Americans should own up to the fact that, in terms of prison conditions, we reap what we sow.
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax, ” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”
— The Eagles, “Hotel California” (1977)
In the past month or so, we have been given a window into the California state prison system, and what we have seen is a ghastly house of horrors. Forced sterilizations, skyrocketing suicides and deplorable solitary confinement policy have culminated in a hunger-strike protest by approximately 12,400 prisoners within California correctional facilities.
Womb Raider: repeating history of forced sterilizations
It has been reported that “pregnant inmates were coerced into having sterilization surgery within the California prison system” and that “tubal ligation surgeries performed on almost 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010 [were] not obtained properly.”
This by no means is California’s first foray into the unconstitutional and inhumane area of forced sterilizations – this writer has even written about it in detail.
The first sterilization law in California was passed on April 26, 1909. It was aimed at the inmates of state hospitals and institutions for the mentally challenged, and prison inmates who fit certain categories. The categories for this last group included inmates displaying “sex or moral perversions” while in prison, those twice convicted of sexual offenses or those convicted three times for other crimes.
Decisions on who was to be sterilized were made by a “board consisting of the superintendent or resident physician of the institution in consultation with the general superintendent of state hospitals and the secretary of the State Board of Health.” The approval of any two of these three individuals would ensure that the operation was carried out. There was no provision made for special funding to pay for sterilizations.
Although eugenics laws were already in place in other states across the country (and more states to follow), California, by far, was the greatest offender. From 1909 to the 1970s – recent events aside – California forcibly sterilized 20,208 men and women. For some perspective, the state with the second most forced sterilizations during that period was Virginia, with less than 8,250.
During this time, when social and political ideology was fused with science, individuals were sterilized for illnesses that we now know should be treated therapeutically or medicinally. For example, of the 291 persons sterilized between June of 1920 and June of 1922 at California institutions, 149 were listed as manic depressive, 68 were diagnosed schizophrenic, 27 were epileptic, 14 were suffering from “imbecility” (the mentally challenged), 19 had drug and alcohol-related problems and 14 were classified as “other.”
The re-introduction of this practice, which was reprehensible during its first incarnation, is no less shameful now.
Not isolated incidents
Inmates at prisons across California are in their second week of a hunger strike to protest the practice of long-term solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. Approximately 30,000 inmates took part in the strike initially, and as of July 11, more than 12,000 were still refusing food. More recent reports put the current number at about 6,300. The fact that the numbers have dwindled since the genesis of this hunger strike, doesn’t make the reason behind it any less significant.
Republican Sen. John McCain – and former prisoner of war – once said of solitary confinement that it “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Government sources estimated that there were more than 81,000 prisoners in “restricted housing units” in state and federal institutions in 2005 – a number that could make a giant leap upward if we were to include Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention centers and holding facilities. Further, the Government Accountability Office found that from fiscal year 2008 through February 2013, the total inmate population in segregated housing units increased approximately 17 percent — from 10,659 to 12,460 inmates. By comparison, the total inmate population in Bureau of Prisons facilities increased by about 6 percent during this period.
Studies have shown that long-term solitary confinement leads to a whole host of mental and physical concerns. An independent investigation from 2006 reported that as many as 64 percent of prisoners in Special Housing Units were mentally ill – these figures are consistently low-balled by states in their calculations.
The very specific mental issues have been given a name: Special Housing Unit Syndrome or SHU Syndrome. Some the symptoms of SHU syndrome include:
–Visual and auditory hallucinations
–Hypersensitivity to noise and touch
–Insomnia and paranoia
–Uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear
–Distortions of time and perception
–Increased risk of suicide
So we run the risk of creating a greater menace to the public coming out of prison than the one that went in. Let’s be clear: the notion that only the most dangerous in the prison populace are regulated to long-term solitary confinement is a myth. Prison systems, because of safety concerns and limited space, may even relegate juveniles in adult facilities to solitary confinement.
This writer is not blind to the fact that those convicted of crimes – crimes that may include rape, murder, etc. – make very unsympathetic standard-bearers for a cause. Nevertheless, the issue of indefinite solitary confinement is not about the assumed inhumanity of those directly impacted by it. It is about the level of humanity that we as a society should expect when it comes to how we apply our laws and policy – even when judging the guiltiest among us.
The unconstitutional leading the criminal
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Brown v. Plata that overcrowded conditions in California prisons constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishments. The decision upheld a lower court decision which found that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies. The Court found that, at the time of the lower court trial, California jailed nearly twice as many prisoners as its prisons were designed to hold. In the majority opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
“After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population. … [the] State may employ measures, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders and technical parole violators to community-based programs, that will mitigate the order’s impact. The population reduction potentially required is nevertheless of unprecedented sweep and extent. Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations. For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling was later echoed by the findings of a federal panel. So in a system that was deemed unconstitutionally over-crowded by the highest court in the land, long-term, indefinite solitary confinement and forced sterilization still have legitimacy in the minds of the powers-that-be of the California Correctional System?
The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” When faced with the myriad problems of California’s prison system, how does long-term solitary confinement not fit the definition of torture, of cruel and unusual punishment?
The issue of the forced sterilizations of female prisoners in California doesn’t seem to raise the ire of the pro-lifers on the right or the human rights-loving forces on the left. It is a disturbing non-issue for the most part. What does that say about where we are as nation?
Many countries have banned the practice of long-term and indefinite solitary confinement – Germany, for example, limits the figure at about three months out of a year. I am not suggesting that there aren’t real dangers that inmates pose, which sometimes can only be remedied – for a time – by separating individuals from the general prison populace. Yet, when correctional facilities, like those in California, confine individuals for indefinite periods of time we begin to create our own problems — some of which may not be fully realized until those who endured such confinement are released into society.
It might be argued by some of the more rigid among us that this writer is an apologist for the indefensible inmates who populate our correctional facilities — for those who deserve anything and everything they get. And this is what is ignored when we cling to such notions: when the moral shortcomings of the most virulent among us causes us to ignore or forsake our own values – or becomes the ethical reference point as to how we should conduct ourselves – then it is we who become the prisoner.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.