Solitary confinement is torture

Prisoners’ hunger strike calls attention to inhumane treatment

Last month more than 6,500 California prisoners in 13 institutions across the state went on a hunger strike that lasted three weeks. By the end inmates showed signs of dramatic weight loss and some even collapsed from starvation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The strike began in the Special Housing Unit, or SHU, at Pelican Bay State Prison, near Crescent City, where more than 1,000 prisoners are isolated in windowless 80-square-foot soundproof cells under incessant fluorescent light for 22 1/2 hours a day. When they’re let out, it’s alone to a small area with high concrete walls.

There is consensus among those who treat mental illness that such deprivation of human contact and sensory experience amounts to torture, and yet there are more than 20,000 American prisoners now living in these hellish cells.

One of the hunger strikers’ principal demands was that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reform its policies on solitary confinement.

Prison officials say they use solitary confinement as a way to control gang activity, and that prisoners can get out of the SHU if they are willing to “debrief”—that is, provide information on gang members. Of course, this puts them in danger of being attacked on the yard. If an inmate refuses to debrief, he must serve a minimum of six years in the SHU.

Whether the CDCR’s use of solitary confinement and debriefing is effective can’t be determined. When a Times reporter sought to interview striking inmates, he was denied access “due to security and safety issues,” according to a Times editorial.

Given the department’s history of substandard medical care and inhumane conditions, it’s hard to have faith in this explanation. Besides, most of these prisoners will be released eventually. How will torture make them better citizens? California residents need to know whether their tax dollars are being used effectively and humanely.