Down in the hole

This article was written by Andrew Purcell for the Sydney Morning Herald, and contains information from Paul:

Feb. 19th, 2014

Victorian courts have been told of young offenders being held in 22-hour lockdown. What's it really like in isolation? Andrew Purcell looks at the situation in California where prisoners are kept in solitary for years at a time.

''Listen to me. Put away your preconceptions.'' Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman 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 4000 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.''

This is for 1½ hours, 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.
A guard keeps an eye on the solitary confinement cells in Pelican Bay prison.

''They have television sets, cassette players and reading materials,'' Thornton says. But phone calls are not permitted.

''They talk among themselves.'' 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,'' Thornton concludes.
Tyrell Muhammad, a former solitary confinement detainee at Pelican Bay prison.

Tyrell Muhammad, a former solitary confinement detainee at Pelican Bay prison.

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?'' she says. ''You ask 10 different people, you'll get 10 different answers.''

There is no internationally recognised definition of solitary confinement. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has suggested that the term should apply wherever prisoners spend 22 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 15 days. Hundreds of the prisoners in California's SHUs have been there for more than five years.

The US is home to about 5 per cent of the world's population and 25 per cent of the world's prisoners. Per head, it locks up five times as many men and women as Australia and 10 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 first supermax - a prison designed to hold inmates in isolation - was built in 1989 at Pelican Bay in northern California. By the end of the 1990s, there were 60 such prisons across the country. ''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 US segregation units. The most recent federal estimate is about 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,'' Casella says. ''The vast majority have never committed a violent act in prison.''

In July 2013, about 30,000 inmates refused food in protest against the use of indefinite segregation in California prisons. The hunger strike soon dwindled to several 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,'' says Terri McDonald, a senior CDCR official.

Three months ago, I started writing to these prisoners. In the letters that arrived by return of post with the censor's stamp on every page, the men described a 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 34 of his 37 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?'' asks John Martinez, a 12-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 100 inmates at the Pelican Bay SHU. Forty-one reported hallucinations, 27 had had 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. 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 are people who are mentally ill and act out in ways that annoy the guards.''

Access 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 26 years in prison himself, serving time for a hold-up at an after-hours club that went wrong. His friend killed the manager and Muhammad got 20 years to life for second degree murder. He was 19.

His first stint in ''the box'' was for ''disobeying a direct order'' by arriving late for lock-up. That got 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 hanged himself with his shoelaces and a sheet.

In total, Muhammad spent seven years in solitary. When he got out of prison when he was 45, he wasn't confident enough to walk to the corner of his street without someone with him. 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 who break the rules or commit acts of violence get a finite sentence of up to five years. This accounts for about 7000 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, 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 in a letter to me.

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.''

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