Torture and solitary confinement in American Prisons

By Christopher R Rice

America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of its prisoners.

May 22, 2015 the U.N.s new rules expand prohibitions on torture and other cruel or inhumane treatment. Solitary confinement is to be limited to 15 days maximum.

John Martinez, has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 12 years.

About 80,000 people in the United States are put into solitary. It’s an inhumane practice, but in California they go to an extreme by placing people without any windows, without any phone calls, trying to totally isolate them.

From: InsideScience

In some cases prisoners are locked in tiny, windowless cells with virtually no sensory input for 20 years. The researchers said there is no scientific evidence that the practice does anything to pacify the prison environment, which is the main rationale for the practice. They do know that it does cause physical, emotional, and psychological damage to the prisoners. In fact, a large proportion of solitary confinement prisoners suffer from serious mental and physical disorders as a result of their isolation. For those reasons, many researchers call it a form of torture.

The practice of completely isolating prisoners began in Pennsylvania and New York, and goes back to a theory proposed in the early 19th century, said Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

Quakers in Philadelphia proposed that if prisoners were kept in complete isolation, they might find redemption and rehabilitation by concentrating on their weaknesses without distraction and ultimately become closer to God. Taking up the theory, Pennsylvania built a wheel-shaped prison in Philadelphia designed to ensure that every prisoner was completely alone.

One famous visitor to this prison, called the Eastern State Penitentiary, was Charles Dickens. In 1842, he wrote in “American Notes” that life in the prison was “rigid, strict, and hopeless.” The prison is still standing but has not been used since 1971.

In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court said of solitary confinement essentially what Dickens had said: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide.”

Nonetheless, solitary confinement became a model for prisons around the world, particularly in Europe, Smith said. But around the turn of the 20th century, most countries agreed that it was cruel and worthless and the practice was dropped. Then, in the 1970s and '80s U.S. prison populations began to explode, and the use of solitary confinement also grew.

“The United States is an outlier in the world both in terms of the numbers, and an outlier in the amount of time people spend in [isolation],” said Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It is not uncommon for people to spend 10 or more years in conditions that are severe.”

Juan E. Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture, told the UN General Assembly in 2011;that solitary confinement "can amount to torture," he said.The typical cell is a room slightly larger than a king-sized bed for a prisoner to "eat, sleep and defecate,” Haney said. The prisoner is allowed out of the room for exercise one hour a day, but is denied human contact.

According to: University of North Carolina School of Law:

On October 4, 2012, 3,388 out of 3,801 beds in control units were filled by NC prisoners. That represents nearly 10% of the prison population in a long-term solitary confinement unit. Shockingly, this number does not appear to include disciplinary and administrative segregation, which could push the number of prisoners in solitary conditions much, much higher. Defenders of this system often cite the need to maintain order and protect staff and other prisoners from the “worst of the worst” offenders. As this report will show, however, many of those who suffer the extreme isolation of solitary confinement are actually being punished with extremely long sentences in solitary confinement for non-violent offenses that do not implicate safety issues at all. Moreover, the practice is ineffective at achieving any legitimate goal of punishment.

In the Summer of 2011, prisoners held inside the Pelican Bay SHU initiated a multi-racial hunger strike that began on July 1 and spread throughout California’s prisons. While the Pelican Bay strikers declared victory on July 20, other prisoners around the states continued for up to several weeks longer. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that at least 6,600 prisoners in at least one third of California’s 33 prisons participated in the hunger strike. Ending the use of prolonged solitary confinement was one of the strike’s five core demands.

“Following concern among prisoners about what they perceived as a lack of progress in implementing changes, the hunger strike resumed briefly in late September 2011, but was called off after meetings between prisoner representatives and CDCR and further assurances that CDCR would institute changes. While no disciplinary action had been taken against the first hunger strikers, the second hunger strike was treated by CDCR as a major rule violation and some prisoners were punished by having their property and canteen privileges confiscated. Fifteen of the strike leaders were reportedly moved to harsh conditions in administrative segregation cells for a short period,” writes Amnesty International in their new report.
The CDCR has responded to the striking prisoners’ demands with their own proposals. Amnesty critiques the CDCR’s proposed reforms, arguing that “the reforms do not go far enough. There are continuing concerns about both the fairness of the procedures for assigning prisoners to what could still be indefinite SHU terms, and about the length of time in which prisoners will remain in solitary confinement…. While measures to reduce the number of prisoners held in security housing units are a positive step, in Amnesty International’s view the proposals should ensure that only prisoners who present a clear and present threat, who cannot be safely housed in a less secure setting are assigned to the SHU. Given the serious consequences of SHU confinement, the authorities should ensure that STG [Security Threat Group] validations are based on a thorough and impartial investigation, and only with concrete evidence of gang-related activity posing such a clear and present threat; that prisoners have a fair opportunity to contest the evidence; and that such decisions are subject to regular, meaningful review.”
When these concerns were raised “during Amnesty International’s meetings with CDCR staff in November 2011, the department stressed that there were inmates in the SHU with serious gang connections, but acknowledged that they ‘over-validated’ and that there were prisoners in the SHU who did not warrant such a restrictive level of housing. CDCR also acknowledged that there were people assigned to the SHU as gang associates who had no direct role in gang activity.

CDCR stated that the reforms under consideration were aimed at making the system fairer as well as targeting resources more effectively, taking into account the high cost of SHU confinement and the need to manage a tight budget.

Amnesty International was told that the process would ultimately reduce the SHU population to ensure that only prisoners who could not be safely housed in a less secure setting would be assigned to the SHU.”

The bottom line of this important new report: “Amnesty International considers that the conditions of isolation and other deprivations imposed on prisoners in California’s SHU units breach international standards on humane treatment, and that prolonged or indefinite isolation, and the severe social and environmental deprivation existing in Pelican Bay SHU in particular, constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law.”

Unfortunately, getting the US to respect international law is not as clear-cut as the act of documenting human rights violations. Notably, The Edge of Endurance explains: “The USA has sought to limit the application of international human rights law in its conduct by entering reservations to article 7 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and article 16 of the Convention against Torture as a condition of ratifying the treaties. The reservations state that the US considers itself bound by the articles only to the extent that ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the ‘cruel and unusual treatment or punishment’ prohibited under the US Constitution. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the USA to withdraw its reservations as defeating the object and purpose of the treaties in question and therefore incompatible with international law.”

Tessa Murphy is the campaigner for the USA team at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. She has provided the research for and worked on Amnesty’s reports on supermax prisons and solitary confinement through her visits to a number of prisons, including the recent visit to California SHUs as part of the team that published the report cited above, entitled The Edge of Endurance. She also authored Amnesty’s special report on the Angola 3, entitled USA: 100 years in solitary: ‘The Angola 3’ and their fight for justice.

CDCR has conducted an internal audit of their gang-validated SHU population. Out of 632 reviews conducted, prison officials claim that 408 individuals, 80 percent of those reviewed, have been cleared for release into the general prison population. The remaining several thousand individuals in the SHU have been granted new privileges, including access to lotion, laundry soap, extra pouched food items from the canteen and up to 40 pictures of their loved ones instead of the previously allowed 15.

In a private interview after testifying at the hearing, prisoners rights attorney Charles Carbone said, “What CDCR didn’t tell us today is that under their new proposed step-down policy there’s no way out of the SHU other than debriefing or participating in CDCR’s behavior modification program. There used to be an active review process, every 4 or 6 years, that’s gone now. Not to mention,” Carbone continued, “the high percentage of individuals being promised release from the SHU shows clearly that CDCR’s gang validation policy was not working. Those 632 people never should have been in there in the first place.”

One of the principle concerns raised at the hearing was CDCR’s system of gang validation, which has been criticized for using items as insubstantial as possession of a book, photograph or drawing as “evidence” of gang-affiliation—and therefore justification for indefinite placement in solitary confinement. “According to CDCR’s policy,” said Assembly Member Ammiano, “many of us sitting on this committee would be gang associates, I don’t know how it’s possible to avoid association under this system.”

Carbone is referring to the 1,500 new Security Threat Groups (STGs) that CDCR’s new step-down policy plans to add to this previously short list. Evidence of membership or allegiance to any of these groups is enough to validate a prisoner as a gang member and land them solitary confinement for a very long time. In addition, the new policy stipulates a period of ten years to expunge gang validation from a prisoner’s record, a mandatory minimum of three of those years to be spent undergoing “behavior modification” in the SHU.

“With this new policy CDCR is expanding their use of isolation,” Carbone continued. “They’re telling their employees ‘Everything’s cool, no one’s gonna loose their jobs, we just need to reshuffle the deck.’” According to Carbone, as the CDCR’s proposed step-down policy releases hundreds of people from isolation, the new policy wide reach through the large-scale expansion of STGs will have those cells reoccupied in no time.

“For many years CDCR operated under the false notion that prison gangs, like Black Guerilla Family and La Familia, were inherently more dangerous than members of street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods,” said Carbone. “They now know their assessment was entirely wrong. In addition, the intelligence they can squeeze out of street gang members by locking them in isolation and forcing them to debrief is more valuable to the law enforcement community. CDCR is trying to raise its status.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of CDCR’s new policy is the program of “cognitive behavior restructuring” that requires prisoners in the SHU to participate in a strict regiment of “self-directed journaling.” These journals will be read by CDCR officials and used as a basis to determine a prisoner’s eligibility to “step-down” to a lower level of isolation and eventually to leave the SHU. In these journals, a prisoner is expected to confess to (and repent for) everything prison administrators have accused them of, including gang affiliation.

This method, based on theories developed by behavioral psychologist Dr. Stanton-Samenow, has already been implemented in prisons across the United States. It’s widely been criticized, as a compulsory form of brainwashing and a way to break down prisoners psychologically through techniques that many agree are tantamount to torture. Once broken down, the theory goes, prisoners can be helped to “overcome errors in thinking” and “reform.”

Peter Cubra was cooperating attorney on Ayers vs. State of New Mexico, a case that the ACLU successfully litigated in 2003. Cubra describes Stanton’s conative behavior restructuring, particularly as it played out in New Mexico, as a “clockwork orange-type torture.”

In 1980 the New Mexico Penitentiary was the site of one of the most violent prison riots in US history. Thirty-three prisoners were killed during the riot and 200 injured. Of the 12 corrections officers taken hostage, all were treated for injuries caused by beating and rape. Though the old prison was eventually shut down, the riot forever changed the trajectory of New Mexico’s approach to imprisonment. Twenty years later, they bought Stanton’s cognitive behavior material and used it to create a step-down program very similar to what’s being proposed and implemented in California today.

“They tried to break people through what they called ‘integrated cognitive restructuring,’” continued Cubra. “They punished those who refused to confess their moral short-comings by starving them on the ‘food loaf’…prisoners had to participate or the torture would be enhanced.”

The ACLU lawsuit eventually forced New Mexico to moderate program, taking away the punitive measures to enforce it and exempting prisoners with psychological problems, but prisoners in New Mexico are still being subjected to a watered-down version of cognitive restructuring in New Mexico today.

“Every time you punish a person who’s incarcerated you make them more anti-social,” Cubra added. “I subscribe to rehabilitation as a concept, but any program has to be voluntary with no consequences. Stanton’s method could be offered as one item on a menu of choices—but to punishing people for not participating, sometimes even corporally, is unconstitutional.”

“The classic definition of torture,” said attorney Charles Carbone on the topic, “is the use of mental or physical harm to extract information. It’s not just to hurt somebody, you want to preserve him or her long enough in order to get them to tell you something important. The DOC’s incentive is to extract information about crimes being committed both in prison and the free community. But this information is inherently unreliable, untested and being obtained though coercive means.”

“Only the CDCR can get away with calling an expansion of their power and authority a reform,” Carbone continued.

Professor Craig Haney pointed out that the United States, and California in particular, is “unsettlingly out of sync with the international community on the issue of solitary confinement. “Modestly implemented reform,” he added, “is not going to make a difference.”

From ZNet:

Albert Woodfox sits alone in a cell smaller than the average parking space. Unless it is one of the three days that he gets to stretch his legs in the prison yard, the 68-year-old will likely remain caged in these conditions for 24 hours today. The four walls are solid – save a single small window that looks onto the parking lot – as is the metal door in front of him. His isolation is complete, even from others prisoners in nearby cells. He has spent more than half of his life in this nightmare.

Woodfox – who has the dubious honor of being the United States’ longest serving prisoner in solitary confinement – is just one of an estimated 80,000 people held in solitary confinement on any given day in the United States. He has described the physical and mental anguish of solitary as “standing at the edge of nothingness, looking at emptiness.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has specifically condemned Woodfox’s treatment as torture and called on the United States to eliminate the use of prolonged isolation. Albert’s case has returned to the spotlight in the past month because he is no longer a convicted man – a federal judge ordered his unconditional release in early June, two years after his conviction had been overturned for a third time (a last-minute appeal kept him behind bars). The ruling on Albert’s behalf came only two days after the devastating news that 22-year-old Kalief Browder killed himself. Browder wasn’t guilty of a crime – in fact, he was never even convicted. A judge eventually dismissed his case, but only after he had spent two years in solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates inside the notoriously brutal prison.

Their stories further illuminate the need for urgent and long-overdue reform of the United States’ use of prolonged solitary confinement. Albert and Kalief’s ordeals are particularly devastating because of their strong arguments of innocence and the glaring flaws their cases expose in the criminal justice system. But solitary confinement is an grave human rights abuse for guilty and innocent alike. No human being should face the prospect of years, or decades, in a cage without meaningful human contact, battling the very real prospect of being overtaken by insanity.

Most persons now in solitary confinement will someday be back on America’s streets, some of them rendered psychotic by what are called correctional institutions.


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