Green Shadow Cabinet: We Must End Solitary Confinement Now

Speak for the voiceless: Support the Pelican Bay prisoner rights hunger strike
July 16, 2013
King Downing, President’s Commission on Corrections Reform

On July 8, 2013, incarcerated people at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison went on hunger strike against conditions of solitary confinement at the facility. The action was not new – it was part of a long history of campaigns to end the practice in the state. Within one week 30,000 inmates in the California prison system had refused meals, possibly the largest action behind bars in U.S. history. The demands include an end to solitary confinement and group punishment, and an end to the requirement that inmates in solitary share information about other inmates to get released into general population.

The Green Shadow Cabinet supports the hunger strikers and calls for all progressive people and organizations to take concrete actions to get justice for the strikers and their families and supporters.

Our main concerns are that first, California’s solitary confinement problems are long and strong; second, in the U.S., solitary confinement is widespread – far overused and racially disparate; illegal – a form of torture recognized and prohibited under international law and harmful – especially to the mental health of those with and without pre-existing mental conditions; and finally, third, we must take action to end solitary confinement now. These concerns are addressed in greater detail as follows:

1. California’s problems are long and strongPelican Bay State Prison, near Crescent City in northernmost California, is a maximum security prison with a “general population” of around 2,000 men, and a Security Housing Unit (SHU) of about 1,000 men.” This SHU, by design, has the harshest conditions in the California prison system. Assignment to the SHU is not based on the inmate’s underlying offense but is reserved for those who officials allege are “gang-affiliated” or commit serious disciplinary violations once inside.

This strike was only the most recent. In July 2011 a hunger strike started at Pelican Bay, spreading to 12,000 California prisoners inside and outside the state. They were targeting solitary confinement conditions in Pelican Bay and other SHU’s.  Strikers included California inmates held both in 12 of the state’s prisons and in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma, according to the federal receiver monitoring the state’s prisons. Most positively, strike organizing and participation crossed racial lines (see the logo above). The California Department of Correctional Reform (CDCR) responded harshly, taking away all family and legal visits, and other prisoner “privileges,” instead of seeing the strike as a powerful non-violent tactic, used throughout history, to fight against abuse and for human rights.

The strike was suspended after almost four weeks to give the CDCR time to respond to prisoner demands. In September 2011 the strike resumed, with CDCR eventually granting only minor reforms.

The Pelican Bay solitary problems first came to light in California in a lawsuit, Madrid v. Dept of Corrections, a class action lawsuit filed by Pelican Bay inmates in October 1990. They claimed that the facility, opened just the year before in December 1989: 1) condoned a pattern and practice of using excessive force; 2) failed to provide adequate medical and mental care; 3) imposed inhumane conditions in the SHU, 5) used cell-assignment procedures that expose inmates to an unreasonable assault risk; 6) failed to provide adequate safeguards when segregating “gang affiliates” in the SHU; and 7) failed to provide court access.

In 1995 the court found: 1) excessive force at the prison; 2) inadequate medical and mental health care; 3) confinement in the Security Housing Unit, which included extreme isolation and environmental deprivation, did not rise to cruel and unusual punishment on all inmates, but on only mentally ill prisoners; 4) some procedures used to validate inmates as gang members and for transfer them to the SHU violated 4th Amendment due process. It appointed a special master to monitor the prison.

In November 2004 after a report by the special master, the court found systematic non-compliance by the CDCR at Pelican Bay. It found that their system for investigating and disciplining officers was “broken to the core,” and that CDCR had misled the court by filing false reports. CDCR was sanctioned and fined.

2. Solitary confinement is widespreadillegal; and harmfulSolitary confinement is made up of long periods of isolation, with little or no human contact, often including lights on, or off, 22-23 hours per day, deliberately loud sounds, extreme hot or cold, menacing dogs and other harsh conditions.

Solitary confinement is widespread, used in almost every state and within the federal system, in both dedicated long-term supermax prisons and other forms of control units, and as shorter-term punishment units. The numbers are difficult to determine, due to lack of consolidated recording and reporting and other problems such as inconsistent definitions, changing policies and court decisions.

Many experts set the numbers at around 30,000 and find solitary confinement to be widely overused. Its use has exploded in the U.S. According to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, while prison populations have increased 28 percent, administrative segregation (permanent classification) increased 31 percent and disciplinary segregation (temporary classification) increased 68 percent.

Solitary confinement is Illegal. Solitary confinement violates international law: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Art. 7, 10, 16; the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), Art. 1, 4; the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 5; the American Convention on Human Rights (ratified by 24 Organization of American States (OAS) nations, but not the U.S.). Although officials often say that there is no clear definition of torture, torture is defined by UNCAT as “any state-sanctioned action by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for obtaining information, punishment, intimidation, or for any reason based on discrimination.” Security-housing units fail on all counts (see below).

The U.S. has come under frequent condemnation from the United Nations Committee on Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture for the cruelty of solitary confinement. Its use in the United States has been rejected by the European Union, which will not extradite people to the U.S. if they will be placed in isolation. Despite this, as mentioned above, the U.S. Supreme Court has skated around finding solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.

Solitary confinement is harmful. Since the 1970’s studies have shown that these units damage inmates’ mental health. A 2003 Human Rights Watch report found that one-third to one-half of prisoners in “secure housing units” and “special management units” were mentally ill. A 2000 study in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia found that those in solitary developed mental illness pathologies at higher rates than those in the general population (28% vs. 15%). According to the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, in 2005, 44 prisoners in the California prison system committed suicide. 70% were in solitary confinement. People released from directly from solitary directly on-to the streets had a higher recidivism rate than those who spent time in the general population after solitary confinement (64 vs. 41%), according to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (2006).

3. We must take action to end solitary confinement now. Prison strikes are a movement tradition. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s Soledad (CA), Attica (NY), Holmesburg (PA), and Lucasville (OH) were a few of the many prison uprisings that led to the first round of prisoner self-determination and turned the first tide from prison-as-punishment to prison-as-rehabilitation.

In the U.S. – there are victories: Maine – 60% reduction in prison population held in isolation, and the ending of solitary confinement in the mental health unit; Michigan – 30% reduction in people held in administrative segregation since 2008 and closure of a maximum security prison; New Jersey – litigation led to the release of 80 people from a control unit and the closing of a security threat group (“gang”) unit.

  • Support the California hunger strike – Stay updated, spread the word. Take the resistance pledge and sign the petition at
  • Join the phone-in campaign to California Gov. Jerry Brown at 916-445-2841. Tell him you support the demands of the strikers and demand that he meet the inmates and meet the demands.
  • Organize and attend demonstrations and other actions about Pelican Bay prison and solitary elsewhere.

King Downing, Esq, serves as chair of the President’s Commission on Corrections Reform in the Justice Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet of the United States.

Article source here.