An End to Solitary Confinement

Alexis de Kouchkovsky
Law for the People Intern

On Thursday, June 14, 2012, the NLGSF co-hosted a presentation on solitary confinement. Two of our members, Marilyn McMahon, the Executive Director at the California Prison Focus, and Carol Strickman, an attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, participated in this conference and spoke out on the atrocities of solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is best described as a system of isolation. An inmate lives alone in a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day with the remaining time spent alone in a concrete exercise yard. One individual spent 13 years without shaking somebody’s hand, another spoke only twice to his mother for 2 decades. These gruesome stories are not uncommon, and today in California approximately 3,000 inmates are in some form of solitary confinement.

At the Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates are sent to solitary confinement when they are deemed violent gang members and a threat to the rest of the prison population. The scary thing is, as Marilyn McMahon points out, “no one is being sentenced to the SHU (solitary housing unit), they are sent by the prison staff...and the standard of proof is laughably low.” Certain inmates have been validated for the smallest of things: sometimes a tattoo or a poster in their cell supposedly proves active gang affiliations.

Ironically, when such a form of “punishment” was introduced in the 1800s in America, it was seen as a progressive criminal measure, pushing prisoners to be penitent and commune with god. The social science, however, quickly showed its disastrous consequences. Psychiatrist Terry Kupers, from the Wright Institute, who has studied individuals in solitary confinement, notes an unusual proportion of mental illnesses ranging from depression to anxiety and paranoia. Often, inmates see suicide as the only way out.

Actually, there is one way out, other than crossing your fingers for the re-evaluation of your case every six years or so. It is called debriefing. The problem is, either you were falsely accused and therefore don’t have the information required by prison staff, or, if you actually were part of a gang, you have been in solitary confinement so long that you no longer have any knowledge worthwhile. Prisoners in solitary confinement often snitch on someone who is weak and will not retaliate. This new individual is wrongly convicted–a vicious cycle continues.

In 2010, inmates at Pelican Bay wrote a formal complaint saying they were subjected to torture, not punishment. They listed 5 core demands: (1) Eliminate group punishments that can send multiple inmates to solitary confinement; (2) Abolish the debriefing policy and modify the active/inactive gang status criteria; (3) Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; (4) Provide adequate and nutritious food; (5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite solitary confinement inmates such as self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities.

Because they received no response, they sent it out again in 2011, this time threatening to go on hunger strike. With still no acknowledgement of their demands they started the strike on July 1st, 2011. Over 6,500 prisoners from every segment of the prison population in California joined and one individual even held for three weeks. Other hunger strikes followed in September and Christian Gomez, from Corcoran State Prison, died from starvation during one of these strike.

In response, California Correctional officials established a new gang affiliation policy in March of this year along with a step-down program, which would progressively lead to the release of prisoners after 4 years in solitary confinement. Nonetheless, Carol Strickman is one of many who remains skeptical about these advancements. She notes: “I don’t think that the prison system is capable of making significant changes on its own” and ironically uses their own motto: “you have to have insight on your behavior to be remorseful!”

For this reason, on May 31, 2012 the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit: Ruiz v Brown. The suit challenges solitary confinement at Pelican Bay as violating the 8th Amendment’s clause against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the 5th Amendment’s provision of due process of law.

The UN has already denounced solitary confinement of over 15 days as torture. It is time that the US adopt an unambiguous stance on the issue by putting an end to such practices. Solitary confinement is contrary to the goals of the penitentiary system. Our prisons are made to reintegrate individuals in society, not torture them and deprive them of their humanity.