Solitary confinement is torture.
Today, I woke up at 9:30 am, exercised at the gym, walked home for breakfast, attended three classes and shared dinner with friends. It was a typical Thursday. Now imagine being stuck behind a steel door for more than 22 hours each day. You have not seen or spoken to a friend or family member in weeks. You are hungry and bored, but you only have one piece of paper to last you the next week.
This is the situation that nearly 12,000 California prisoners face per year. Solitary confinement is the process in which prisoners are placed in isolation for various reasons, such as suspicion of gang involvement or retribution for political activism. Prisoners are trapped in cells with no windows and no access to fresh air or sunlight. Yet is solitary confinement for the “worst of the worst”?
Not necessarily. In a 1997 survey issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Minnesota Department of Corrections listed “Native Americans” as a “gang.” Furthermore, Minnesota and Oregon defined all Asians as “gang” members.
Similarly, the gang validation procedure used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is unjust. If a prisoner is found to meet three criteria, including at least one “direct link” to a gang member, he or she can be sent to solitary confinement. For instance, a cup with an image of a dragon could be interpreted as a symbol of the Black Guerrilla Family. References to black historical actors such as Nat Turner, W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X could result in a second strike. Finally, the “direct link” could be possession of an article from the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, a publication that state law permits California prisoners to receive.
On July 8, more than 30,000 California prisoners initiated an indefinite hunger strike in the hopes that CDCR would negotiate with them regarding their five core demands. Yet after a 60-day strike and one prisoner’s death, the prisoners suspended their strike. California State Assemblymember and Chair of the Public Safety Committee Tom Ammiano recently stated, “The hunger strike made us look at these conditions, but they have been problematic for years.”
Yet this is not a problem unique to California. On Oct. 4, a Louisiana man named Herman Wallace died after spending 41 years in solitary confinement. Despite an Amnesty International campaign and liver cancer, Wallace was not released until the Tuesday before his death, enjoying less than a week out of prison. While in prison, Wallace and another man, Albert Woodfox, were convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1972.
Wallace and Woodfox were convicted despite the lack of physical evidence and the loss of potentially favorable DNA evidence. Woodfox remains in solitary confinement.
It is difficult to argue that solitary confinement — especially prolonged solitary confinement — is necessary to maintain and promote safety.
Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist at Harvard University Medical School, is known for his expert testimony about the psychological destruction that isolation can have on the individual. He stated, “There is something intrinsically illogical for any correctional system to become so preoccupied with control and punishment as to lose sight of the fact that virtually all of the inmates in its custody will someday be released back into our communities.”
These psychological damages are merely another insult to injury. Prisoners who aren’t faced with solitary confinement already face a spectrum of obstacles. In Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” the author cites that 90 percent of employers are willing to employ a welfare recipient, but only about 40 percent are willing to hire a formerly incarcerated individual.
The level to which confinement adds to such obstacles is injust and illogical. While in solitary confinement, prisoners have limited access to rehabilitative or educational programming.
Beyond this, isolation can exacerbate existing mental illness or cause mental illness. Terry Kupers, a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, testified in a Wisconsin case that confinement of mentally ill prisoners “is an extreme hazard to their mental health and wellbeing.
It causes irreparable emotional damage and psychiatric disability as well as an extreme mental anguish and suffering.” Thus, it makes no sense that California continues to spend more $60 million per year to support a process that harms prisoners’ health. CDCR has a responsibility to rehabilitation as well as corrections.
Fortunately, solitary confinement is catching the attention of Californians. On Oct. 18, the campus community engaged in a discussion on how solitary confinement, as practiced by the CDCR, is cruel punishment and torture. The event was hosted by the UC Berkeley Public Service Center, Course Threads “Carceral Geographies” Project and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, in collaboration with the Human Rights of the Incarcerated at Cal and the IGNITE Campaign. Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, urged the community to challenge our government to accept his request to view California’s prisons as he continues to address individual complaints from prisoners.
Please join me. Let’s work to ensure the protection of human rights within our borders.
Bernadette Rabuy is a senior at UC Berkeley and facilitator of Human Rights of the Incarcerated.