Solitary Confinement as Torture: Some US Prisons Recognize the Problem, as California Inmates Ask the UN to Act

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.” Read the rest of this entry »

As Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers Risk Death, Psychologist Testifies that Solitary Confinement is Torture

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 View reported 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. Read the rest of this entry »

Pelican Bay and American Torture: Prisoners in Long-Term Isolation Continue Hunger Strike Despite Authorities’ Brutal Response

When it comes to America’s domestic prison system, no one in a position of authority wants to use the word “torture,” but I defy anyone whose heart is not made of stone to argue that total solitary confinement — for years and even decades — with no contact allowed with other human beings, and in cells with no natural light,  is not torture.

In July, prisoners in isolation — in Security Housing Units — in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison started a hunger strike, protesting about the conditions of their confinement, and their treatment by the authorities. The hunger strike soon spread to other prisons in California, with, at one point, 6,600 prisoners on hunger strike, and the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition issued an informative statement explaining, “Dozens of US-based and international human rights organizations have condemned Security Housing Units as having cruel, inhumane, and torturous conditions. SHU prisoners are kept in windowless, 6 by 10 foot cells, 23½ hours a day, for years at a time.”

As an insight into the scale of the problem, 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.” Read the rest of this entry »

Hellhole: The Most Devastating Article About Long-Term Solitary Confinement in US Prisons, and Why It Is Torture

With contested claims that the three-week long hunger strike in California’s prisons has come to an end (as I discussed in a recent article, The California Prison Hunger Strike Opposing Solitary Confinement as Torture — and the Insulting Response of Prison Officials), the horrendous human rights abuses in America’s prisons may once more slip off the radar, which would be a depressing development, as the hunger strike that began in Pelican Bay prison — and specifically in the Security Housing Units, where prisoners are held in solitary confinement, often for years and often for reasons that have nothing to do with them posing a threat to anyone or having engaged in violent behaviour — is highlighting a problem that is largely ignored in the mainstream US media.

That problem, in a nutshell, is that at least 100,000 prisoners in America’s prisons — both in “supermax” facilities and in other prisons — are held in long-term solitary confinement, which, to be blunt, is a form of torture.

In the hope of providing convincing information about this horrendous problem at the heart of America, I’m cross-posting below a wonderfully thorough article on the whole problem of solitary confinement that was written by Atul Gawande, a US surgeon and journalist, for the New Yorker in 2009. The article covers everything that need to be considered if — and it’s a big if — the American people want to step back from barbarity and address the fundamental problems with their approach to prison, in which far too many people are imprisoned, and far too many of those are being imprisoned inhumanely,subjected to isolation that is so damaging that the use of the word torture to describe it is not an exaggeration. Read the rest of this entry »

The California Prison Hunger Strike Opposing Solitary Confinement as Torture — and the Insulting Response of Prison Officials

On Thursday July 21, as the widespread hunger strike in California’s prisons — primarily aimed at highlighting the abusive conditions in which prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHUs) — reached the three-week mark, Matthew Cate, the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), issued a deeply cynical press release announcing that inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, where the strike began on July 1, had ended their hunger strike.

Claiming that the strike “was ordered by prison gang leaders, individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians,” and adding that hunger strikes “are a dangerous and ineffective way for prisoners to attempt to negotiate,” Cate claimed that inmates at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit “stopped the strike on July 20 after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management,” which “include providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.”

Reducing a widespread hunger strike against torture to a misunderstanding, remedied by granting prisoners a few trinkets, was deeply insulting, and the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition immediately responded, stating that the CDCR had “prematurely announced that the hunger strike is over,” and pointing out that “the prisoner-approved mediation team (which the hunger strike leaders have insisted participate in any negotiations) was not involved in this so-called resolution around the strike, and the CDCR has not fully announced what was agreed upon.” The Coalition added, pointedly, “Clearly the CDCR is more interested in improving their Public Relations image than addressing real issues of torture.” Read the rest of this entry »

Support the Hunger Strikers of Pelican Bay, California, Calling for An End to Solitary Confinement as Official US Prison Policy

On July 5, I received a press release from the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition in Oakland, California. Under the heading, “Prisoners Across at Least 6 California Prisons Join Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers: Strike Could Involve Thousands of Prisoners,” it read:

More than 100 hours into an indefinite hunger strike started at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, prisoners in at least 6 state prisons have joined in, with participation potentially growing into the thousands. Hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and other prisoners participating are protesting the conditions in the Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU).

Dozens of US-based and international human rights organizations have condemned Security Housing Units as having cruel, inhumane, and torturous conditions. SHU prisoners are kept in windowless, 6 by 10 foot cells, 23½ hours a day, for years at a time. The CDCR operates four Security Housing Units in its system at Corcoran, California Correctional Institution (CCI), Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) as well as Pelican Bay. As of Tuesday morning [July 5], advocates had confirmed hunger strike participants at Corcoran and CCI, as well as Folsom, Centinela, and Calipatria State Prisons. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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