Torture in our prisons

Solitary confinement can drive men mad

One of the positive consequences of California’s fiscal distress has been its reconsideration of its over-reliance on prisons. State officials and the public at large have begun to realize that, when schools and universities and programs for the poor and elderly are being cut, it makes no sense to pay $44,000 a year to imprison, say, a low-level drug dealer.

In 2011 the Legislature, responding to federal court mandates to lessen overcrowding in the prisons, passed AB 109, the so-called “realignment” bill. It mandates counties no longer send offenders convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious crimes (drug dealing, for instance, or burglary) to state prison and instead put them in jail—or, as it’s being called, “county prison.”

One of the assumptions of AB 109 was that counties would develop creative ways to deal with the influx by focusing on enhanced probation services, rehabilitation programs and improving pre-trial processes that allowed arrested people to remain out of jail pending trial. (Statewide, about 70 percent of jail inmates are there because they can’t afford bail.)

So far realignment has worked better in some counties than in others, but overall progress is being made. A recent study by the Chief Probation Officers of California finds, for example, that an increasing number of judges are applying split sentences to low-level offenders, requiring them to spend half their sentences in jail and the other half in a community program or under probation, where they can be helped to re-enter society.

In November 2012 voters joined the reform movement by supporting Proposition 36, which changed the state’s so-called “three strikes” law to require that the third strike be for a serious or violent felony before a mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence could be imposed. No longer will someone be sentenced to die in prison for, say, shoplifting.

There’s another part of the prison system that desperately needs change—its use of solitary confinement. More than 3,000 prisoners are held in isolation in what are called Security Housing Units, or SHUs, which are essentially prisons within prisons. Separated from the mainline population, SHU inmates are confined alone for 22 1/2 hours a day in cells measuring 9 feet by 9 feet with no windows or access to fresh air. The inmates receive no meaningful human contact, work, rehabilitation or group activity of any kind.

More than 200 of these prisoners have spent longer than 15 years in the SHU, and 78 have been there more than 20 years. Amnesty International says the conditions amount to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of international law.”

Many of the prisoners go mad. Others deteriorate physically from lack of exercise and natural light, chronic asthma and severe insomnia.

Most SHU inmates are there because they’re suspected of being gang members. The only way they can get out is to “debrief”—that is, inform on other prisoners. But that would invite gang retaliation, even death.

Solitary confinement originally was meant to be a short-term punishment for violations of prison rules. In the SHUs, it’s become long-term torture. It’s not worthy of a compassionate society.