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 »

It Could Be You: The Sad Story of Jose Padilla, Tortured and Denied Justice

For nine and a half years — almost as long as the “war on terror” has been providing an excuse for paranoia about Muslims in general — the case of US citizen Jose Padilla has demonstrated, to those willing to pay attention, that something has gone horribly wrong in the United States of America.

A former gang member and a convert to Islam, Padilla was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, in connection with an alleged “dirty bomb plot” that never existed, on May 8, 2002, as he returned from Pakistan. Held for a month as a material witness, he was then designated an “enemy combatant” by President George W. Bush, and held in complete isolation in a military brig for the next three and half years — a process that also involved prolonged sensory deprivation. According to the psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty, who spent 22 hours with Padilla in 2006, “What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind.”

In November 2005, fearing that Padilla might successfully challenge the government’s argument that it had the right to hold a US citizen indefinitely without charge or trial on the US mainland, and subject him to torture, the Bush administration suddenly indicted Padilla on charges of conspiracy “to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas,” and transferred him out of the brig. However, the injustice did not come to an end, as the courts then took over. 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, 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).
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