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Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers Risk Death, Psychologist Testifies Solitary Confinement Is Torture – OpEd

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On Day 17 of the renewed hunger strike by prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison, and other prisons in California, prisoners, their relatives and their supporters fear that there will soon be deaths amongst the hunger strikers, because, as SF Bay Viewreported yesterday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) “has been treating the current strike, which began on Sept. 26, as a mass disturbance and has refused negotiations.”

As the article explained, prisoners have begun to report “grave medical issues.” A relative of a striker at Calipatria State Prison said, “Men are collapsing in their cells because they haven’t eaten in two weeks,” adding, “I have been told that guards refuse to respond when called. This is clearly a medical emergency.”

As I explained yesterday, in my article, Pelican Bay and American Torture: Prisoners in Long-Term Isolation Continue Hunger Strike Despite Authorities’ Brutal Response, in an attempt to stop the strike, the CDCR has been isolating prisoners regarded as leaders in Pelican Bay, moving them from the Security Housing Unit (SHU), where they have been in almost total isolation — some for years, some for decades — to Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg).

To give some sense of the horrors of the system, the hunger strikers have stated that “513 of the 1,111 prisoners held at Pelican Bay have been in solitary confinement for 10 or more years, and 78 have been held for more than 20 years without access to light or open space for prolonged periods of time.” Moreover, there are three other SHUs in California, and nationally at least 75,000 prisoners are currently held in solitary confinement, even though it is self-evidently a form of torture when used for more than a short period of time.

Reports received by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition indicate that, since the hunger strike resumed in California, prison officials have been attempting to freeze the prisoners out, “using the air conditioning system in conjunction with cold weather conditions where the prison is located.” SF Bay View also noted that, last week, a hunger striker in Pelican Bay suffered a heart attack, and was taken to a hospital in Oregon, and that other prisoners have been “denied medications, including prescriptions for high blood pressure.”

With the authorities refusing to negotiate, to improve the horrendous conditions in California’s prisons, and especially in the Security Housing Units, Dorsey Nunn, the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a member of the mediation team working on behalf of the prisoners, explained how many of the prisoners were not prepared to back down under any circumstances.

“The prisoners are saying that they are willing to take this to death if necessary to win their demands,” he said, adding, “Any deaths that result from the men starving themselves will be on the hands of the CDCR. We are at a point where we are calling on the media to make inquiries on prison protocol if and when prisoners begin to die. If they want to avoid that kind of scenario, the CDCR can start negotiating.”

Illustrating these points, prisoners at Corcoran State Prison have made the gravest statement to date. “Due to what they have done here to us,” they have said, “some men have stopped drinking water completely, so we may well be close to death in a few days.”

The fear, amongst everyone concerned with the welfare of the prisoners, is that the CDCR is not essentially concerned, and wishes only to break the strike at any cost. As SF Bay View noted, prisoners and their supporters have long expressed “serious concerns about the state of medical care in Corcoran, Calipatria, Pelican Bay and Salinas Valley,” where the hunger strike is ongoing. IN 2009, Dr. Michael Sayre, the chief medical officer at Pelican Bay, was successfully sued by a prisoner for “knowingly disregarding his severe medical needs,” and, as Terry Kupers, M.D., a member of the mediation team and an expert on prison health issues, has said, “The California prison system is in federal receivership in part due to the substandard medical care provided inside. It is my professional opinion that the hunger strikers are not receiving the care that they need and that their conditions could be exacerbated by the CDCR, especially if force-feeding comes into play.”

As SF Bay View noted, “Force-feeding is a common practice used against prisoners who refuse to eat and can involve forcing a tube into the person’s stomach via the nose,” something that I am familiar with from my research and writing about Guantánamo, where the force-feeding of hunger strikers has been in place for many years, even though, as SF Bay View also noted, “The practice has been widely condemned as torture by hundreds of doctors worldwide.”

In the hope of providing further insight into the rotten and unacceptable conditions of confinement practised not only in California, but across the United States, I’m also cross-posting below the testimony of Dr. Craig Haney, Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, regarding the issue of California’s Security Housing Units, as delivered to the California Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety on August 23 this year. The testimony was originally published on Solitary Watch, where it was noted that Dr. Haney “provides a historical overview of the use of solitary confinement, litigation and research on solitary confinement, and comments on the current state of the California prison system.”

That is a rather mild introduction to what is an extremely hard-hitting statement by Dr. Haney, demonstrating, in no uncertain terms, that solitary confinement has the power “to drive prisoners mad,” that the CDCR has known this all along, and that California prison officials have deliberately ignored the evidence provided to them to demonstrate that they are destroying prisoners’ minds on a colossal scale, even though their policy is not even effective as “a technique to control prison gangs.”

In some of the most powerful passages, Dr. Haney stated:

It is critically important in this hearing that we not lose sight of the fact that all of the men confined at the Pelican Bay SHU and in other housing units like it in CDCR continue to be treated very badly, routinely worse than prisoners in any civilized nation anywhere else in the world are treated, under conditions that many nations and international human organizations regard as torture. They live their entire lives within the confines of an 80 square foot windowless cell, which they leave for an hour a day when are allowed to enter a concrete encased but otherwise barren outdoor exercise pen. Save the small glimpse of overhead sky they have when they look directly up inside this pen, they have no contact with the natural world, not even to touch or see a blade of grass.

They have no contact with the normal social world either. Indeed, the only regular physical contact they have with another human being is the incidental brushing up against the guards who must first place them in handcuffs and chains before they escort them out of their cells and housing units. They visit loved ones through thick glass and over phones, and are thus denied the opportunity to ever touch another human being with affection. This has gone on unabated, for years and years, for some of these men for several decades now.

Statement of Professor Craig Haney at Hearing of California Assembly Public Safety Committee, August 23, 2011

My name is Craig Haney. I am a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I have been studying the psychological effects of prison confinement, including the effects of solitary confinement, for well over 30 years. That research has included in-depth analyses of the conditions of confinement in many if not most of the facilities in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), including the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit. I have testified as an expert witness in most of the major prison conditions lawsuits that have occurred in California over the last several decades, including ones directly pertinent to today’s hearing — Toussaint v. McCarthy [i], Coleman v. Gomez [ii], Madrid v. Gomez [iii], and the most recent case of Brown v. Plata [iv]. In the 10 short minutes I have available to me I want to make several brief points that hopefully will put today’s important issues in a somewhat larger context.

The first is some historical context. It is that CDCR officials certainly knew — or should have known — at the time they created the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit in the late 1980s, that it would expose prisoners to psychologically dangerous conditions of confinement. Indeed, as a society we have known since at least the mid-19th century that the practice of solitary confinement was psychologically harmful and could significantly damage those persons who were subjected to it on a long-term basis. Indeed, a hundred or more years before Pelican Bay was designed and built, public figures like Charles Dickens and Alexis De Tocqueville wrote eloquently about the evils of prison solitary confinement and its power to drive prisoners mad.

Our own United States Supreme Court acknowledged as much in an 1890 case known as In re Medley, when Justice Miller wrote that this form of imprisonment had been universally abandoned because, in his words: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” [v]

If CDCR officials were unaware of these vivid historical precedents, they certainly were aware of many more immediate ones. Indeed, for the 10 years preceding the construction of Pelican Bay, the Department was engaged in continuous and contentious litigation — from the late 1970s through the 1980s — that focused on exactly these issues: the harmful effects of solitary or isolated confinement and the wrongheadedness of attempting to use it as a technique to control prison gangs. Both issues were at the very heart of a federal court case in which federal judge Stanley Weigel repeatedly chastised the Department of Corrections for the inhumane conditions that were being operated in the so-called lockup units in San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad, and DVI. I know this personally because I provided much of the testimony that helped to establish many of those facts.

Instead of taking that expert information and those judicial admonitions to heart, CDCR officials simply and cynically ignored them, and moved on to create yet another lockup unit, this one on a vast, unprecedented scale that was explicitly designed to impose hitherto unimagined levels of isolation in the “supermax” prison at Pelican Bay. There can be no doubt that they knew the risks they were taking with the psyches of the prisoners who were confined there; as I say, I and many other experts, and at least one federal judge, had clearly and repeatedly told them so throughout the Toussaint litigation. In fact, in the entire 10-plus year period of that litigation, the Department never presented one single expert witness to dispute the facts that we presented about this potential to do great harm. They just deliberately and indifferently ignored them.

Indeed, notwithstanding the clear and undeniable evidence that long-term solitary confinement exposed prisoners to extreme psychological dangers, and despite the unprecedented and uncharted levels of nearly complete isolation to which they knew Pelican Bay would expose prisoners, there is no evidence that CDCR officials ever bothered to consult with any other psychological or mental health experts about the design of the facility to obtain advice about what the effects of the kind of isolation they were planning to impose might have on the prisoners in order to determine how those effects might be ameliorated by one or another design feature or approach. As one sign of how little they appeared to care, CDCR officials chose to open Pelican Bay prison and operate it for well over a year with only one single master’s level psychologist on staff to administer to the needs of the entire population of approximately 4000 prisoners at the entire prison, including the 1500 who were housed under truly dangerous levels of isolation in the SHU.

When those isolated and deprived conditions and their psychological effects were finally scrutinized in federal district court a few years later, Judge Thelton Henderson acknowledged that, in his words, the Pelican Bay SHU “may press against the outer limits of what humans can psychologically tolerate.” [vi] As you no doubt know, Judge Henderson ordered some significant changes in certain practices that took place at the prison, most notably in its use-of-force policies and the screening and removal of the most seriously mentally ill prisoners. He did not shut the prison down, although perhaps in retrospect wonders if he should have.

What is important to keep in mind, however, is that although he did not shut the Pelican Bay SHU down, the facility had only been in operation for a few years at the time of the hearing in Madrid, and had been operating for a mere 6 years at the time of he issued his strongly worded Madrid opinion. Back then, in 1995, as Judge Henderson himself noted, “[we could] not begin to speculate on the impact that Pelican Bay SHU conditions [might] have on inmates confined in the SHU for periods of 10 or 20 years or more.” [vii] Of course, it is now more than 20 years since the facility was opened. Unfortunately, we no longer need to speculate. Indeed, some of the men who were on that first busload of prisoners brought to this stark, barren, and desolate place in the late 1980s are still there, never having left.

It is critically important in this hearing that we not lose sight of the fact that all of the men confined at the Pelican Bay SHU and in other housing units like it in CDCR continue to be treated very badly, routinely worse than prisoners in any civilized nation anywhere else in the world are treated, under conditions that many nations and international human organizations regard as torture. They live their entire lives within the confines of an 80 square foot windowless cell, which they leave for an hour a day when are allowed to enter a concrete encased but otherwise barren outdoor exercise pen. Save the small glimpse of overhead sky they have when they look directly up inside this pen, they have no contact with the natural world, not even to touch or see a blade of grass.

They have no contact with the normal social world either. Indeed, the only regular physical contact they have with another human being is the incidental brushing up against the guards who must first place them in handcuffs and chains before they escort them out of their cells and housing units. They visit loved ones through thick glass and over phones, and are thus denied the opportunity to ever touch another human being with affection. This has gone on unabated, for years and years, for some of these men for several decades now.

Not surprisingly, this mistreatment has had terrible consequences for many of them. In our studies of prisoners at Pelican Bay, we have documented the multiple ways in which they are suffering. The list of symptoms is far too long for me to recite in the short time available to me (but it is contained in the written material I have provided to your staff). [viii] In short, prisoners in these units complain of chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression. Rates of suicide in the California lockup units are by far the highest in any prison housing units anywhere in the country. Many SHU inmates become deeply and unshakably paranoid, and are profoundly anxious around and afraid of people (on those rare occasions when they are allowed contact with them). Some begin to lose their grasp on their sanity and badly decompensate. Others are certain that they will never be able to live normally among people again and are consumed by this fear. Many deteriorate mentally and emotionally, and their capacity to function as remotely effective, feeling, social beings atrophies.

These prisoners are paying a terrible price as pawns in this failed experiment, a price in terms of the pain they feel during the time they are housed in isolation, and a perhaps an even greater price when they are released and find they are unable to cope with the demands of a normal social life outside prison. To my mind, there is now clear and convincing evidence that this misguided attempt at managing California prison gangs simply does not work: when Pelican Bay came on line in the late 1980s California had a serious prison gang problem; it now has the worst one in the entire nation. Indeed, I do not believe the CDCR can present one single shred of reliable evidence that its gang-control-through-isolation policy is effective. In fact, I believe that a compelling argument can be made that the SHU units actually have made the state prison system’s gang problem much worse rather than better. Thus, the suffering of the SHU prisoners is not only in vain, it is counterproductive.

The specter of gangs is being used as a justification to continue to impose these draconian conditions, but it must not be allowed to. People join gangs in prison for the same reason that they join them on the streets — because they believe their own safety and self defense depends on it, and because they have no other way to gain access to things they need (like a sense of belongingness and purpose in a world that seems to deprive them of it) and things they feel they want (sometimes illicit things, ones that are made more attractive by the deprived circumstances under which they live). But this also means that gangs can be effectively controlled in prison in much they same way that they are effectively controlled on the streets. To be sure, steps have to be taken to make the “neighborhoods” in which prisoners live as safe as possible, by limiting access to the worst aspects of gang life — weapons and drugs. (In prison, frankly, this also means doing a better job of policing correctional officers as well as prisoners.)

More importantly, however, gangs are effectively controlled on the streets by providing members and potential members with meaningful and hopeful alternatives, pathways to genuinely better futures that they can choose instead of gang life, and which their gang involvement would sacrifice. In prison, just as on the streets, gangs flourish where these kinds of alternatives are limited or non-existent. The overcrowded wasteland that the California prison system has become over the last 30 years, one almost completely lacking in meaningful rehabilitation programs, vocational or educational programming goes a long way in explaining the proliferation of the gangs.

In 2002, for example, only a little more than half of all prisoners in California were employed in prison jobs of any kind. [ix] By 2006, the situation had gotten worse rather than better: more than 50% of California prisoners were released from prison that year without having participated in a single rehabilitation or job training program nor having had a single work assignment throughout their period entire prison sentence. [x]

The gangs have stepped in to fill this void. Because the CDCR offers most prisoners little or nothing in the way of programming or pathways to a better future, many feel they have little or nothing to lose. In the same way that gang abatement programs on the street that focus entirely on punishment and suppression are doomed to fail, the CDCR’s SHU-based isolation-and-deterrence-only model will never work in the absence of genuine, meaningful pathways for prisoners to do productive time.

Finally, I am aware that the CDCR intends to make some due process modifications in the procedures and practices that are in use in the Pelican Bay SHU (and presumably the other SHU units in the state), and that we are going to hear about them momentarily from Department of Corrections officials who will testify next. As best I understand them, these changes represent first steps along the path of creating a system that is fairer and more humane. For this, the Department is to be applauded. These new procedures suggest that the CDCR has come a very long way since those early days when it insisted on stubbornly ignoring the warnings that many of them give them about the path they had embarked on. It has taken a long time — far too long, in my opinion — but at least the process has begun.

However, as a veteran of the process of trying to create improved prison conditions and practices in California, I have to remind you that announcing intentions are not the same thing as solving problems or actually making changes. Moreover, these first steps are not final solutions and they do not begin to effectively address the core injustice and inhumanity of the Pelican Bay—the profound isolation it imposes and the sheer lengths of time to which so many men are subjected to it.

I have no reason to believe that Department officials are insincere, and I am willing to take them at their word that they are trying to improve this notorious facility. But Pelican Bay’s legacy — its history of mistreatment, misery, and willful neglect — is long-standing. It will take a great deal of effort, and oversight to overcome the atmosphere of distrust and abuse that has surrounded this place. I am hopeful that this Committee will remain vigilant in this regard, and help the Department follow through on its new commitment, a commitment to at least begin the process of meaningful change.

Footnotes

[i] Toussaint v. McCarthy, 553 F. Supp. 1365 (1983); 722 F. 2d 1490 (9th Cir. 1984) 711 F. Supp. 536 (1989).
[ii] Coleman v. Gomez, 912 F. Supp. 1282 (1995).
[iii] Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995).
[iv] Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011).
[v] In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168 (1890).
[vi] Madrid at 1268.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] In my own study of a representative sample of prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU, for example, every symptom of psychological distress that I measured but one (fainting spells) was suffered by more than half of the prisoners. Many of the symptoms were reported by two-thirds or more of the prisoners in this isolated housing unit, and some were suffered by nearly everyone. Well over half of the Pelican Bay SHU prisoners reported a constellation of symptoms — headaches, trembling, sweaty palms, and heart palpitations — that is commonly associated with hypertension. I also found that almost all of the prisoners evaluated reported ruminations or intrusive thoughts, an oversensitivity to external stimuli, irrational anger and irritability, difficulties with attention and often with memory, and a tendency to socially withdraw. Almost as many prisoners reported a constellation of symptoms indicative of mood or emotional disorders — concerns over emotional flatness or losing the ability to feel, swings in emotional responding, and feelings of depression or sadness that did not go away. Finally, sizable minorities of the prisoners reported symptoms that are typically only associated with more extreme forms of psychopathology — hallucinations, perceptual distortions, and thoughts of suicide. See Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, Crime & Delinquency 49, 124-156 (2003). [Previously provided to Committee staff.]
[ix] Specifically, only 53.6% of the more than 150,000 California prisoners were employed in any type of work assignment at the end of the year 2002. California Department of Corrections, CDC Facts, January 2003.
[x] California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Expert Panel on Adult Offender Reentry and Recidivism Reduction Programs, Report to the California State Legislature: A Roadmap for Effective Offender Programming in California (2007), at p. 7.

Note: Also see Support the Hunger Strikers of Pelican Bay, California, Calling for An End to Solitary Confinement as Official US Prison PolicyThe California Prison Hunger Strike Opposing Solitary Confinement as Torture — and the Insulting Response of Prison Officials and Hellhole: The Most Devastating Article About Long-Term Solitary Confinement in US Prisons, and Why It Is Torture.



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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

One thought on “Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers Risk Death, Psychologist Testifies Solitary Confinement Is Torture – OpEd

  • Avatar
    October 18, 2011 at 12:34 am
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    Truly a commendable journey and mission taken. Now we must hold them accountable for change that takes time but often impeded by cultural barriers within the administration.

    Reply

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