concrete
“Prison policy is usually shaped out of public view, but the duration and visibility of the hunger strike has helped make the subject politically urgent. Last week, New York State agreed to extensive new restrictions on whom it could confine to its SHU. This week, in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing titled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement.” Other states have also curtailed the use of isolation recently—Indiana, where change was compelled by a federal judge’s ruling, and Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, which had faced pressure from prisoners’-rights groups. These changes are too few to constitute a total rejection of the practice. But for the first time, it has begun to seem plausible that the American attachment to this special kind of imprisonment is not a national peculiarity so much as a generational one, and that a 25-year experiment may be ending.” ~ “The Plot from Solitary”, by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine
The struggle to end the tortuous use of solitary confinement is a grim one. Like the movement to abolish the death penalty, it forces us to grapple with horrifying details of life in box, buried alive, slow motion death – the gradual, state-sponsored decay of both body and mind. Worse still even, victory in the abolition of these practices will never be enough. They are mere symptoms of the pathology of mass incarceration, mere branches never the root, that end up afflicting a numerical minority of those 2.3 million persons who languish, one way or another, in the context of the prison industrial complex. Yet resist we must.
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 and Albert Woodfox ranging up to 40 years. There is widespread agreement that this is tantamount to torture.
The routinization and expansion of long term solitary confinement in the late 20th century is intended to control – not just individual inmates, but the general population as well. Indefinite and ambiguously administered solitary confinement looms as a threat to all. It is no accident that the proliferation of control units and SuperMax prisons emerges in the aftermath of successful inmate organizing and a growing connection between “imprisoned intellectuals “ and the community outside. ( See Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement –An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan ) Control units serve decidedly political functions – they are meant to quell dissent and stymy inmate organizing.
Despite some particular and short-lived successes, even here the Carceral State has failed. The legal victories noted below all emanate from inmates themselves who have managed to be heard, to reach out, to organize and mobilize, even from 6 feet under. Roses that grew in concrete. More power to them.
Historic Agreement on Solitary Limits in New York
The State of New York, in response to a NYCLU class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of three inmates in solitary, (Peoples v. Fischer) has agreed to an immediate ban on the use of solitary for youth under 18, pregnant inmates and developmentally disabled and intellectually challenged prisoners. Additional reforms for the general population are part of the agreement. From Solitary Watch:
The deal also calls for New York State and the NYCLU to each choose an expert who will assess the use of isolated confinement throughout the prison system over the next two years and make further recommendations for change….the NYCLU envisions more sweeping change, which would eliminate the total isolation of solitary confinement in favor of a more rehabilitative model. In this, it is aligned with other reform efforts in the New York, including a bill introduced last month in the state legislature that aims to “fundamental transform” how prisons respond to people’s “needs and behaviors” by replacing SHUs with “Residential Rehabilitation Units.” These more comprehensive reforms could help one group that is not affected by the current rounds of changes–those held in “administrative segregation” rather than “disciplinary segregation.” These include individuals who are classified as safety risks and sometimes spend decades in solitary confinement.
The current and proposed changes make New York the largest state to bar the use of solitary for juveniles and is expected to bring relief to the more than 3,000 inmates there who are currently held in 23 hour a day lock-down. Te agreement signals increasing consensus that solitary is both over-used, and psychologically injurious ( see New York Times Op-Ed, My Night in Solitary).
Russell “Maroon” Shoatz Released into General Population
After 22 years in solitary confinement, political prisoner Russell “Maroon” Shoatz was finally released into general prison population at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Graterford, Pennsylvania. The transfer to general population comes after a lawsuit by Mr. Shoatz and a growing international outcry over his case. From the Abolitionist Law Center:
Maroon’s son, Russell Shoatz III, said, “We are very excited that this day has finally come. My father being released from solitary confinement is proof of the power of people organizing against injustice, and the importance of building strong coalitions. I especially want to thank all of those who have supported the collective struggle to end my father’s solitary confinement, including my siblings and members of the Shoatz family, the Human Rights Coalition, Abolitionist Law Center, Scientific Soul Sessions, the entire legal team, UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, the 5 Nobel Peace Laureates, the National Lawyers Guild, Center for Constitutional Rights, along with the dozens of other organizations and thousands of individuals who have participated in this effort.”
Continued Struggle to Address Extreme Use of Solitary in California
No where, are there more inmates in “ad seg”, the “SHU” or solitary than in California; nearly 12000 inmates locked in small cells 22-23 hours per day , often for years, sometimes for decades.
California was a national “leader” in the long term and excessive use of solitary, a practice solidified with the construction of Pelican Bay in 1989. The dilemmas associated with protracted isolation 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: Conditions in California’s Secure Housing Units.
The Pelican Bay Hunger Strikes of 2011 and 2013 fully revealed the pitfalls of this practice in California – the state with the highest number of isolated prisoners. At Pelican Bay alone,, Over 500 people have been confined in the SHU for over a decade, over 200 for more than 15 years and 78 for over 20 years. Solitary confinement has become an long term indeterminate sentence there, via the process of “gang-validation”. In Kafkaesque fashion, inmates are labeled as “gang members” via the most minimal of evidence or more common still, by “snitch” identification. The only way that a person can be released from the SHU is to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners. The drill has come to be known as “snitch, parole or die”.
Seven months after the latest state-wide hunger strike, the California State Assembly held hearings again on the use of solitary. (Ironically, the hunger strikers themselves were banned from offering testimony: See their Full Statement here at Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity ). In addition, California Assembly member Tom Ammiano has proposed legislation that could significantly restrict how solitary confinement is used in California prisons. Assembly Bill 1652 would limit stints in the SHU to no longer than 36 months.
While the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) claims they have instituted reforms, critics argue the new guidelines will expand the number of inmates sent to solitary as the result of “gang validation”. Again from Solitary Watch:
Prisoners rights attorney Charles Carbone said, “What CDCR didn’t tell us today is that under their new proposed step-down policy there’s no way out of the SHU other than debriefing or participating in CDCR’s behavior modification program. There used to be an active review process, every 4 or 6 years, that’s gone now.”…
According to Carbone, CDCR’s new policy promises to be even worse. “This is a cleanup job,” said Carbone. “The department’s strategy is to give an enormous amount of lip service and offer a maze of regulations even their own employees at a lower level don’t understand. They want to tap dance around the real issues in an effort to disguise their real goal—to dramatically expand the number and nature of prisoners in SHU confinement.”
Carbone is referring to the 1,500 new Security Threat Groups (STGs) that CDCR’s new step-down policy plans to add to this previously short list. Evidence of membership or allegiance to any of these groups is enough to validate a prisoner as a gang member and land them solitary confinement for a very long time. In addition, the new policy stipulates a period of ten years to expunge gang validation from a prisoner’s record, a mandatory minimum of three of those years to be spent undergoing “behavior modification” in the SHU.
“With this new policy CDCR is expanding their use of isolation,” Carbone continued. “They’re telling their employees ‘Everything’s cool, no one’s gonna loose their jobs, we just need to reshuffle the deck.’” According to Carbone, as the CDCR’s proposed step-down policy releases hundreds of people from isolation, the new policy wide reach through the large-scale expansion of STGs will have those cells reoccupied in no time.
It is hopeful that there is public, political discussion on these extremes practices. But the intransigence of California when it comes to meaningful reforms is stunning, especially for a supposedly “liberal” state. The hearing came, by the way, in the midst of news that Governor Jerry Brown has “successfully” delayed the Supreme Court order to reduce over-crowding by another two years. This stalling is to protect Correctional Officer Union jobs ( For more on this see: Prison Privatization Part 1, Another Cautionary Tale from California ). The struggle continues..