CDCR Prison Prison Policy

Catching Up With the Solitary Confinement Hunger Strikers

The hunger strike that began on July 1 at the Pelican Bay SHU
eventually spread to somewhere between 1700 to 6600 prisoners in 13 of the state’s prisons, according to the SF Chron.

Now that the strike has ended, it is unclear what it has accomplished since, as the LA Times pointed out in an editorial last week, the CDCR won’t let reporters into the SHU to talk to any of the prisoners.

However one measurable effect the strike has had is to stimulate articles about solitary and whether we ought to be engaging in the practice.

The very best of the Op Eds on the topic is an excellent editorial from the NY Times. Here is a big clip:

Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention. The Supreme Court, over the last two decades, has whittled steadily away at the rights of inmates, surrendering to prison administrators virtually all control over what is done to those held in “administrative segregation.” Since it is not defined as punishment for a crime, it does not fall under “cruel and unusual punishment,” the reasoning goes.

As early as 1995, a federal judge, Thelton E. Henderson, conceded that so-called “supermax” confinement “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” though he ruled that it remained acceptable for most inmates. But a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, Stuart Grassian, had found that the environment was “strikingly toxic,” resulting in hallucinations, paranoia and delusions. In a “60 Minutes” interview, he went so far as to call it “far more egregious” than the death penalty.

Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, claim that those incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit are “the worst of the worst.” Yet often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation. Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and, most of all, alleged gang members. Often, the decisions are not based on evidence.

Also notable are the letters to the editor that came a few days later. I’ve included a fragment of one of them:

Re “Barbarous Confinement,” by Colin Dayan (Op-Ed, July 18):

Mr. Dayan vividly captures the cruelty of long-term solitary or “supermax” confinement, which has increasingly become business as usual in American prisons. Supermax units like the one at Pelican Bay State Prison in California cost two to three times as much to build and operate as conventional prisons, and prisoners released directly to the community from solitary are more likely to commit more crimes than comparable prisoners released from general prison populations.

Fortunately, some states are beginning to change course. In Maine, the new commissioner of corrections has cut the population of the state’s supermax unit by more than half. Mississippi depopulated its supermax unit and eventually closed it entirely, leading to a dramatic drop in prison violence and a savings of $8 million a year….

Interesting that conservative states like Mississippi are reforming their SHUs, while liberal California cling to the concept.


The essay appears in LA Observed.

NOTE: I had a late event on Sunday night, hence the short post. More later today.

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