The U.S.’s 64-Square-Foot “Torture Chambers” October 19, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Constitution, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture.
Tags: constitution, cruel and unusual, extreme isolation, human rights, pam johnson, pennsylvania, pennsylvania prisons, prisons, roger hollander, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, torture, torture chambers
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ROGER’S NOTE: WHEN I READ ABOUT AMERICA’S TORTURE CHAMBERS (AND I DO NOT PUT THAT PHRASE IN QUOTATION MARKS) AND THE NEARLY 100,000 MOSTLY BLACK, LATINO AND FIRST NATIONS PEOPLES BEING TORTURED DAILY, I THINK OF THE AMERICAN MEDIA AND POLITICAL CULTURE AND ITS SELF-RIGHTEOUS, ARROGANT AND HYPOCRITICAL SERMONIZING ABOUT THE SOVIET GULAG OR THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS. I WANT YOU TO IMAGINE THAT THE AVERAGE TIME FOR AN AMERICA PRISONER IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IS SEVEN AND A HALF YEARS WHEN THE UNITED NATIONS ETHICAL STANDARD IS FIFTEEN DAYS MAXIMUM.
He has not had human contact or a good night’s sleep in nearly three decades. Every single day, he wakes to the sound of metal doors clanging open and a pair of disembodied hands pushing a tray of food through a slot into his 64-square-foot cell.
For the next 23 hours, he will stare at the same four walls. If he is lucky, he’ll be escorted, shackled at his ankles and wrists, into a “yard” – an enclosure only slightly larger than his cell – for an hour of solitary exercise.
This is how Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a prisoner in the restricted housing unit at the State Correctional Institute (SCI) Frackville in northern Pennsylvania, has spent the past 22 consecutive years.
On Thursday, Shoatz’s lawyers submitted a communication to Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, urging him to inquire into why a “father, grandfather and great grandfather” is being held in extreme isolation despite having a near-perfect disciplinary record for over 20 years.
The appeal comes on the heels of a surge in public debate on the practice of solitary confinement in the United States, where on any given day an estimated 81,000 men, women and children are held in some form of “restricted housing” unit, according to Federal Bureau of Justice statistics.
Authorities in each state have a myriad of euphemisms for the practice: administrative segregation, secure housing units (SHUs), “supermax” facilities, protective custody. Whatever the language, critics say the basic conditions remain the same: extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for years at a time.
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the restrictions imposed in “maximum security” facilities often “exceed the fathomable. In Pennsylvania’s most restrictive units, for example, prisoners have all the usual supermax deprivations plus some that seem gratuitously cruel: they are not permitted to have photographs of family members or newspapers and magazines.”
Mendez has already affirmed that holding a human being in isolation for a period exceeding 15 days constitutes a violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT).
Back in 2011, his office called for a complete global ban on the use of solitary confinement “except in the most extreme circumstances and for as short a time as possible”, citing numerous studies – some dating back decades, others as recent as Amnesty International’s 2012 report ‘The Edge of Endurance’ – that have documented the long-lasting psychological impacts resulting from even a few days of social separation.
This past August, a hunger strike involving over 30,000 prisoners protesting conditions in restricted housing units at the Pelican Bay State Prison in California prompted the rapporteur to make an urgent appeal to the U.S. government to “eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances”, stressing that the average U.S. prisoners banished to the hole typically stays there roughly 7.5 years – “far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law.”
Harold Engel, an attorney with over 43 years of experience and a retired partner of the global corporate law firm Reed Smith, said he co-signed the appeal Thursday in the hopes that an investigation undertaken by the office of the special rapporteur, housed at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, will bring an end to indefinite isolation.
“I first became involved in this case because my daughter told me about Shoatz’s situation and I found it abhorrent,” Engel told IPS.
“As I learned more I realised there wasn’t any clear law on the question of whether keeping someone in solitary confinement under conditions that Shoatz has been kept in violates the eighth amendment of the U.S. constitution [prohibiting the government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment] – which, in my opinion, it does.”
Speaking to IPS under condition of anonymity, an inmate who spent several years in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison before being released back into the general population said his life was measured out in a series of arbitrary numbers: he was permitted one hour of exercise on five days out of the week; he was allowed three meals a day but zero contact visits with his family. His cell contained a single cot and one steel sink. Showers were taken thrice weekly, overseen by guards.
“Getting through each day felt like hewing a single stone from a mountain of despair,” he said.
Bret Grote, an activist who has worked for over six years with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) – an advocacy group comprised predominantly of prisoners’ families, ex-prisoners and their supporters – says he and others have documented “hundreds upon hundreds of instances of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment inside the solitary confinement units of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC).”
“The approximately 2,500 prisoners warehoused in solitary by the PA DOC are held in units where physical abuse, psychological deterioration, retaliation for exercising constitutionally-protected rights, food deprivation, extreme social isolation, severely reduced environmental stimulation, theft and destruction of property, obstruction of access to the courts, and racist abuse are normative features,” Grote told IPS.
As Shoatz’s lawyers await an official response from the U.N. rapporteur, they are holding out hope that a full investigation into his case could also bring some respite for the tens of thousands of others enduring such conditions.
Prisoners Stage Hunger Strikes Worldwide July 12, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in California, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Torture.
Tags: bobby sands, california prisons, force feed, force feeding, Guantanamo, hunger strike, israeli jails, jasil noor, michael ratner, Palestinians, pelican bay, real news, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture
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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who’s now joining us from New York.
Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member for The Real News Network.
Thank you for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: It’s good to be with you, Jaisal, and good to be with The Real News.
NOOR: So, Michael, what do you have for us this week?
RATNER: I’ve been very concerned for a long time about the situation both in Pelican Bay, which is the big prison in California where my office has a lawsuit around solitary confinement, obviously concerned by Guantanamo Bay and what’s happening there, as well as over time have spent some attention to Palestinians in Israeli jails, where they’re under administrative detention. In all three of these cases, we now have hunger strikes going on.
And the first thing I want to say about them that’s important is really hunger strikes are a last resort. I remember when I was back teaching and working on the Guantanamo one, which was the Haitian cases, the HIV people left at Guantanamo Bay, kept there by the United States. And after we’d lost all the lawsuits, the Haitians said, what can we do but go on a hunger strike? You hate to see your clients do it. It’s painful. Any of us who have fasted for one day or two days or three days–I know what it’s like. So it’s really a last resort. It’s when all else has failed, when the powers that be failed, when the litigation we do fails, when even a mass movement to some extent has failed, and prisoners and detainees and others say, we’re going to take our fate into our own hands, we’re going to decide our fate, and we’re going to do what’s necessary to change what’s going on; we’re going to become the actors in this drama that is unfolding.
And going back before that, and in my memory, in the early ’80s, there were the hunger strikes that took place by people from the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland in British jails. The one most people have heard of is of course Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a prisoner of the British. He went on a hunger strike and he died, actually, from that hunger strike. He died I think in 1981.
And what was interesting, what was established as result of Bobby Sands’s death was that you don’t have a medical right or a legal right to force-feed a person who’s making a conscious decision to go on a hunger strike. That’s the fundamental law. And that’s the law that really developed out of the Bobby Sands case. If we look at it, it’s like any medical decision. I have a right to forgo medical treatment if I want, and I have a right to forgo forced feeding.
Let’s jump forward to today. First, Pelican Bay. Pelican Bay, as I said, has some 29,000 people both at Pelican Bay and in prisons throughout California on hunger strike. There’s a history to that at Pelican Bay. In 2011, some 6,000 people at Pelican Bay in prisons in California went on a hunger strike. California agreed to make certain changes. The main change–and this is really important to understand why people are on hunger strike in California–is to solitary confinement. When you hear the statistic, you just can’t believe it. People have been in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay from 11 to 28 years. That’s right, 11 to 28 years. And they have no real way of getting out. And solitary confinement past something like 15 days is to be considered–is considered by most authorities and legal authorities to be cruel and unusual treatment, and here it is going on in hundreds of cases for 11 to 28 years. The state of California promised to remedy that three years ago after the last hunger strike or two years ago. They didn’t do anything. And just this week the hunger strikes again began. The demands are to end that solitary confinement contrary to the U.S. Constitution as well as international law.
Interestingly, in this whole package, that hunger strike is continuing. My office, the Center for Constitutional rights, has a major class-action going to try and end the practice of solitary confinement. Hopefully the combination of the hunger strike and the heavy pressure of the lawsuit will finally force California to do what any humane society should do, which is get the people out of solitary. That’s California. It should get all of our support. It needs support. The hunger strikers have finally said, we’ve had enough.
Let’s fast–not fast-forward. Let’s just go to Guantanamo, where a hunger strike is continuing right now. Some 100 people are on a hunger strike at Guantanamo. Forty of them are being force fed. Their demands are, one, to finally get them out of Guantanamo. This is only been 11 years that they’ve been at Guantanamo. In some cases many of those people have been cleared for release. They remain there. And what’s most interesting, the most interesting development–of course, they’re being force fed contrary to law. The most interesting development was a lawsuit that a judge ruled on this week in the case of one of the people at Guantanamo. It was someone who had been cleared for release who’s on a hunger strike who’s being force fed. His lawyers went into court and said, you’ve got to stop the force-feeding, it’s illegal, it’s contrary to medical ethics. The judge said, I can’t do that, I don’t have any jurisdiction to do it, there’s just no way the court can do it. So the first thing the court said: there’s no jurisdiction. And the reason the court said that is because our Congress, in it’s great wisdom, passed a law stripping all federal courts of dealing with any conditions at Guantanamo. So the judge had no jurisdiction. She could have ended the case right there, but she went on in two amazing respects, and it’s something–it’s a short opinion, but I’m going to read you a little bit of it, but everybody ought to look at. The first thing she said: she essentially agreed that there’s a consensus in medical and legal opinion that force-feeding violates article 7–article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that prohibits torture, cruel, and inhumane treatment. In other words, forced feeding–and, of course, the way they do it is you sit in a restrained chair like this, your head’s restrained, a tube is put down your nostril into your stomach. It’s a form of torture itself. And so what she’s saying the law is clear that the international covenant on civil and political rights is violated by force-feeding. And then she cited a letter that the American Medical Association wrote to the U.S. Department of Defense, secretary of defense. And here’s what it said. The core ethical values of the medical profession find that force-feeding is a painful, humiliating, and degrading process, so it can’t be done. So the U.S. is violating the law not just in keeping people at Guantanamo, but in forcing them to be fed. So she found first she couldn’t hear the case, but then she went on to say it’s essentially illegal and unethical. And then–and I think the greatest slap we’ve seen from a federal judge in recent times to a sitting president was this. She says, even though the court doesn’t–does–the court must dismiss this case. And she obviously as an individual judge felt very badly in doing so. She says this important thing about President Obama. There is an individual, she says, who does have the authority to address the issue. In a speech on May 23, 2013–it was the big Obama national security speech–she says President Obama stated, quote, look at the current situation where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that. Then she goes on to say, after quoting the speech, she then says the president of the United States is the commander-in-chief of the military. And she quotes the Constitution. And then she says–she ends her opinion. It seems to follow therefore that the president as commander-in-chief has the authority and the power to directly address the issue of the force-feeding of the detainees at Guantanamo. She places the blame squarely where it belongs, on the shoulders of Obama, who himself has condemned the force-feeding yet refuses to do anything about the force-feeding or releasing the Guantanamo detainees.
So we have California, we have Guantanamo, and then as when I opened this segment, we have Palestinians in Israeli jails who are on hunger strike. And there’s, you know, at least two dozen of them, very long hunger strikes. Some have come very close to death and have been released as a result because Israel apparently, from what I read and hear, does not have a policy of force-feeding. And so what does that mean in the Israeli context? What it means is that the Israelis–what I understand: the attorney general’s office in Israel is currently examining the legality of a government bill that would enable prison authorities to force-feed hunger-striking prisoners. And they’re doing that because in the past they faced mounting challenges, this article said, to the fact that Palestinian security detainees, in other words, administrative detainees who are held in prison without any charges, are getting early release because the Israelis are so afraid of them dying in prisons. So hunger strikes are effective. And as long as the law is followed, which is to say you can’t force-feed them, they actually can result in change and release of some people. So what’s Israel considering? Complying with the U.S. law, the U.S. law, the U.S. nonlaw. And I’ll end on this little note. The Israeli–the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have issued a strong solidarity statement with the Pelican Bay prisoners, trying to make us understand that people in this situation, the oppressed, those made and weakened by the state, those abused by the state, can begin to take control in their own hands and their solidarity across these lines from Pelican Bay to Guantanamo to Israeli prisons.
I’ll end on this remarkable statement that I read in the paper that doctors from Israel are coming to the United States because the United States claims it needs help in dealing with hunger strikes, that they’re having trouble figuring out what to do, so they’re going to the Israeli doctors, no less. Now, in some way I don’t believe that headline, because if you accept what I just said, which the Israelis do not force-feed but the U.S. does, in fact what may be happening is the Israelis are coming here to learn how to force-feed prisoners so they don’t have a problem in dealing with the force-feeding of their prisoners. In the end what we’re seeing is people who are the oppressed taking their lives into their own hands, becoming actors in their own dramas. And basically that is the way–sadly, but that is the way that they will make change, whether it’s at Pelican Bay, Guantanamo, or in Israeli prisons where Palestine–where Palestinians are in prison.
NOOR: Michael Ratner, thank you so much for joining us.
RATNER: Thank you for having me on The Real News.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
Tags: california prisons, Criminal Justice, human rights, hunger strike, pelican bay, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture, victoria law
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The strikers are calling for an end to long-term solitary confinement and better prison conditions.
On Monday, July 8, prisoners at the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison began a mass hunger strike to protest long-term solitary confinement. It is not the first time such an action has taken place. In 2011, prisoners staged two separate hunger strikes to protest their continued placement in long-term solitary confinement.
Hunger strikers issued five core demands:
1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate food.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
During the first hunger strike, in July 2011, at least 1,035 of the SHU’s 1,111 inmates refused food. The strike spread to thirteen other state prisons and involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California. The second strike, in September 2011, spread to twelve prisons within California as well as to prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that housed California prisoners. By the third day, nearly 12,000 people were participating. The strike ended after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) promised a comprehensive review of all SHU prisoners validated as gang members or associates.
Now prisoners are striking again. They charge that in the intervening two years the CDCR has not addressed any of these demands, and they have called for a mass hunger strike combined with a nonviolent work stoppage. “Once initiated, this protest will continue indefinitely—until all Five (5) Core Demands are fully met,” they declared. By the second day of the strike, almost 30,000 California prisoners were taking part.
The 2011 hunger strikes mobilized family members as well. For many, this is their first foray into political organizing, even though their loved ones have spent years locked in windowless cells nearly twenty-four hours a day.
Dolores Canales’s son Johnny has spent thirteen years in the SHU. Canales herself has had firsthand experience with solitary confinement. During her own imprisonment, she spent nine months in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at the California Institute for Women, where she was confined to her cell twenty-two hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard everyday. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled. But being in solitary confinement still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being moved from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget.”
In contrast to his mother’s experience, Johnny spends nearly twenty-four hours a day in a windowless cell. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door. The “yard” he is taken to for solitary exercise consists of a cement yard the length of three cells with a roof only partially open to the sky. Johnny never sees the sun.
Over 1,000 people are held in the SHU, and more than half have spent over a decade there. Prison administrators place people in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they have been accused of membership in a prison gang. Accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence, such as tattoos or possessing certain books. Prison administrators also place prisoners in the SHU on accusations of gang association, again relying on circumstantial evidence such as being seen speaking with an alleged gang member on the housing unit, associating with prisoners of similar background or racial group or possessing literatures associated with political ideologies (such as the Black Panther Party).
Until recently, alleged gang members are released from the SHU only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners can be falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member or associate to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU. Johnny was one of those jailhouse lawyers. “He’s assisted with legal work for alleged associates charged with being in gangs,” his mother stated.
In May 2011, Johnny began sending his mother letters that he asked her to forward to the governor. The letters declared that Johnny and others were going on hunger strike on July 1, 2011, to protest SHU conditions and their indefinite terms within the SHU.
The day the strike began, Canales attended a rally in Los Angeles. “I had no intention of getting involved in organizing,” she recalled. “I just wanted to find out what was going on. I was asked to speak, and I read a letter from Johnny.”
That was Canales’s entry into organizing. “We [family members] started meeting every other day. More and more family members were coming out, sharing stories of their loved ones in different prisons and jails who were on hunger strike.”
In Oakland, Marie Levin was also galvanized into action by the hunger strike. In 2011, Levin had not seen her brother, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, for over fifteen years. Shortly before the strike, Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, visited her, bringing an audiotape in which Jamaa talked about his decision to go on hunger strike. Moved, Levin then attended a solidarity rally in San Francisco. “I was activated after going to that rally,” she recalled. Like Canales, this was her entry into political organizing. She joined Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), a coalition of lawyers, advocates and family members. “It was overwhelming at first,” she remembered. “I found out so much information I didn’t know about. Not just about SHU conditions, they were talking about the Black Panthers and history that I didn’t know.” But Levin continued to attend.
Family members, advocates and supporters have held rallies and vigils in various cities to draw public attention. On July 18, 200 family members, lawyers and supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento to deliver a petition with over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers. They then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers.
The hunger strike lasted three weeks, ending after CDCR officials promised changes. Hunger strikers suspended the strike to allow CDCR a grace period to fulfill their promises. In the meantime, family members continued to speak out about SHU conditions. “We were going to churches, universities, anywhere,” Canales recollected. “I can be on line at the bank and I’ll talk to people. I’ll pull out a picture of the SHU cell and the closed-in yard.” When the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions in August 2011, Levin and other family members attended and testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. Levin also helped build a mock SHU cell, which they brought to rallies, vigils and speaking events.
When prisoners renewed their hunger strike in September 2011, Canales and other family members started California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. “A lot of family members work full-time jobs, so the organizing is all in our spare time even though we have families, jobs, etc.” They continued to speak out about SHU conditions. In the Bay Area, Levin and other PHSS members have brought the mock SHU to the city’s parks, universities and vigils.
The second hunger strike ended on October 13, 2011, after the CDCR agreed to a comprehensive review of all SHU prisoners validated as gang members or associates. Family members continued to keep public attention on Pelican Bay. They held rallies in front of the Los Angeles County Jail. They have continued weekly candlelight vigils in cities throughout California. When Senator Dick Durbin held hearings on solitary confinement in June 2012, they traveled to Washington, DC, in a show of support.
They also began coordinating to enable loved ones to visit Pelican Bay. Canales applied five times for permission to visit her son, who was in the SHU at Corcoran State Prison. Each time, her application was denied because of her conviction record. When she was finally approved, Johnny had been transferred to Pelican Bay, thirteen miles from the California-Oregon border, making the trip more time-consuming and expensive for Canales, who, like many family members, lives in Southern California. Organizing with other family members, she learned that this distance prohibited others from seeing their loved ones. “I try to bring other family members up when I’m driving.”
Although Marie Levin lives in the Bay Area, 370 miles closer to Pelican Bay, the cost and distance have also prevented her from visiting her brother for years. Levin credits the hunger strike with bringing together various families who pool resources. “The support that I’ve gotten from the women who go up there has been a blessing. I can carpool with them, we share the [hotel] rooms together, and we share all the costs. We room as if we were family.” She adds, “In the past, we did not have that.”
California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement also organized larger group visits. On November 19, 2012, the group brought three vans of family members to the prison. Less than one month later, on December 7, 2012, they chartered a bus, half of which were children. The group has since organized several caravans that enable family members to visit their incarcerated loved ones, some for the first time in years.
Family members near the prison in Crescent City have also opened their homes to those traveling from further away. Canales credits this hospitality to the Pelican Bay prisoners’ call to end racial hostilities. “If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the CDCR system…now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than twenty to thirty years of hostilities between our racial groups,” SHU prisoners announced in August 2012. “Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups…in SHU, Ad-Seg, General Population, and CountyJails, will officially cease.”
“It’s real,” stated Canales. “I’ve stayed in the homes of family members of every alleged organization when I’ve gone to visit. I wouldn’t be able to do that if the cease-fire wasn’t real.”
In Fall 2012, the CDCR unveiled its stepdown program. Under the program, even those who have spent years in the SHU may still be required to spend two to three additional years in solitary confinement. The debriefing program remains in place. Groups of three or more can be labeled as Security Threat Groups, warranting SHU placement. Prisoners, family members and concerned advocates have criticized the program, stating that the program does not address the five core demands and instead expands the criteria for people eligible for SHU placement.
On February 14, 2013, prisoners at Pelican Bay’s SHU announced a renewed hunger strike, combined with a work strike, to begin July 8. This time, they promise to go “all the way” if the CDCR does not meet their five core demands. They demand that the CDCR sign a consent decree spelling out the specific terms of the policies they will enact. In addition, they have issued an additional forty demands, which include prohibiting official sanctions for hunger strike participation as well as improving conditions in the SHU and in general population. On June 20, 2013, prisoners reaffirmed their decision to hunger strike after a court-ordered mediation session with CDCR officials.
In Oakland, Marie Levin and her husband Randy have organized monthly vigils. They bring the mock SHU and invite people to step inside. “A large part of it is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ People don’t think about the conditions under which people [in prison] have to live. It’s up to me and others to educate them so they know what’s going on.” Levin notes that the public reaction when confronted with the mock SHU cell has generally been outrage and horror. “The majority of people realize this is wrong.”
In April, Levin also began fasting three days each week. “The purpose was to pray for change from the governor, CDCR officials, the Public Safety Commission, the Assembly, even the officials at Pelican Bay.” She ended her fast in June, but plans to fast again this July 4 and may participate in a rolling fast—in which outside supporters fast for one day in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Family members are also planning a caravan and solidarity rally to Corcoran State Prison, which has its own SHU, for Saturday, July 13.
Both Canales and Levin hope that meaningful change will occur before the hunger strike begins. “As a mother, I don’t want them to put their bodies through this,” Canales said. “But these men have come to a point where there’s no turning back.”
Tags: glen ford, herman wallace, leonard pelltier, lynne stewart, mutulu shakur, nelson mandela, obama hypocrisy, political prisoners, robben island, roger hollander, russell maroon shoatz, solitary confinement, South Africa, torture, us prisons
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A Black Agenda Radio commentary by executive editor Glen Ford
Obama sees no irony in making a pilgrimage to Nelson Mandela’s place of political imprisonment, while holding 80,000 human beings in solitary confinement. “Racist South Africa’s treatment of Mandela and his co-revolutionists was downright benign and enlightened, compared to fate of U.S. prisoners who are deemed a threat to the prevailing order.”
“Obama has no sympathy, however, for political prisoners of any race in his own country.”
President Barack Obama, a man of infinite cynicism, made a great show of going on pilgrimage to Nelson Mandela’s old prison cell on Robben Island, where the future first Black president of South Africa spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. With his wife and daughters in tow, Obama said he was “humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield…. No shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit,” said the chief executive of the unchallenged superpower of mass incarceration, a nation whose population comprises only 5 percent of humanity, but is home to fully one-quarter of the Earth’s prison inmates.
True sociopaths, like the commander-in-chief who updates his Kill List every Tuesday, have no sense of shame, much less irony. Obama feigns awe at Mandela’s suffering and sacrifice in the prisons of apartheid South Africa, yet presides over a regime that, on any given day, holds 80,000 inmates in the excruciating torture of solitary confinement. During Nelson Mandela’s nearly three decades of imprisonment by the white regime, he spent a total of only about one week in solitary confinement. The rest of the time, despite often harsh treatment, backbreaking labor, and unhealthy conditions, Mandela and other political prisoners at Robben Island and other South African jails were typically housed together. Indeed, Mandela and his incarcerated comrades called the prisons their “university,” where they taught each other to become the future authorities over their jailers.
“A social death alien to the human species.”
Racist South Africa’s treatment of Mandela and his co-revolutionists was downright benign and enlightened, compared to fate of U.S. prisoners who are deemed a threat to the prevailing order. At U.S. high security facilities, the slightest evidence that an inmate is of a political bent of mind is cause for him to be condemned to a solitary existence for decades – a social death alien to the human species. At California’s Pelican Bay and the state prison at Corcoran, thousands of inmates are held in isolation, 80 of them for more than 20 years, the very definition of barbarism. Yet, Obama journeys across oceans and continents to stand for a photo op in the cell of a prisoner whose ordeal was nowhere near as horrific as the standard fare for political prisoners in his own country.
On his trip to South Africa, Obama proclaimed that “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island.” And, that’s certainly true, although it was a U.S. intelligence agent who lured Nelson Mandela into a trap in 1962 that ultimately led to his capture and imprisonment. Obama has no sympathy, however, for political prisoners of any race in his own country. Former Black Panther Herman Wallace is thought to be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States, having spent 40 years alone in a cell in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison. Obama could free him at any time, but of course, he won’t. He could emancipate Black Panther captive Russell Maroon Shoatz, who has spent nearly 30 years in solitary, or Republic of New Africa political prisoner Mutulu Shakur or any and all of the scores of other aging political prisoners – people whose dedication to human freedom is no less than Mandela’s, yet have been subjected to far worse treatment at American hands. Instead, Obama has doubled the bounty on Shakur’s comrade and sister, Assata, in exile in Cuba. She might even be on Obama’s Kill List – which is the real and authentic legacy of this country’s First Black President.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to BlackAgendaReport.com.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
America’s Private Prison System is a National Disgrace June 14, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Mississippi, Torture.
Tags: aclu, Criminal Justice, human rights, jill filipovic, mississippi, mississippi prison, prisons, private prisons, privatization, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture
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An ACLU lawsuit against a prison in Mississippi is the latest to detail flagrant abuses at a private correctional facility
The privatization of traditional government functions – and big government payments to private contractors – isn’t limited to international intelligence operations like the National Security Agency. It’s happening with little oversight in dozens of areas once the province of government, from schools to airports to the military. The shifting of government responsibilities to private actors isn’t without consequence, as privatization often comes with a lack of oversight and a series of abuses. One particularly stunning example is the American prison system, the realities of which should be a national disgrace.
Some of those realities are highlighted in a recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of prisoners at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF). EMCF houses severely mentally ill prisoners, with the supposed intent of providing both incarceration and treatment. Instead, the ACLU contends, the facility, which is operated by private contractors, is rife with horrific abuses. As the ACLU states, it is
“an extremely dangerous facility operating in a perpetual state of crisis, where prisoners live in barbaric and horrific conditions and their basic human rights are violated daily.”
The complaint lists a litany of such horrors, but here are a few highlights: rampant rapes. Placing prisoners in solitary confinement for weeks, months or even years at a time, where the only way to get a guard’s attention in an emergency is to set a fire. Rat infestations so bad that vermin crawl over prisoners; sometimes, the rats are captured, put on leashes and sold as pets to the most severely mentally ill inmates. Many suicide attempts, some successful. The untreated mentally ill throw feces, scream, start fires, electrocute themselves and self-mutilate. Denying or delaying treatment for infections and even cancer. Stabbings, beatings and other acts of violence. Juveniles being housed with adults, including one 16-year-old who was sexually assaulted by his adult cell mate. Malnourishment and chronic hunger. Officers who deal with prisoners by using physical violence.
One prisoner allegedly attempted to hang himself. He was cut down by guards, given oxygen and put on supervision, but wasn’t taken to an emergency room, let alone given psychiatric care during the suicide watch. Without seeing a psychiatrist, his medication dosage was increased.
A severely ill 16-year-old with “a long history of being physically and sexually abused in addition to suffering from a traumatic brain injury, limited intellectual functioning, self-harm, and psychosis” was moved to EMCF from a juvenile detention center. His cell allegedly had a broken lock, and so other prisoners were able to enter. Five or six of them beat him. He was moved to a solitary confinement unit and, when he voiced his suicidal ideations and asked to see a psychiatrist, was deemed “manipulating to be moved”.
Another told prison mental health staff that he was depressed and thinking about about suicide. The treatment plan from the prison psychologist was reportedly three words: “encourage behavioral compliance”. After being asked to provide a urine specimen, which he could not give because of a health condition, the ACLU reports:
Mr. Roe began banging on his door, smeared blood on the cell door window, threatened to commit suicide, and tied a rope around his neck. Officers sprayed excessive amounts of Mace in his cell. According to witnesses, officers waited approximately 20 minutes before pulling Mr. Roe out of his cell. By that time, he was non-responsive and cyanotic. He was taken, his hands and feet bound by zip-ties, to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
For several days after Mr. Roe’s death, medical staff continued to ‘document’ in the daily segregation log that Mr. Roe appeared to be ‘in good health and mood.’”
These kinds of abuses are not relegated to a single prison, but they also aren’t inherent in any detention system. In the United States, though, they’re business as usual. Our prison system is increasingly built and run by for-profit corporations, who have a financial interest in increasing the number of people in prison while decreasing the amount of money it costs to house them.
Since 1980, the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in his life. Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re paying private contractors. The United States now spends $50bn on our corrections system every year.
Much of that money goes to private contractors, who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare – at the expense of the American taxpayer, whose dollars are funding this mass incarceration project. Large-scale imprisonment isn’t making us any safer, either. But it is putting small-time non-violent individuals – drug users and dealers – in close contact with more hardened criminals and making it significantly more difficult for them to find decent work after their release. That’s a perfect recipe for recidivism, not rehabilitation.
Prisons, as demonstrated by the ACLU case, have also become de facto mass institutions for the mentally ill, except without the oversight that pure psychiatric facilities face. With states tightening their budgets, mental health care is being cut even further. While the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crimes than victimizers, they are imprisoned at disproportionate rates, and often lack meaningful mental healthcare in prison and even face conditions that exacerbate their diseases, like solitary confinement and total squalor. We’re effectively taking some of the most vulnerable members of society and subjecting them to ongoing torture.
We have so demonized criminals in the United States that there’s widespread acceptance of the fact that jail in modern day America means rapes, beatings, vermin, filth and abuse. But to what end? “Criminals” are punished, yes – brutally, and in ways that should repel and shame us. But rehabilitation isn’t happening in these facilities. Crime isn’t being deterred; if anything, it’s being fostered.
The American public is losing out. The only winners are the private companies who are still awarded contracts to build and maintain more prisons, and who throw their weight behind politicians who promote the supposedly “tough on crime” measures that ensure those prisons are full.
There are many ways to punish crime and protect the public. Ceding our humanity doesn’t have to be one of them.
Albert Woodfox’s 40 Years of Solitary Confinement February 28, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights.
Tags: albert woodfox, amy goodman, Angola 3, angola three, black panthers, Civil Rights, herman wallace, human rights, robert king, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture
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Feb 27, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com
By Amy Goodman
Albert Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for 40 years, most of that time locked up in the notorious maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary known as “Angola.” This week, after his lawyers spent six years arguing that racial bias tainted the grand-jury selection in Woodfox’s prosecution, federal Judge James Brady, presiding in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, agreed. “Accordingly, Woodfox’s habeas relief is GRANTED,” ordered Brady, compelling the state of Louisiana to release Woodfox. This is the third time his conviction has been overturned. Nevertheless, Woodfox remains imprisoned. Those close to the case expect the state of Louisiana, under the direction of Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell, to appeal again, as the state has successfully done in the past, seeking to keep Woodfox in solitary confinement, in conditions that Amnesty International says “can only be described as cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
Woodfox is one of the “Angola 3.” Angola, the sprawling prison complex with 5,000 inmates and 1,800 employees, is in rural Louisiana on the site of a former slave plantation. It gets its name from the country of origin of many of those slaves. It still exists as a forced-labor camp, with prisoners toiling in fields of cotton and sugar cane, watched over by shotgun-wielding guards on horseback. Woodfox and fellow inmate Herman Wallace were in Angola for lesser crimes when implicated in the prison murder of a guard in 1972. Woodfox and Wallace founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1971, and were engaged in organizing against segregation, inhumane working conditions and the systemic rape and sexual slavery inflicted on many imprisoned in Louisiana’s Angola.
“Herman and Albert and other folks recognized the violation of human rights in prison, and they were trying to achieve a better prison and living conditions,” Robert King told me last year. “And as a result of that, they were targeted.” King is the third member of the Angola 3, and the only one among them to have finally won his freedom, in 2001.
King went on: “There is no rationale why they should be held in solitary confinement—or, for that matter, in prison. This is a double whammy. We are dealing with a double whammy here. We are not just focusing on Herman’s and Albert’s civil- or human-rights violation, but there is question also as to whether or not they committed this crime. All the evidence has been undermined in this case.” Since his release, King has been fighting for justice for Wallace and Woodfox, traveling around the U.S. and to 20 countries, as well as addressing the European Parliament.
The devastating psychological impacts of long-term solitary confinement are well-documented. Solitary also limits access to exercise, creating a cascade of health complications. The Center for Constitutional Rights is challenging the use of solitary confinement in California prisons, writing: “Ever since solitary confinement came into existence, it has been used as a tool of repression. While it is justified by corrections officials as necessary to protect prisoners and guards from violent superpredators, all too often it is imposed on individuals, particularly prisoners of color, who threaten prison administrations in an altogether different way.”
In a recorded phone conversation from Angola, Herman Wallace explained: “Where we stay, we’re usually in the cell for 23 hours, and an hour out. I’m not ‘out.’ I may come out of the hole here, but I’m still locked up on that unit. I’m locked up. I can’t get around that. Anywhere I go, I have to be in chains. Chains have become a part of my existence. And that’s one of the things that people have to fully understand. But understanding it is one thing, but experiencing it is quite another.”Despite the decades in solitary confinement, Woodfox remains strong. As he said over a prison pay phone in one of the documentaries about the case, “In the Land of the Free”: “If a cause is just noble enough, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. And I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. So therefore, they could never break me. They might bend me a little bit, they might cause me a lot of pain. They might even take my life. But they will never be able to break me.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.
‘Death of a Prisoner’ at Obama’s Guantánamo January 11, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture.
Tags: adnan latif, death of a prisoner, documentary, documentary film, Guantanamo, human rights, kill list, laura poitras, Obama Guantanamo, president obama, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture
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Roger’s note: WATCH THE VIDEO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO2gwKLKHOo
When President Obama pledged to close the Guantánamo Bay prison on his first day in office as president in 2009, I believed the country had shifted direction. I was wrong. Four years later, President Obama has not only institutionalized Guantánamo and all the horrors it symbolizes, but he has initiated new extrajudicial programs, like the president’s secret kill list.
In September 2012 I read the news that another prisoner at Guantánamo had died, and I knew I had probably met his family. I traveled to Yemen in 2007 with the idea of making a film about a Guantánamo prisoner. I went there with the Guantánamo lawyer David Remes. He met with families and delivered the news of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. I had hoped to film the journey of someone being released from Guantánamo and returning home. Five years later, I find myself making that film, but under tragic circumstances.
Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif recently died in solitary confinement at Guantánamo at age 36, after nearly 11 years of imprisonment there, despite never having been charged with a crime. Last month his body was returned to his family in Yemen, but we are left with many unanswered questions about his imprisonment and death.
Mr. Latif’s death is under investigation by the United States military, which claims he committed suicide from an overdose of prescription medication complicated by acute pneumonia. But that’s hard to take at face value. Why was he placed in solitary confinement when he was suffering from acute pneumonia? How could he have overdosed on medication, given the strict protocols at Guantánamo? Why did it take three months for the body to be returned to Yemen? And finally, why are his autopsy and toxicology report classified and being withheld from his family?
These questions are not just about Adnan Latif. They also address the injustices that our government has instituted and normalized in the war on terror.
Lawyers: Bradley Manning Already Punished for Unproven Crimes November 26, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Constitution, Criminal Justice.
Tags: bradley manning, civilian casualties, constitution, cruel and unusual, Iraq war, nobel peace, presumption of innocence, roger hollander, solitary confinement, wikileaks
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Roger’s note: nothing much new in this post, but I think it is important for us not to forget Bradley Manning. Wouldn’t it be a genuine triumph for justice if he were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
24-year-old accused of releasing classified documents to WikiLeaks
Three months before Bradley Manning is scheduled to face a court martial, and more than two years after his arrest, lawyers for 24-year-old Army Private First Class say the intelligence analyst accused of releasing classified documents to Wikileaks has already been punished for yet unproven charges, including violation of the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy.
A rally outside the gates of Fort Meade on Dec. 17, 2011, to bring media awareness to the growing movement supporting PFC Bradley Manning. At front, left to right, are political spokespeople attorney Kevin Zeese, LGBTQ activist Lt. Dan Choi and retired US Diplomat Col Ann Wright. Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg joined the group of supporters at the hearing later in the week. (Photo: Bradley Manning Support Network via Flickr)
Manning is accused of releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents which were published on Wikileaks that show the killing of unarmed civilians and two Reuters journalists by a US Apache helicopter in Iraq, McClatchy reports.
The exposed Baghdad attack left 12 dead. In a video, the American helicopter crew can be heard laughing and referring to Iraqi dead as “dead bastards.”
Manning is also accused of sharing the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs and a series of embarrassing US diplomatic cables, in violation of military regulations, which the website BradleyManning.org says “have illuminated such issues as the true number and cause of civilian casualties in Iraq, along with a number of human rights abuses by US-funded contractors and foreign militaries, and role that spying and bribes play in international diplomacy.”
Earlier this month, Manning acknowledged that he was the source of the documents as “an act of conscience,” and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He faces 22 charges and is scheduled for a court martial in February 2013.
But from July 2010 to April 2011, Manning was held in solitary confinement at the US marine corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia.
The Baltimore Sun reports today that Manning’s lawyers allege that during that time:
Manning was held in ‘the functional equivalent of solitary confinement: ‘Confined to a six-by-eight-foot cell, with no window or natural light, for more than 23 and a half hours each day. He was awakened at 5 a.m. each morning and required to remain awake until 10 p.m., his lawyers say. He was not permitted to lie on his bed or lean against the cell wall. He was not allowed to exercise in his cell.
If guards found him asleep during five-minute checks, they awakened him.
Lawyers argue that such “egregious” treatment of an as-yet-untried suspect, despite testimony by psychiatrists who said he presented no risk to himself and that the treatment was causing him psychological harm, is illegal pretrial punishment and violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice and US Constitution.
The British government and Amnesty International spoke out against his treatment, with Amnesty International calling conditions “unnecessarily severe and amount(ing) to inhumane treatment by US authorities.”
“Manning has not been convicted of any offense, but military authorities appear to be using all available means to punish him while in detention,” the human rights group said. “This undermines the United States’ commitment to the principle of the presumption of innocence.”
In July, UN torture investigator Juan Mendez accused the US government of harsh treatment of Manning that may amount to torture.
Since the Quantico brig was closed in December 2011, Manning has been in medium-security confinement in Fort Leavenworth, the Baltimore Sun reports.
McClatchy reports that Dwight H. Sullivan, a former Marine Corps attorney who now teaches military law at George Washington University, says military law allows for the dismissal of charges against a suspect who is found to have been punished before trial— but such cases are rare.
Manning may begin testifying as a witness in pre-trial hearings as soon as Tuesday. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
U.S. is the Worst Police State in the World – By the Numbers August 31, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Race, Racism, Torture.
Tags: afrrican americans, american gulag, glen ford, police state, Race, racism, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture, us prisons
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A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford
There’s no getting around the fact that the United States is the Mother of All Police States. China can’t compete in the incarceration business. With four times the U.S. population, it imprisons only 70 percent as many people – about the same number as the non-white prison population of the U.S. Even worse, 80,000 U.S. inmates undergo the torture of solitary confinement on any given day.
U.S. is the Worst Police State in the World – By the Numbers
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford
“The American People of Color Gulag is as large as the entire prison population of China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.”
When U.S. corporate media operatives use the term “police state,” they invariably mean some other country. Even the so-called “liberal” media, from Democracy Now to the MSNBC menagerie, cannot bring themselves to say “police state” and the “United States” without putting the qualifying words “like” or “becoming” in the middle. The U.S. is behaving “like” a police state, they say, or the U.S. is in danger of “becoming” a police state. But it is never a police state. Since these privileged speakers and writers are not themselves in prison – because what they write and say represents no actual danger to the state – they conclude that a U.S. police state does not, at this time, exist.
Considering the sheer size and social penetration of its police and imprisonment apparatus, the United States is not only a police state, but the biggest police state in the world, by far: the police state against whose dimensions all other police systems on Earth must be measured.
By now, even the most insulated, xenophobic resident of the Nebraska farm belt knows that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world. He might not know that 25 percent of prison inmates in the world are locked up in the U.S., or that African Americans comprise one out of every eight of the planet’s prisoners. But, that Nebraska farmer is probably aware that America is number one in the prisons business. He probably approves. God bless the police state.
For the American media, including lots of media that claim to be of the Left, it is axiomatic that China is a police state. And maybe, by some standards, it is. But, according to United Nations figures, China is 87th in the world in the proportion of its people who are imprisoned. China is a billion people bigger than the United States – more than four times the population – yet U.S. prisons house in excess of 600,000 more people than China does. The Chinese prison population is just 70 percent of the American Gulag. That’s quite interesting because, non-whites make up about 70 percent of U.S. prisons. That means, the Black, brown, yellow and red populations of U.S. prisons number roughly the same as all of China’s incarcerated persons. Let me emphasize that: The American People of Color Gulag is as large as the entire prison population of China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.
“Solitary confinement beyond 15 days at a stretch crosses the line of torture.”
However, police states must be measured by conditions behind the bars, as well as raw numbers of inmates. And, by that standard, the American Gulag is even more monstrous.
Civilized people now recognize that solitary confinement is a form of torture. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, reports that solitary confinement beyond 15 days at a stretch crosses the line of torture, yet, as Al Jazeera recently reported, it is typical for hundred of thousands of U.S. prisoners to spend 30 or 60 days in solitary at a stretch. Twenty thousand are held in perpetual isolation in so-called supermax prisons – that is, they exist in a perpetual state of torture. Studies now show that, all told, 80,000 U.S. prisoners are locked up in solitary on any given day.That’s as many tortured people as the entire prison system of Germany, or of England, Scotland and Wales, combined.
If that is not a police state, then no such thing exists on planet Earth.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to Black Agenda Report.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
Tags: civil liberties, human rights, incarceration, james ridgeway, jean casella, John McCain, prisoners, prisons, roger hollander, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, torture
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Imagine a place filled with closed, windowless cells. Each cell may be so small that you can extend your arms and touch the side walls. It may contain a bunk of poured concrete, a toilet, perhaps a small table and stool. A few personal possessions – books, family photos – may be permitted, or they may not. The door to the cell is solid steel.Approximately 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement, which has been labelled torture by the UN, in US prisons. (Photograph: Brennan Linsley/Pool/Reuters)
Three times a day, a food tray slides in through a slot in the door; when that happens you may briefly see a hand, or exchange a few words with a guard. It is your only human contact for the day. Five times a week, you are allowed an hour of solitary exercise in a concrete-walled yard about the same size as your cell. The yard is empty, but if you look straight up, you can catch a glimpse of sky.
Imagine that a quarter of the people who live in this place are mentally ill. Some have entered the cells with underlying psychiatric disabilities, while others have been driven mad by the confinement and isolation. Some of them scream in desperation all day and night. Others cut themselves, or smear their cells with feces. A number manage to commit suicide in their cells.
You may remain in this place for months, years, or even decades. The conditions in which you live have been denounced as torture by UN officials and by a host of human rights, civil liberties, and religious groups. And yet you remain where you are.
This place is located not in some distant authoritarian nation or secret black site abroad, but here on US soil. In fact, there are places like it in nearly every state in the union, within sight of our own cities and towns. On any given day in the United States, supermax prison and solitary confinement units hold at least 80,000 men, women, and children in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.
Most of them have committed nonviolent offenses against prison rules or have been categorically branded as “high risk”. A large and disproportionate percentage suffer from serious mental illness. Some of them are children. Condemned to solitary by prison officials, they spend 23 hours a day in their cells without work, rehabilitative programming, or human contact of any kind.
What remains to be seen is whether Congress will take further action to curb this failed and torturous practice.
These prisoners live out of sight of the public and the press. Their conditions have, with few exceptions, been condoned by the courts and ignored by elected officials. As a result, over the past three decades, the use and abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons has grown into one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues – yet it also remains one of the most invisible.
On Tuesday, for the first time, the US Congress has taken a look at these domestic black sites. The Senate judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and human rights held a hearing in which corrections officials, lawyers, and mental health experts – along with one lone survivor of prison isolation – testified to the “human rights, fiscal, and public safety consequences” of solitary confinement.
For evidence of humanitarian consequences, the senators need only turn to their colleague John McCain, who spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam (in a cell somewhat larger than those in most American supermaxes). “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” McCain later wrote. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
As for fiscal and public safety consequences, the subcommittee members can look to evidence-based research that keeping prisoners in solitary confinement costs two to three times more than keeping them in the general population, and is likely to increase both prison violence and recidivism. Or they can study the example of the few states – including Maine and Mississippi – that dramatically reduced the number of prisoners they keep in isolation, with positive results.
What remains to be seen is whether Congress will take further action to curb this failed and torturous practice. Given the political will, the subcommittee could begin by holding more hearings around the country, while its staff carries out an investigation that opens up to public scrutiny the tormented inner workings of supermax prisons and solitary confinement units.
An independent federal body with the absolute right to enter and report on prisons could go even further in exposing abusive conditions. Legislation could then force the creation and adoption of federal standards for the treatment of prisoners, which states would have to meet in order to receive federal funds.
All of this depends upon our elected leaders taking seriously the notion that all Americans – including prisoners – have an absolute right to immunity from torture by the state. That is likely to happen any time soon, but until it does, unimaginable things will keep taking place at black sites in our own backyards.
James Ridgeway is senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones, and co-editor of Solitary Watch. James began his career as a contributor to the New Republic, Ramparts and the Wall Street Journal. Later, he was co-founder and editor of the political newsletters Mayday, Hard Times and the Elements.
Jean Casella is a freelance writer, editor and publishing consultant, and co-editor of Solitary Watch