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Down in the hole

An SHU cell at Pelican Bay.

An SHU cell at Pelican Bay.

Published in The Age on February 19, 2014.

“Listen to me. Put away your preconceptions.” Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is explaining that reporters often make the same basic mistake. “We don’t have solitary confinement in California state prisons.”

She then describes a penal system in which almost four thousand men are locked up indefinitely in cells the size of a city bathroom. “There’s no sensory deprivation. They go to the yard every day,” she says, but this is for an hour and a half, alone, in a lot with no view. “There are skylights in all of the Security Housing Unit pods,” she says, but there are no windows in the cells, so inmates cannot see outside.

“They have television sets, cassette players and reading materials,” she says, but phone calls are not permitted. “They talk among themselves,” she says, but they must shout to be heard by the men in neighbouring cells. “This notion that they have no contact with people has no basis in fact,” she says. The perforated steel doors of their cells are remote-controlled. Twice a day, a guard pushes a meal through the slot.

“Part of the problem is: what is solitary confinement? You ask ten different people, you’ll get ten different answers,” Thornton offers. There is no internationally-recognised definition. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has suggested that the term should apply wherever prisoners spend twenty-two hours or more in their cell each day.

“The only standard that is clear is that pain and suffering that crosses a line into a certain severity is prohibited because it’s cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” Mendez says. “If it crosses another line and becomes intentional, it’s torture.” In his 2011 report, he proposed that spells in solitary should be restricted to fifteen days. Hundreds of the prisoners in California’s SHUs have been there for more than five years.

The United States of America is home to around 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Per capita, it locks up five times as many men and women as Australia and ten times as many as Norway. Young African-American men who fail to complete high school are more likely to go to jail than they are to get a job.

The Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay in northern California was built in 1989. By the end of the 1990s, there were sixty such ‘supermax’ facilities – prisons purpose-built to contain inmates in permanent isolation. “Under President Clinton there were federal incentives to reduce parole, pass longer sentences,” says Jean Casella, of Solitary Watch. “A lot of states used that money to build supermaxes.”

Nobody knows how many people are being held in segregation units. The most recent federal estimate is around 80,000 inmates, not including county jails, immigration detention centres, mental wards or juvenile detention. “One of the biggest misconceptions about solitary is that its use is limited to incorrigible murderers and serial rapists,” says Casella. “The vast majority have never committed a violent act in prison.”interior-solitary4

In July, around 30,000 inmates refused food in protest against the use of indefinite segregation in California prisons. The hunger strike soon dwindled to a few hundred, then a few, mostly prisoners with life terms being held in the SHU at Pelican Bay, some of whom lasted two months without eating. Officially, they are some of the most dangerous prison gang leaders in the state. “From my perspective, they are terrorists,” said Terri McDonald, a senior CDCR official.

Three months ago, I started writing to these prisoners. In the letters that arrived by return of post, handwritten on yellow lined paper with the censor’s stamp on every page, the men described a rigged system in which wardens act with impunity, punishing inmates they don’t like by keeping them in solitary. They all described the conditions they live in as torture.

Paul Redd, a jailhouse lawyer, employed language from the US Bill of Rights. “When you cage another human being under these barbaric structural conditions designed to inflict physical and psychological, cruel and unusual pain, it’s torture,” he argued. He has spent thirty-four of his thirty-seven years in prison in solitary confinement.

“When prisoners are going crazy and/or killing themselves in isolation because of the harshness of their conditions, what further proof is needed?” asked John Martinez, a twelve year veteran of the SHU. “To me, that is overwhelming evidence that isolation is harmful, that the US knows it is harmful but nevertheless continues to use it.”

In 2003, a psychology professor from the University of California, Craig Haney, studied one hundred inmates at the Pelican Bay SHU. Forty-one reported hallucinations, twenty-seven had experienced suicidal thoughts and “chronic apathy, lethargy, depression and despair” were commonplace. CDCR data shows that between 2007 and 2010, inmates held in isolation were eight times more likely to commit suicide than prisoners in the general population.

Casella cautions that corresponding with inmates in the SHUs can create a false impression: “Those people come from a pool of maybe a third of the people in solitary, because another third are so mentally ill that they can’t communicate and another third are illiterate.”

“If someone’s a pain in the ass, odds are good that they’re going to end up in solitary,” says David Fathi, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Prison Project. “Some of these people are activists, they stand up to staff. More common is people who are mentally ill and act out in ways that annoy the guards.”

interior-solitary2Access to SHUs is tightly controlled. The Red Cross may visit, but may not report what it finds. Lawyers suing the prison system have right of entry. On the rare occasions journalists are allowed in, they get the approved tour. When Shane Bauer (who spent two years as a hostage in Iran) reported from Pelican Bay for Mother Jones magazine, he was allowed to speak with one inmate, at a pod for men in transition to the general population.

The Correctional Association of New York is one of the few organisations with a mandate to inspect prison conditions. Tyrell Muhammad, a Project Assistant, regularly visits the SHUs at Clinton, Attica and Sing Sing prisons. He spent twenty-six years in prison himself, serving time for a stickup at an after-hours club that went wrong. His friend killed the manager, and Muhammad got twenty years to life for second degree murder. He was nineteen years old.

His first stint in “the box” was for “disobeying a direct order” by arriving late for lock-up. That earned him four months. Each time he complained, about the deranged prisoner next door that kicked the wall all night, about rough treatment or missing meals, the guards wrote him another ticket. “You’re always at the whim of the officer,” he says. Four months became two years, in a cell four metres by two. At night, he would often wake to find his arm draped in the toilet at the side of his bed. One of his neighbours hung himself with his shoelaces and sheet.

Tyrrell Muhammad on 125th Street in Harlem.

Tyrrell Muhammad on 125th Street in Harlem.

In total, Muhammad spent seven years in solitary. When he got out of prison, aged forty-five, he couldn’t walk to the corner without an escort. He wore sunglasses all the time, so people wouldn’t be put off by his habit of staring too hard, for too long.

In California, there are two ways to end up in the hole: prisoners that break the rules or commit acts of violence get a finite sentence of up to five years. This accounts for roughly 7,000 of the 11,000 men and women on lockdown. The rest are held in isolation because they have been validated as an associate of a prison gang, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family or the Mexican Mafia. Their “sentence within a sentence” can last indefinitely.

In 1980, Paul Redd was validated as a member of the BGF, after his name was found in a coded roster of gang members in another man’s cell. “I have never been charged with any criminal, gang-related activity, yet I remain in the SHU for decades, called the worst of the worst… a violent, dangerous prisoner,” he wrote to me.

When he sought to have himself declared an inactive gang member two years ago, his application was denied because he had booklets about former Black Panther leader George Jackson in his cell. Other supposed BGF associates have been validated for diary entries about Malcolm X and W.E.B. Dubois. For associates of Latino prison gangs, writing in the indigenous Nahuatl language or drawing Aztec symbols can be enough to keep them in solitary.

In October 2012, the CDCR switched to a “behaviour-based” policy that requires evidence of gang activity to hold inmates in the SHU. It also started a case by case review of prisoners serving indefinite terms. Of the 632 reviewed so far, 408 men have been released to the general prison population.

“It is a gruesome admission that so many are going back to mainlines,” says Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights attorney. “That shows that two-thirds of the men did not deserve to be there and posed no security risk to other inmates or to staff.”

Thornton presents the change as evidence that the department has listened to prisoners. In theory, inmates who remain “free of gang related behaviour” can complete a step-down programme and have their validations annulled. But there’s a catch: possessing a gang image is now a rules violation, the kind of “behaviour” that can keep a man on lockdown indefinitely. The list of “Security Threat Groups” has also been expanded to more than a hundred street gangs.

“The vacancies will be very quickly filled, as they are replaced by people that they have been itching to get off the mainlines for a long time,” says Carbone. “You had people who were identified as affiliates of the Bloods, or the Nortenos or whatever, but they had to stay on the yard until they acted foul. Now they can send those guys to an indeterminate SHU term.”

Thornton admits the new policy will not result in fewer prisoners being held in isolation: “We have to maximise use of all of our beds.” Already, a small proportion of inmates in the SHU have a cellmate, in the same tiny space, roughly four metres long and two metres wide.

Pelican Bay SHU cellmates exercising in the yard.

Pelican Bay SHU cellmates exercising in the yard.

“If you want a prediction of future trends, they’re going to move more towards twenty-three hour lockdown with two people in a cell, which will both save money, and they’ll be able to say it’s not solitary confinement,” says Casella.

There is little evidence that keeping thousands of men in isolation reduces prison violence. Since Pelican Bay opened, in 1989, the number of violent incidents in California prisons has increased by 20%, according to a statistical analysis by Bauer. Colorado, Maine and Mississippi have all curtailed the use of SHUs and there has been no corresponding spike in violence.

When Illinois Governor Patt Quinn shut down Tamms prison last year, he pointed out that it would save the state tens of millions of dollars annually, because costs at the supermax were three times as much per inmate as at alternative high-security prisons.

“They’re incredibly difficult to close,” says Fathi. “And that’s because in many rural areas it’s the only major employer. In Illinois, the corrections union fought ferociously, but the Governor persevered.” The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is the most powerful of all, with a well-documented history of successfully opposing prison reform. A spokesperson declined to comment on the use of SHUs.

Proponents of solitary confinement argue that some prisoners are too dangerous to be held in anything but total lockdown. Until a few years ago, Mississippi’s Parchman prison incarcerated a thousand men that way. But in 2007, faced with unmanageable levels of violence, the Commissioner, Christopher Epps, started rethinking how to deal with serious offenders.

Epps instituted a step-down programme and provided addiction, life skills and anger management counselling for prisoners. By 2012, the number of men in administrative segregation had fallen by 75%. The SHU at Parchman was closed, saving an estimated $5.6 million per year. There are now half as many violent incidents at the prison as before and the state’s recidivism rate is among the lowest in the country.

In June 2012, Epps testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You have to decide who you are afraid of and who you are mad at,” he told the Senators. “The criminal justice system must be careful not to use administrative segregation in prison to manage those we are mad at.”

Few of the men that corresponded with me from Pelican Bay expect to be released. The California Parole Board has never granted a date to a prisoner serving an indeterminate SHU term. “The alleged changes in the policy are nothing more than the same soup in a different bowl,” wrote Gabriel Reyes, who has spent the last seventeen years alone in a cell. “They need to admit that solitary confinement exists in California.”