For 22 to 24 hours a day, about 80,000 prisoners in the United States are kept inside cramped, concrete, windowless cells equipped with a shower and toilet. A guard slips a food tray through a slot in the door, because prisoners living in these solitary confinement conditions are not allowed to interact with others and, in some cases, make telephone calls or have visitors.
Prisoners living in solitary confinement are allowed about an hour of “recreation” time, which consists of being taken in handcuffs and shackles to another solitary cell, where they are allowed to pace around a cement cell by themselves.
Concerned about the frequent use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, the United Nations’ lead torture investigator Juan Méndez reiterated last week that he wants access to California’s prisons to ensure that prisoners’ rights are being protected.
“Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture,” Méndez said, explaining that he wants to review California’s prisons to see just how affected inmates are by isolation policies.
Described by some human rights groups as a form of torture, the United States was the first to begin using the isolation tactic known as solitary confinement in the early 19th century. Organizations such as the Center for Constitutional Rights argue that once prisoners were deprived of human contact or stimulation, they quickly became mentally disturbed. Despite these negative findings, the practice is still in use today.
In recent months, Méndez has been vocal about his belief that policies such as solitary confinement, which keeps prisoners from interacting with others for months or years at a time, should only be used for the most serious infractions, should not be given as a punishment related to a crime an inmate is already doing time for and should not be given to mentally ill prisoners.
This past August, Méndez urged the U.S. government to “adopt concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances,” which would include “an absolute ban of solitary confinement of any duration for juveniles, persons with psychosocial disabilities or other disabilities or health conditions, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row.”
“We should have more justification” for putting prisoners in isolation, Méndez said, explaining that there should be greater scrutiny of prison systems that routinely put inmates in solitary confinement. “We should put the burden on the state that this is the proper way to do things, and we should all be a lot more skeptical.”
California has nearly 12,000 inmates living in isolation. Around 6,600 are in temporary isolation for an infraction such as attacking an officer or drug trafficking. According to California Inspector General Robert Barton, the other 4,000 or so inmates, who are considered gang members, are living in segregated cells indefinitely, even though there is no evidence the isolation units reduce gang membership.
Most inmates stay in solitary for about four years, but there are 23 inmates in the state who have been isolated for at least 25 years, and as the conditions of solitary confinement become public, prisoners and the public alike are expressing concern that the tactic does more harm than good.
Over the summer, prisoners in California held a 60-day hunger strike to demonstrate their opposition to the use of solitary confinement. The strike began on July 8, and more than 30,000 inmates in the state’s prisons began refusing meals.
The strike ended at the beginning of September when the state’s legislative leaders agreed to hold a public hearing regarding the conditions of California’s maximum security prisons and the use of solitary confinement.
In order to get access inside the prisons and review whether or not solitary confinement conditions are in accordance with international law, Méndez said he has to first obtain permission from both the U.S. State Department and California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Though he has made requests to inspect the state’s prisons since May, Méndez said he has not heard a response from either the agency or the governor’s office.
In response, Gov. Brown’s press secretary told the Los Angeles Times that he was unaware of any such request, but a spokeswoman for the State Department, Laura Seal said she was aware of the request and that the agency was “open to continuing to discuss” a possible visit.
“The conditions for visits to detention facilities in the United States are all determined on a case-by-case basis,” Seal said.
Méndez said he wants full access to the prisons and wants to be able to speak with any inmate. “Sometimes you negotiate all the way to the cell door,” he said.
California’s corrections officials have since pointed out that the state has both isolation units and solitary confinement cells, which they say are different. Unlike solitary confinement cells, corrections officials explained that prisoners in the isolation units sometimes have cellmates, and even if they don’t, they can call out and talk to other inmates nearby.
As promised to the state’s prison population, California lawmakers held their first hearing on Oct. 9 to discuss the state’s use of solitary confinement. Another legislative hearing on prison policies was scheduled for Oct. 21.
Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) said that during the session lawmakers would be examining possible changes in sentencing laws and prison educational programs.
Tom Ammiano (D-San Francissco), assembly public safety chairman, said he was glad lawmakers were addressing the issue because the prison conditions “have been problematic for years.” He explained the goal was to find alternatives “to deal with the security needs in our prisons in a way that makes sense from a correctional and a human rights standpoint.”
California Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), the state senate’s public safety chairwoman, agreed with Ammiano and said she was specifically concerned about the mental health aspect of solitary confinement.
“Since many of these inmates will eventually complete their sentences and be released into the community, it is in all of our interest to offer rehabilitation while they are incarcerated — not further deterioration,” she said.
“The issues that were raised during the hunger strike are real,” Hancock said. “They cannot be ignored.”
Cruel and unusual punishment
Steven Czifra was an inmate at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., where inmates spend 22.5 hours in their cells each day. Though some have cellmates, others are only allowed to have limited interactions with fellow prisoners and are only given a few activities to occupy their time.
Prison Bay has been described as one of the “most restrictive prisons” in the California and one of the harshest “super-maximum” prisons in the country.
Czifra was put into solitary confinement after he fought with another inmate and spit on a guard. He called the isolation ward a “torture chamber,” and said before he went in he was “a whole human being. When I left, I was a deeply fractured human being.”
On its website, the CCR says that solitary confinement is a form of cruel and unusual punishment and is thus in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The organization also argues solitary amounts to torture, because it “causes a persistent and heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy or chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns.”
“Other documented effects include obsessive ruminations, confused thought processes, an oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucinations, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, mood swings, chronic depression, feelings of overall deterioration, as well as suicidal ideation.”
Though California has yet to decide whether or not to decrease use of solitary confinement, in January 2013, Illinois chose to close Tamms Maximum Security Correctional Center due to the prison’s excessive use of solitary confinement.