Students hold demonstration to protest solitary confinement conditions

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].