Students hold demonstration to protest solitary confinement conditions

Urszula Wislanka installs a bed in a mock solitary confinement cell that was set up on Sproul to raise awareness about the conditions of Californian prisons.
Kevin Foote/Senior Staff
Urszula Wislanka installs a bed in a mock solitary confinement cell that was set up on Sproul to raise awareness about the conditions of Californian prisons.

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Demonstrators set up a mock jail cell on Sproul Plaza on Wednesday to protest inhumane treatment of prisoners in California, an issue officials from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation say is much more complicated than the demonstration let on.

Passers-by were invited to step inside a cell, which protesters said aimed to imitate the quarters prisoners in solitary confinement have to live in.

UC Berkeley junior Jason Webber, who helped facilitate the protest, said that over a long period of time, solitary confinement amounts to torture.

“It goes above and beyond what you need to do to someone, regardless of what their crime is,” Webber said.

Jerry Elster, who spent five years in solitary confinement and spoke at the protest, equated the experience to sitting in a closet or bathroom for 23 hours a day.

“The system is locking people up, depriving them of certain human rights,” Elster said. “It’s more than deplorable — it’s unconstitutional.”

Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said conditions in California cells are different from what the demonstration presented. Some prisoners have access to radios, televisions, libraries and educational programs, she said.

Azadeh Zohrabi, a UC Hastings College of the Law alumna who spoke at the protest, said prisoners can be sent to solitary confinement based on determinate or indeterminate sentences. Indeterminate sentences include a process of “validation,” where people can be put in solitary confinement for perceived gang-related activity, she said.

“Most people in solitary confinement haven’t actually engaged in any behavior that warrants the situation,” Zohrabi said. “The process is arbitrary and broad.”

Zohrabi said she heard a story of a letter being returned to family members instead of being delivered to a prisoner because it included the Spanish word for sun, “sol,” and that was deemed gang-related. She said she had also heard that another prisoner was not able to send a letter to his uncle because he called him “Tio,” the Spanish word for uncle.

Thornton said the validation process is how law enforcement officials work to disrupt gang activity in prisons. A new system is currently being reviewed by the California Office of Administrative Law, and wardens are being sent information on changes this month.

“The issue of dealing with gangs is an issue this department has been grappling with for decades,” Thornton said. “It’s an investigation process.”

UC Berkeley senior Sam Miyazaki, who was there for the protest and went into the cell, said before the demonstration, she did not know anything about any of the issues being discussed.

“It’s freaking sad,” Miyazaki said.

Contact Shannon Carroll at [email protected].

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  • Miguelito

    Just to keep you bigots (since we’re name calling) honest…
    Your privilege is evident. People don’t deserve a second chance in life?
    Clearly you are cherrypicking selective data. And seem to trust CDCR to respect due process.
    If anything this reporter trusts a mouthpiece who qualifies her statement (“some”) so that it is practically meaningless and then fails to mention the objections of most reasonable people — over those who profit from the current system of mass incarceration — to the “new system” designed by those who lead an “investigation process” devoid of due process.
    Not cruel and unusual punishment?!
    How about providing services? Would you keep pouring money into an enterprise with a 30% success rate?!

    • Stan De San Diego

      > “Your privilege is evident. People don’t deserve a second chance in life?”

      Jerry Elston got far more of a “second chance” than the guy he murdered.

  • I pay $1,200/month for a studio that size in SOMA.

  • Guest

    Treat prisoners as caged animals and when they get out — and most WILL get out — they’ll become uncaged animals; ready to prey on you and me.

    Locking someone up shouldn’t mean depriving them of basic humanity; that’s what separates us from third world nations. Or should.

    • Stan De San Diego

      “Treat prisoners as caged animals”

      The reason most of them are in prison is that they acted like animals in the first place.

      • statistics may prove you wrong … which makes me wonder if you have any to back up this claim.

        most people are in prison for ‘drug’ crimes … smoking pot, even. some of the rest are in prison for some other ‘crime’ that may’ve been the only way to feed their kids. many are in prison on false claims. the fact that people get into ‘more’ trouble while living in those conditions cannot be blamed completely on those who are living under that constant abuse.

        • Stan De San Diego

          > “most people are in prison for ‘drug’ crimes”

          Jerry Elster wasn’t in prison for personal possession, nor are most individuals with narcotics-related convictions placed in solitary.

          > “many are in prison on false claims.”

          More bullshit. People go to prison when they are convicted of one or more felonies in a court of law, NOT on “false claims”.

          • there are plenty of people in prison on false claims. even looking at the death penalty alone, there is indisputable evidence of this, as many have been released after serving lengthy sentences awaiting state murder, then found to be not only not legally guilty, but innocent.

            and again, this article isn’t about jerry elster, but about the definition of torture, and the fact that solitary confinement fits the definition of torture.

          • Stan De San Diego

            > “there are plenty of people in prison on false claims”

            Name them.

            > “and again, this article isn’t about jerry elster, but about the definition of torture”

            If Jerry Elster is being used as an example of somehow unjust punishment, then the circumstances for which Jerry went to prison are indeed relevant. Stop playing games – you’re only making an ass of yourself in the process.

          • pbc

            reread the article, please. elster isn’t being used as an example of somehow unjust punishment. he isn’t being used as an example of anything. he is merely quoted as a spokesman for the protesters. he could have been a lawyer, an academic or a garbageman, and he still would have been quoted as a spokesman for the protesters. in fact, the mention of his time in prison is meant to provide some context that will, in many readers’ minds, undercut elster’s credibility. i’ll say that again, because you seem to be more than a little obtuse. the reporter is UNDERCUTTING elster, not building sympathy for him. set aside your agenda for a second, allow for the possibility that a school paper, even at berkeley, may not have a hyperliberal agenda for every story, give your brain a little oxygen and think about this for a second: if i’m poor and say the poor need more government help, am i more or less credible than if i’m rich and want to help the poor more? if i’m rich and say the rich pay too much in taxes, am i more or less credible than if i’m poor and say the rich are being pushed around? if i’ve spent five years in solitary confinement, am i more or less likely to think solitary is abusive than i would be if i had been a model citizen and never seen the insides of a prison? I’M MORE LIKELY TO COMPLAIN ABOUT SOLITARY IF I’VE ENDURED IT! yes, the reporter is letting you know that elster has first-hand experience, but, in the process, she’s also suggesting you take elster’s comments with a grain of salt. use your brain, man. learn to read.

          • no. look ’em up yourself. i’m not playing. people released from death row and otherwise, after spending years and decades in prison with no evidence, faked evidence against them. honestly if you don’t know this is happening, you are beyond help. it’s not like you’re saying, ‘wow, i didn’t know that.’ you’re actually saying it’s not true, ie calling me a liar. you seem lonely. go beg someone else for attention.

    • Calipenguin

      If you treat a human prisoner with kindness, free cable HDTV, three solid meals a day, and a clean, comfortable room to sleep then he will think prison ‘aint so bad so when he gets out, he will commit more crimes against you and me. It’s in his nature to commit crimes, especially when the rewards far outweigh the possible punishments.

      In any case, solitary confinement is meant as additional punishment when prisoners attack guards or other prisoners. Without this tool prisoners would get into a lot more fights and kill each other.

  • 1776

    Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time

  • physics-and-baccarat

    Okay geniuses, what do you suggest we do?

    • educate people in the first place. get money out of politics. return prison operation to public control (why is there profit in imprisoning people?) … do folks not understand that prison industry lobbyists actually control legislatures? do you know who wrote the arizona immigration policy?

      how is it that people can so easily corrupt the system, writing and lobbying for the passage of ‘laws’ for the express purpose of profiting off those subsequently imprisoned.

      end the ‘war on drugs’ which has proven itself worse than ineffective. dea does what they do to make a show of needing more money to do more of what they do. it’s job security to them. even opd does that. don’t make arrests when they can, to make a show of being understaffed, to convince the public they need even more than 43% of city budget (not to mention the millions more the city hands them for gadgets, to cover lawsuits for their violent behavior, etc).

      • Stan De San Diego

        > do folks not understand that prison industry
        > lobbyists actually control
        legislatures? do you
        > know who wrote the arizona immigration policy?

        Proof positive that you are another dope-addled left-wing kook.

  • Calipenguin

    Solitary confinement is punishment. If it were a pleasant room with a view then it wouldn’t be punishment, would it?

  • Stan De San Diego

    I notice that the goo-goo writer Shannon Carroll couldn’t be bothered to tell us why Jerry Elster wound up in prison in the first place:

    “At age nineteen I killed a rival gang member and went to prison. I got
    out two years ago, after twenty-six years. At first, inside, when I
    learned how the American system stacked everything against us urban
    African Americans, I got real angry. ”

    Jerry Elster exhibits classic sociopathic behavior – he killed another man but was “angry at the system” because he was punished for his actions. The fact that Ms. Carroll couldn’t be bothered to mention this in her article is either sheer journalistic laziness (it took me one minute to Google this info) or a willingness to distort the truth to suppress facts that don’t support her nutty agenda. There’s a reason that most people in this country regard “journalists” with the same degree of contempt and derision of politicians, lawyers, and overpaid government workers. Shannon Carroll should be embarrassed by her willingness to prostitute herself to someone’s pro-criminal agenda.

    • I_h8_disqus

      So Jerry forgot to mention that he did the solitary portion of his time in prison because of his continued violence in prison. Once he stopped attacking people, he no longer had to spend time being punished with solitary. Based on the size of that room in the picture, I guess we are torturing most of the dorm residents.

    • pbc

      so, the fact that the story said the guy spent five years in solitary wasn’t enough to tell you he wasn’t just a nice guy who spent his weekends helping old ladies cross the street? as someone who worked for major newspapers for many years, i can tell you that the temptation, especially for young reporters, is to go to an event and simply write what the people there say. so this young reporter should actually be commended for not only getting the thinking of prison officials but including that in the lede as counterpoint to what elster and others said at the protest.

    • the article wasn’t about jerry elster . the article questions whether solitary confinement, as described by those who’ve experienced it, is a humane treatment of a human, no matter their crime

      • Stan De San Diego

        >”the article wasn’t about jerry elster”

        You either miss the point or are trying to distort the issue. People aren’t just placed in “solitary confinement” for arbitrary reasons. This article attempts to drum up support for Jerry while failing to mention that he’s a convicted murderer with gang affiliations, one who clearly has never accepted responsibility for his actions or shown remorse. If after 26 years he still can’t accept that his stint in prison was the consequence of his own criminal actions, in all likelihood he wasn’t exactly a model prisoner. Idiots like you insist on imposing your Utopian world views on a very non-Utopian reality. Get a clue.

        • again, the point of the article is to discuss whether there is any justification for torture, the definition of which solitary confinement fulfills.

          • Stan De San Diego

            Sorry, but your lame attempts to distort the truth aren’t working. Solitary confinement isn’t “torture” unless you’re some type of attention-starved narcissist who needs an audience.

          • Learn to science Stan, it’s kind of important.

          • Stan De San Diego

            Learn to use the English language correctly.

          • pbc

            no, the point of the article is to report on a public event.

          • the part of your sentence that is wrong is ‘no’ … you are correct, the point was to report on a public event organized to call attention to the torture of prisoners by use of solitary confinement.

          • Stan De San Diego

            Solitary confinement is NOT “torture” unless you’re some type of attention whore who needs to be around people every waking moment.

          • ‘The lack of social contact and environmental stimulation often results in extreme psychological problems, such as extraordinary malaise and increased violent

            ‘Dr. Grassian concluded that rigidly imposed solitary confinement strongly suggests substantial psychopathological effects.’

            ‘It is evident, therefore, that the psychological effects of prison isolation have been recognized for at least the last century and certainly in American medical journals for the past twenty years.’

            ‘CONCLUSIONSolitary confinement and prolonged segregation in U.S. prisons follow neither international standards for prison management nor internationally established protections for prisoner rights. Although the United States has determined that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides adequate protection against punishments compromising prisoners’ human dignity, it is a lesser standard thanother industrialized nations. The psychological effects of solitary confinement, particularly in supermax SHUs, is extremely serious and a violation of international customary law.’


        • pbc

          just because you have an agenda doesn’t mean the article does. the article does nothing to try to drum up support for elster. the article covers a public event that generated enough attention on campus that it was news. the article quotes elster and others as saying solitary confinement is torture. the article also quotes a spokeswoman for the prison system as saying the protesters are wrong. so, students know what was happening in the middle of campus and are informed enough on the issues that they can now make up their own minds about the issues, if they even care about the issues. boom. done. end of story. good, solid reporting (especially for a college paper), but no agenda.

  • alum

    Murder, rape, child molestation, gang-related shootings…these people deserve the Marriott, am I right?

    • Papa Bear

      I’m sure the protesters would love to house them.
      But more importantly, most of the public doesn’t care about such people or their plight. It’s not a priority. And certainly politicians don’t care because felons can’t vote.

  • Stan De San Diego

    If you can’t deal with prison, don’t commit felonies.

    • you seem to believe everyone in prison has committed felonies. you also seem to not understand that this discussion isn’t about the concept of prison as a whole, but about abuse in prison in the form of solitary confinement, which is a form of torture.

      so, make yourself clear, please. you could change your comment to say ‘if you can’t deal with torture, don’t get abducted by police and falsely charged based on lies.’ that would be just as sensible as they way you stated your simple minded opinion.

      • Stan De San Diego

        > you seem to believe everyone in prison has committed felonies.

        That’s because prison exists to hold people convicted of felonies. You don’t go to prison for a misdemeanor, you go to a county or parish run jail. The rest of your claims are total fabrication on your part, not based on facts. Grow up.

        • Actually, an ounce of pot is felony possession. Learn to fucking read the law.

          • Stan De San Diego

            How many people to to prison for an ounce of pot, much less wind up in solitary?

          • alot

          • that’s because marijuana is erroneously, and against all scientific evidence, lumped in a category to which it has zero relation. btw, there is a thing known as jury nullification. a jury can refuse to convict based on their understanding that the ‘law’ being applied is actually unconstitutional or otherwise not applicable.

        • Guest

          You can go to jail for nothing but possession of cannabis.

        • (2004 – prisons & drug offenders – state and federal marijuana prisoners) Computation of the number of people serving time in federal and state prisons for marijuana offenses:

          Total Federal Prisoners 2004 = 170,535
          Total State Prisoners 2004 = 1,244,311

          Percent of federal prisoners held for drug law violations = 55%
          Percent of state prisoners held for drug law violations = 21%

          Marijuana/hashish, Percent of federal drug offenders, 2004 = 12.4%
          Marijuana/hashish, Percent of state drug offenders, 2004 = 12.7%

          (Total prisoners x percent drug law) x percent marijuana = “marijuana prisoners”

          The Results:

          Federal marijuana prisoners, 2004 = 11,630
          State marijuana prisoners, 2004 = 33,186
          Total federal and state marijuana prisoners in 2004 = 44,816

          In 2004, “Marijuana prisoners” equaled about 12.6% of those incarcerated for drug law violations and about 3.2% of total state and federal prisoners. Compared to 1997, the number of “marijuana prisoners” in 2004 had increased by about +15%.

          These numbers exclude those among the 700,000+ inmates who may be in local jails because of a marijuana conviction.


          So all those people who had cocaine planted on them….deserve jail right?