Solitary Confinement As Torture: Some US Prisons Recognize Problem As California Inmates Ask UN To Act – OpEd


Last July, when prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHUs) in Pelican Bay State Prison in California embarked on a hunger strike to protest about the conditions in which they are held, I was pleased to find the time to wrote about it (which I did here, here and here — and again in October, here and here), as it had long been apparent to me that the abusive conditions to which foreign prisoners were subjected at Guantánamo — though shockingly innovative in terms of arbitrary detention — was otherwise a reflection of how America treats tens of thousands of domestic prisoners held in isolation, in some cases for decades.

This is barbaric, and clearly constitutes torture, and I was reassured to note that, three weeks ago, prisoners in California asked the United Nations to help them. As San Francisco Bay View explained in an article on March 21:

Comparing their conditions to a “living coffin,” 400 California prisoners held in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement petitioned the United Nations Tuesday to intervene on behalf of all of the more than 4,000 prisoners similarly situated [see here for the petition, and here for quotes from 22 of the petitioners].

“California holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other state in the United States or any other nation on earth. The treatment of these prisoners is barbaric and, numerous experts agree, amounts to torture,” [said] Peter Schey, who heads the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, [and] is lead counsel for the prisoners who have “joined together to petition the United Nations to intervene by conducting on-site investigations, permitting Red Cross visits, and ultimately ruling that California’s policy on isolated segregation amounts to torture and violates well-established international human rights norms.”

The petition, as the article described it, “calls for UN action against California’s prison administration and deplores the conditions of thousands of California prisoners,” who in Peter Schey’s words, are “being detained in isolated segregated units for indefinite periods or determinate periods of many years solely because they have been identified as members of gangs or found to have associated with a gang.” As the petition describes it, “The policy that has resulted in their prolonged detention does not require that they have actually engaged in any misconduct or illegal activity, or that they even planned” to do so.

Peter Schey also noted that, for the 400 petitioners, the lockdown for 23 hours a day in the SHUs and Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs or AdSegs),is designed to “destroy their mental and physical health and destroy them spiritually.” He added, “They live like prisoners held in a gulag, not a modern democracy.”

Following up on this, the petition also states:

As a result of the policies and practices that leave California with the largest population of prisoners in isolated segregation anywhere in the world, these prisoners suffer extreme mental and physical harm, including mental breakdowns, extreme depression, suicidal ideation, and breaks with reality, such that their treatment may be considered torture or degrading treatment illegal under well-established international norms and obligations of the United States and the state of California under, inter alia, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

And also:

[N]ot only do California prisoners face cruel and dehumanizing long-term and indefinite confinement in small concrete cells with no windows, no natural light and no furniture, they also endure frequent episodes of cruelty by guards, inadequate medical care, entirely inadequate mental health services, inadequate access to the outdoors and sunshine, inadequate food, inadequate access to legal counsel, inadequate visitation with friends and family and no opportunities to work or engage in productive activities of any type. They are effectively locked in a concrete small space that becomes a ‘living coffin’ in which many have been confined for many years, even decades.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Schey also explained, “We have California treating several thousand prisoners in much the same way the US government treats enemy combatants held in Guantánamo.” The article also noted that, last summer’s hunger strike had drawn attention to the fact that “[a]ll but 26 of the 1,056 prisoners who were isolated as of July 1 were being held there because of suspected gang affiliations, not for other specific actions or rule violations,” and that “[n]early 300 had been there for more than a decade.” In the San Francisco Bay View article, Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, also made a point of noting that “a key demand of the strikes was the abolition of the California prison system’s draconian gang validation and debriefing processes.”

Of the 22 prisoners providing statements, one is Mutope Duguma, a leading hunger strike organizer housed in the Pelican Bay SHU, who explained, “I am being persecuted for exercising my First Amendment rights to protest the inhumane treatment and torture being applied directly against myself and similar situated prisoners held in CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) torture chambers — SHU and AdSeg solitary confinement units. What my fellow CDCR prisoners don’t know is that CDCR has malicious intent to destroy the minds, souls and spirits of 4,000-plus prisoners by any means necessary.”

Another statement came from Alfred Sandoval, another leading hunger strike organizer at Pelican Bay, who explained, “I have been housed in the SHU since July 1987. I have seen fellow prisoners murdered by correctional officers, mentally ill prisoners abused, I have seen men psychologically break down, cry, scream and go insane. I have been beaten by correctional officers, threatened and set up. I was told by a correctional officer at Pelican Bay State Prison that I would die here one way or another, and every day I meditate to keep control. The SHU is a soul sucking, mind-bending torture that murders all humanity in any human being. Some die quicker than others … but we all die inside.”

The San Francisco Bay View article explained the genesis of the petition, focusing on the pivotal role played by Kendra Castaneda, whose husband Robbie Riva is one of the lead petitioners. Kendra profiled her husband in another article in San Francisco Bay View just a few days ago, which I recommend to anyone concerned not only with solitary confinement as torture, but also with the horrendous miscarriages of justice that also permeate the criminal justice system in the US. As she wrote in that article, explaining the basis of her husband’s wrongful conviction:

Robbie has never been a violent person. He has never assaulted anyone; he has never been accused of assault or battery on anyone. The judge’s only basis for calling him violent was his juvenile record: one incident of serving six months in juvenile hall for a concealed weapon found in a car where he was the only youngster, and he took the rap to save the adults from being sent to prison.

At the sentencing hearing, the victim, who had never seen my husband before, pleaded with the judge, stating that my husband was not the man who shot her. But that didn’t matter. The judge’s decision was set in his mind and my husband was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison and sent directly to Pelican Bay State Prison, where he was labeled for the rest of his life as “worst of the worst.”

At the launch of the UN petition three weeks ago, Kendra stated, “[M]y husband is being tortured in segregation by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He was validated as a prison gang associate with fabricated ‘evidence.’ He has done nothing to harm another, yet our little girl and I have been denied visits with him for a year. I can relate to what other family members are going through every day. At the press conference, Dolores Canales, with a son at Pelican Bay State Prison, Theresa Amen, with a son at Pelican Bay, Alma Espinosa, with a brother at Corcoran State Prison — they all spoke courageously from their hearts on the steps of the Ronald Reagan State Building to say that their loved ones along with thousands of other men in SHU, AdSeg and ASU throughout California need the United Nations’ help.”

She added, “During the July 2011 hunger strike led by prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU, I contacted many reporters and law offices to show I had legal documentation that CDCR was lying by labeling segregated prisoners the ‘worst of the worst’ with their prison gang validation. I needed someone to hear me and help my husband and all the other men inside suffering.” A friendly reporter then contacted Peter Schey, who proposed the petition, leading to a sustained campaign in which, as she explained, “Many families started writing their loved ones at all different California prisons to get on board. As I began writing to hundreds of men throughout the state, my heart grew. Out of compassion especially for those who had no one, I befriended them with a card or short letter to let them know they were not forgotten.” She added, “It was not easy. Reading what my husband was going through was hard enough, but after reading over 400 testimonies, I felt as if I had stepped in their shoes.”

Summing up, Jean Casella and James Ridgeway of Solitary Watch note, “The petition itself is a notable document for anyone concerned with solitary confinement in the United States. It runs to 63 pages and includes case studies of each of the named plaintiffs, along with extensive discussion and documentation of how their confinement violates both US and international law.”

As a follow-up to this important story, I’m cross-posting another important story, published in the New York Times a month ago, examining how, in a few cases, prison authorities in the US have begun to realize that the policy of prolonged solitary confinement, which has been particular popular since the 1980s, when the first supermax prisons opened, is counter-productive, as treating prisoners more humanely results in them behaving better. This ought to have been obvious — along with the evident illegality of prolonged solitary confinement — but it has not been, as issues of control and punishment have been dominant instead, and it is, therefore, extremely gratifying to see the prison authorities in Mississippi recognizing that they were mistaken, and that treating prisoners as human beings is the wisest option available to them.

Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity
By Erica Goode, New York Times, March 10, 2012

PARCHMAN, Miss. — The heat was suffocating, and the inmates locked alone in cells in Unit 32, the state’s super-maximum-security prison, wiped away sweat as they lay on concrete slab beds.

Kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day, allowed out only in shackles and escorted by guards, they were restless and angry — made more so by the excrement-smeared walls, the insects, the filthy food trays and the mentally ill inmates who screamed in the night, conditions that a judge had already ruled unacceptable.

So it was not really surprising when violence erupted in 2007: an inmate stabbed to death with a homemade spear that May; in June, a suicide; in July, another stabbing; in August, a prisoner killed by a member of a rival gang.

What was surprising was what happened next. Instead of tightening restrictions further, prison officials loosened them.

They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.

In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000. So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.

The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday, officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three super-maximum-security units.

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has devastating psychological effects, but a central driver in the recent shift is economics. Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as conventional prisons are. They are an expense that many recession-plagued states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.

Some officials have also been persuaded by research suggesting that isolation is vastly overused and that it does little to reduce overall prison violence. Inmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge, studies suggest.

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as “hell, an insane asylum.”

Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.

“That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said.

By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes.

“If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,” he now says.

A Very Costly Experiment

James F. Austin held up the file of an inmate in Unit 32 and posed a question to the staff members gathered in a conference room at the Mississippi Department of Corrections headquarters in Jackson.

“O.K., does this guy really need to be there?” he asked.

It was June 2007, and the department was under pressure to make court-ordered improvements to conditions at Unit 32, where violence was brewing. Dr. Austin, a prison consultant, had been called in by the state. As the discussion proceeded, the staff members were startled to discover that many inmates in Unit 32 had been sent there not because they were highly dangerous, but because they were a nuisance — they had disobeyed orders, had walked away from a minimum-security program or were low-level gang members with no history of causing trouble while incarcerated.

“He started saying, ‘You tell me what kind of person needs to be locked up,’ and it wasn’t near the numbers that we had,” said Emmitt L. Sparkman, deputy commissioner of corrections. By the time they were done, the group had determined that up to 80 percent of the 1,000 or more inmates at Unit 32 could probably be safely moved to less restrictive settings.

Like many such prisons, Mississippi’s supermax, opened in 1990, owed its existence to the fervor for tougher punishment that swept through the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

“There was an incredible explosion in the prison population coupled with a big infusion of gangs,” Dr. Austin said. “Riots were occurring. Prison officials were literally losing control.”

Some states built special units to isolate difficult prisoners — “the worst of the worst,” prison officials said — from the general prison population. Others retrofitted existing prisons or established smaller units within larger facilities. The federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., was locked down in 1983 after the murder of two prison guards, its inmates confined to cells 23 hours a day and then kept that way permanently. In 1989, California opened Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, a remote town near the Oregon border, specially designed to control inmates in conditions that minimize human interaction.

By 2005, 44 states had supermax prisons or their equivalents. In most, inmates were let out of their cells for only a few hours a week. They were fed through slots in their cell doors and were denied access to work programs or other rehabilitation efforts. If visitors were allowed, the interactions were conducted with no physical contact.

And while prisoners had previously been sent to isolation for 10 or perhaps 30 days as a temporary disciplinary measure, they were now often placed there indefinitely.

Asked to explain the purpose of such confinement, prison wardens surveyed in 2006 by Dan Mears, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, cited “increasing safety, order and control throughout prison systems and incapacitating violent or disruptive inmates.”

But beyond that, said Dr. Mears, who called the rise of supermax prisons “a big, very costly experiment,” the goals seemed murky. Who exactly were “the worst of the worst”? How many people really needed such harsh control, and for how long? And how should the effectiveness of the prisons be judged, especially when measured against the costs of building and operating them?

Dr. Mears said there were no clear answers; indeed, he said, it is virtually impossible to determine how many inmates are in supermax prisons in the United States because there is no national tracking system and because states differ widely in what they call segregation units. “I don’t know of any business that would do this, not something that costs this much, with so little evidence or clarity about what you’re getting,” Dr. Mears said.

With no precise definition of who belonged there, prison systems began to send people to segregation units who bore little resemblance to the serial killers or terrorists the public imagined filled such prisons.

“Certainly there are a small number of people who for a variety of reasons have to be maintained in a way that they don’t have access to other inmates,” said Chase Riveland, a former head of corrections in Colorado and Washington State who now serves as an expert witness in prison cases. “But those in most systems are pretty small numbers of people.”

Mr. Epps, who is president-elect of the American Correctional Association, likes to say prison officials started out isolating inmates they were scared of but ended up adding many they were simply “mad at.”

‘The Real Damage’

In 1831, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where prison officials were pioneering a novel rehabilitation method based on Quaker principles of reflection and penitence. They called it solitary confinement.

“Placed alone in view of his crime,” de Tocqueville wrote in a report to the French government, the prisoner “learns to hate it, and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.”

But for many prisoners, isolation was as likely to produce mental illness as remorse, and by the late 19th century, enthusiasm for the approach had flagged. In 1890, deciding the case of a death row inmate held in solitary confinement, Justice Samuel Freeman Miller of the Supreme Court wrote that many prisoners fell, “after even a short confinement, into a semifatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide.”

It was the last time the nation’s highest court would address the psychological effects of solitary confinement directly. But lower courts in some states have acknowledged the stress that isolation puts on inmates who are already mentally ill, prohibiting their being placed in solitary except in urgent circumstances.

When Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on the effects of solitary confinement, toured Unit 32 for the plaintiffs in the A.C.L.U. lawsuit, he found that about 100 of the more than 1,000 inmates there had serious mental illness, in many cases improperly diagnosed. Some were actively hallucinating. Others threw feces or urine at guards or howled in the night.

In turn, the mentally ill inmates were mistreated by corrections officers, who had little understanding of their condition, Dr. Kupers said.

In a report filed to the court, he described the case of James Coffield, a mentally ill prisoner who had demonstrated “a long history in Unit 32 of bizarre and disruptive behaviors” that prison psychiatrists “characterized as merely ‘manipulative’ and which security staff punished with increasingly harsh force, including repeated gassing with chemicals.”

Mr. Coffield eventually tried to hang himself but failed and ended up in a vegetative state.

Many states continue to house inmates with mental illness in isolation. Some inmates appear to function adequately in solitary confinement or even say they prefer it. But studies suggest that the rigid control, absence of normal human interaction and lack of stimulation imposed by prolonged isolation can cause a wide range of psychological symptoms including insomnia, withdrawal, rage and aggression, depression, hallucinations and thoughts of suicide, even in prisoners who are mentally healthy to begin with.

A study of prisoners in the Pelican Bay supermax, for example, found that almost all reported nervousness, anxiety, lethargy or other psychological complaints. Seventy percent said they felt themselves to be at risk of “impending nervous breakdown.”

“Worse still is the fact that for many of these men, the real damage only becomes apparent when they get out of this environment,” said Craig W. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, who led the study.

In fact, some research has found that inmates released from supermax units are more likely to reoffend than comparable prisoners released from conventional maximum-security prisons, and that those crimes are more likely to be violent. In Colorado, said Tom Clements, executive director of corrections, it turned out that about 40 percent of inmates held in long-term isolation were being released directly to the community with no transition period.

The psychological research has drawn attention, not least from the international community. In a report presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, Juan E. Méndez, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture and other abuse, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in limited situations and singled out the United States for its reliance on the method.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights blocked the extradition of four terrorism suspects from Britain, saying it wanted to study whether imprisonment at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., violated a ban on inhuman or degrading treatment.

Yet for states, economic and practical arguments may prove more persuasive than humanitarian concerns.

“It’s just exceedingly expensive to hold someone in a segregation bed,” said Angela Browne, a senior fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit policy and research group, and head of the institute’s segregation reduction project, which works with states to find alternatives to segregation.

Several states, citing economic reasons, have converted supermax units to more conventional prisons, and a few have closed the prisons altogether. Unit 32 was closed in 2010. The increased costs are largely a result of the staffing required to deliver food and other services to cells and escort prisoners when they are let out.

In 2010, for example, Virginia reported that it cost $89.59 per day to keep a prisoner at Red Onion State Prison, a supermax unit with 399 employees, compared with $60.04 per day at Sussex II State Prison, a maximum-security facility that houses almost 500 more inmates but has a staff of 353.

Gambling on Change

Roy Harper, serving time for armed robbery, kidnapping and other charges, used to wake in his cell at Unit 32 seized with anxiety every morning. “You never know what the day is going to bring,” he said recently.

Sometimes it was flooding from malfunctioning toilets. Sometimes it was inmates setting fires or cutting themselves — two prisoners cut off their own testicles in the time he spent there, he said — and sometimes it was just the sense of isolation he felt, “like being alone in the world.”

Mr. Harper was a prisoner in Unit 32 from the day it opened to the day it closed, 20 years later. But the summer of 2007, he recalled, was worse than most. When the killings began, prison officials first cracked down, taking away the inmates’ fans — the only relief from summer temperatures that approached 100 degrees and, according to an environmental expert who filed a report on the conditions, could feel like 120 or more. They kept prisoners in their cells around the clock, not even allowing them out for exercise, he said.

Mr. Sparkman, the deputy corrections commissioner, viewed the situation as so critical that in July he moved from his home in Jackson to Parchman, where Unit 32 sits on the grounds of the state penitentiary. It was clear that a different approach was needed, he said: “What we were doing, the 23-hour lockdown, was not working.”

But the shift had to be made carefully.

“It was gradual, and it was very controlled,” Mr. Sparkman said. “We started out with one building, identifying those groups that we could let out, and we let some of them out. Some of them we were able to transfer completely out.”

A few guards rebelled at the new orders and resigned in protest. A few others were fired. But by the end of six months, most prisoners were spending hours a day outside their cells or had been moved to the general population of other prisons. A clothing warehouse was turned into a group dining hall, and a maintenance room was converted to an activities center. The basketball court filled with players.

Mr. Harper did not benefit immediately from the changes. He remained in 23-hour lockdown until he worked his way to greater privileges. But he was elated at what he saw, he said, with inmates “working again, walking without chains, going to the yard, going to the chow hall.”

The A.C.L.U. continues to monitor conditions in other prisons in the state. But Margaret Winter, the lead lawyer for the A.C.L.U. in its lawsuit over Unit 32, said she watched the transformation there in wonder, especially as two men who at the beginning of the process seemed deeply entrenched in their views shifted direction. The change, she said, was “stunning.”

Mr. Sparkman said the new approach went against everything he had been trained to do. “If you’d come to me in 2002 and told me I was going to do something like that, I’d say, ‘You don’t know me,’ ” he said. “I’d have probably locked them down for anything that squeaked.”

Mr. Epps looks back at the decision as a nerve-racking gamble.

“Was it scary? Absolutely,” he said. “But it worked out just fine. We didn’t have a single incident.”

Note: Despite this important development in Mississippi, and the interest expressed by other states, the experiences of the California prisoners noted at the start of this article are far more indicative of the general brutality that pervades the US prison system. For another damning perspective, see Amnesty International’s latest report on the horrendous conditions in Arizona’s maximum security prisons, which was published last week.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

One thought on “Solitary Confinement As Torture: Some US Prisons Recognize Problem As California Inmates Ask UN To Act – OpEd

  • April 23, 2012 at 5:22 am

    In my opinion, I believe criminals should have to answer up for their crimes, good or bad. However, being inhumane is unacceptable. If a crime is committed, they should serve their time;their punishment, and be done. If it’s a serious offense, then we should do whatever we feel necessary as Americans to give fair trial and sentence that individual. For us to torture another human being to the point of insanity is just plain wrong. Long-term solitary confinement is torture and if needed to discipline prison inmates, should only be used in short durations. It causes long term psychological effects and causes more problems within our prison system.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *