July 17, 2011 from the NYTimes
By COLIN DAYAN
MORE than 1,700 prisoners in California, many of whom are in maximum isolation units, have gone on a hunger strike. The protest began with inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison. How they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone’s guess — but their protest is everyone’s concern. Many of these prisoners have been sent to virtually total isolation and enforced idleness for no crime, not even for alleged infractions of prison regulations. Their isolation, which can last for decades, is often not explicitly disciplinary, and therefore not subject to court oversight. Their treatment is simply a matter of administrative convenience.
Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention. The Supreme Court, over the last two decades, has whittled steadily away at the rights of inmates, surrendering to prison administrators virtually all control over what is done to those held in “administrative segregation.” Since it is not defined as punishment for a crime, it does not fall under “cruel and unusual punishment,” the reasoning goes.
As early as 1995, a federal judge, Thelton E. Henderson, conceded that so-called “supermax” confinement “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” though he ruled that it remained acceptable for most inmates. But a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, Stuart Grassian, had found that the environment was “strikingly toxic,” resulting in hallucinations, paranoia and delusions. In a “60 Minutes” interview, he went so far as to call it “far more egregious” than the death penalty.
Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, claim that those incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit are “the worst of the worst.” Yet often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation. Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and, most of all, alleged gang members. Often, the decisions are not based on evidence. And before the inmates are released from the barbarity of 22-hour-a-day isolation into normal prison conditions (themselves shameful) they are often expected to “debrief,” or spill the beans on other gang members.
The moral queasiness that we must feel about this method of extracting information from those in our clutches has all but disappeared these days, thanks to the national shame of “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantánamo. Those in isolation can get out by naming names, but if they do so they will likely be killed when returned to a normal facility. To “debrief” is to be targeted for death by gang members, so the prisoners are moved to “protective custody” — that is, another form of solitary confinement.
Hunger strikes are the only weapon these prisoners have left. Legal avenues are closed. Communication with the outside world, even with family members, is so restricted as to be meaningless. Possessions — paper and pencil, reading matter, photos of family members, even hand-drawn pictures — are removed. (They could contain coded messages between gang members, we are told, or their loss may persuade the inmates to snitch when every other deprivation has failed.)
The poverty of our criminological theorizing is reflected in the official response to the hunger strike. Now refusing to eat is regarded as a threat, too. Authorities are considering force-feeding. It is likely it will be carried out — as it has been, and possibly still continues to be — at Guantánamo (in possible violation of international law) and in an evil caricature of medical care.
In the summer of 1996, I visited two “special management units” at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. A warden boasted that one of the units was the model for Pelican Bay. He led me down the corridors on impeccably clean floors. There was no paint on the concrete walls. Although the corridors had skylights, the cells had no windows. Nothing inside could be moved or removed. The cells contained only a poured concrete bed, a stainless steel mirror, a sink and a toilet. Inmates had no human contact, except when handcuffed or chained to leave their cells or during the often brutal cell extractions. A small place for exercise, called the “dog pen,” with cement floors and walls, so high they could see nothing but the sky, provided the only access to fresh air.
Later, an inmate wrote to me, confessing to a shame made palpable and real: “If they only touch you when you’re at the end of a chain, then they can’t see you as anything but a dog. Now I can’t see my face in the mirror. I’ve lost my skin. I can’t feel my mind.”
Do we find our ethics by forcing prisoners to live in what Judge Henderson described as the setting of “senseless suffering” and “wretched misery”? Maybe our reaction to hunger strikes should involve some self-reflection. Not allowing inmates to choose death as an escape from a murderous fate or as a protest against continued degradation depends, as we will see when doctors come to make their judgment calls, on the skilled manipulation of techniques that are indistinguishable from torture. Maybe one way to react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to death might be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings.
Colin Dayan, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is the author of “The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons.”
July 24, 2011
The Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement
To the Editor:
Re “Barbarous Confinement,” by Colin Dayan (Op-Ed, July 18):
Mr. Dayan vividly captures the cruelty of long-term solitary or “supermax” confinement, which has increasingly become business as usual in American prisons. Supermax units like the one at Pelican Bay State Prison in California cost two to three times as much to build and operate as conventional prisons, and prisoners released directly to the community from solitary are more likely to commit more crimes than comparable prisoners released from general prison populations.
Fortunately, some states are beginning to change course. In Maine, the new commissioner of corrections has cut the population of the state’s supermax unit by more than half. Mississippi depopulated its supermax unit and eventually closed it entirely, leading to a dramatic drop in prison violence and a savings of $8 million a year.
Other states, and the federal government, should follow suit. The vast majority of prisoners are eventually coming home, and it’s in everyone’s interest to support humane conditions of confinement that promote successful re-entry to the community.
Dir., National Prison Project, A.C.L.U.
Washington, July 18, 2011
To the Editor:
Supporting Colin Dayan’s call to action is a letter sent to me recently by a Pelican Bay Prison hunger striker. In the letter, the hunger striker said he was told in 2001 upon transfer to Pelican Bay that he was “a cancer to be cut out” and that he would ”die here one way or another.” He said that in 2003 he found mixed in among his legal materials an administrative memo entitled “The Function of the Control/SHU Units.” It outlined a plan of attack for administrators to follow.
The memo said “the function is to reduce prisoners to the state of submission essential for their ideological conversion ... that failing, the next step is to reduce them to a state of psychological incompetence sufficient to neutralize them as efficient self-directed antagonists ... that failing, the only alternative is to destroy them, preferably by making them desperate enough to destroy themselves.”
To “destroy” is to torture. Mr. Dayan is right: prisoners are human beings and deserve to be treated as such.
San Francisco, July 18, 2011
The writer is a lawyer working with the Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.
To the Editor:
To its credit, New York is one of few states to see a dramatic decline in its prison population — down 22 percent since 1999 — due in part to reform of drug laws. But as rolls drop, the number of inmates in the “box,” as inmates call solitary confinement, has grown: 17 percent since 2006.
In recent years, more than 30 percent of state prison suicides have occurred in solitary confinement. Oscar Perez hanged himself in such a unit at Clinton Correctional Facility in 2008; an oversight report concluded, as others have, that he “was likely to decompensate [there] and would have benefited from an alternative placement.”
To be sure, improvements have been made to treat mental illness in recent years. Nonetheless, the system saw its highest suicide rate in 2010 in 28 years. The question is whether that is merely an aberration or a reflection of a system struggling with a population that includes nearly 8,000 mentally ill inmates and relying on housing methods that have long been thought to foster disorientation and sometimes insanity.
MARY BETH PFEIFFER
Poughkeepsie, N.Y., July 18, 2011
The writer is projects writer for The Poughkeepsie Journal.
To the Editor:
Though Colin Dayan notes one warden’s pride at his prison isolation cells, having once spent a long weekend inside New York’s equivalent, I can say that what I recall about those entrusted with the keys will haunt me forever.
When they enter their windowless, fluorescent-lighted workplace through clanging iron gates, lock up inmates behind steel doors with no openings or contours other than a service port and a tiny window of layered fiberglass; and when the tools of their trade are manacles — heavy, solid ones, wrapped and interlocked around wrists, ankles and waist — then one can be sure that eye never meets eye. And no one escapes.
“Outside,” too, eyes remain averted, with no less effect on the soul. That should haunt us all.
New Preston, Conn., July 19, 2011