The conditions and ethics of solitary confinement in the U.S. are at the heart of a debate raging in the California corrections system.
LOS ANGELES — For the past 13 years John Martinez has been confined by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to a windowless cell, prohibited from any human contact and allowed out for only 90 minutes of exercise a day in a yard barely bigger than a dog run.
He was sent to prison for murder, but was placed in solitary confinement in a Security Housing Unit because, according to his mother, confidential informants identified him as a member of a prison gang. His sentence — in a room about 80 square ft in total — is indefinite and his means of being returned to the prison’s general population are unclear.
“Why won’t they say what they want him to do?” his mother, Dolores Canales, asked in an interview. “What does he have to do to get out?”
Last summer, Martinez took part in a hunger strike that began in the SHU unit of the remote Pelican Bay State Prison where he is housed, which eventually included 30,000 inmates around California. The strikers’ grievances centered on a solitary confinement policy that some penological experts consider the most oppressive in the country.
In response to the strike, which was suspended in September, the CDCR unveiled a package of new regulations last month that revised the criteria for placing an inmate in security housing. In the package, they also extended a 15-month-old “Step Down” pilot program designed to allow inmates who have been identified as “security threat group” (STG) members, or associates, to get out of isolation units at Pelican Bay and two other state prisons.
“Despite the successes the CDCR has had in removing violent and disruptive STG affiliates from the general population settings of the institutions, the department has recognized a need to evaluate current strategies and implement new approaches to address evolving STG trends consistent with security, fiscal, and offender population management needs,” the department said in a statement.
When they were introduced during California’s prison construction boom of the late 1980s and 1990s, SHUs were touted as a state-of-the-art approach to the proliferation of prison gangs involved in drug trafficking, extortion and other criminal activities.
But prisoner-rights advocates and attorneys say the Step Down program is so cumbersome it still takes an average of four years for an inmate to be released to the general population. Critics have also faulted the corrections agency for failing to abolish “debriefing” — the practice of releasing gang members or associates from the SHU in return for informing on other members or associates — and warned that the reforms may even have the negative result of “validating” more inmates for SHU placement.
“If our goal here is to limit people in solitary confinement or segregated housing … these policies … will do just the opposite,” attorney Charles Carbone predicted last week at a joint hearing of the California Senate and Assembly public safety committees. “More people will be eligible for confinement in solitary or SHU-like facilities.”
Isaac Ontiveros, a member of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, believes the CDCR cannot be trusted to reform itself and, ultimately, the state’s entire system of solitary confinement must be abolished.
The reform efforts “are kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he told MintPress in an interview.
Is it torture?
Pelican Bay State Prison, which opened in 1988, isn’t exactly luxurious for any of its roughly 2,700 high-security inmates. Located on 275 acres cleared from a dense forest in the far northwestern corner of California, it was recently named one of America’s 10 Worst Prisons by Mother Jones magazine, which described it as a “fortress of isolation.”
For the nearly 1,200 Pelican Bay inmates such as John Martinez who are housed in the prison’s SHU, life is particularly grim. They are locked up for more than 22 hours a day in 7 x 11 feet cells, fed through a slot in the cell door, and denied phone calls. Nearly 80 inmates have lived in the SHU for more than two decades, and one prisoner recently marked his 40th year in solitary.
Under the original SHU policy, prisoners “validated” as members or associates of five different prison gangs could be “validated” for SHU placement. According to a 2012 Mother Jones investigation, many Pelican Bay inmates had been validated based on their reading materials and drawings such as Aztec symbols. “One inmate’s validation includes a Christmas card with stars drawn on it — alleged gang symbols — among Hershey’s Kisses and a candy cane,” the magazine reported.
Statewide, according to testimony at a legislative hearing in October, there are currently more than 4,000 inmates in SHU units in California, about half of them confined to solitary cells. An inmate who commits a serious or violent offense in prison can be assigned to the SHU for a determinate term of six months to five years. Validated gang members or associates — a group that accounts for about 60 percent of the total SHU population — can be placed in SHU for indeterminate terms.
Studies have found that solitary confinement beyond about 15 days amounts to a form of mental and physical torture.
“The United States is an outlier with respect to isolation of prisoners and California is an outlier with respect to its extreme isolation policies and practices,” Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said at the legislative hearing Feb. 11, adding that the number of prisoners in solitary and the duration of their confinement was “shocking” by the standards of developed nations.
At the earlier hearing in October, a former SHU inmate told the public safety committees that when he “walked into California’s torture chamber, I was a whole human being. And when I left there, I was a deeply fractured human being.”
Before the Step Down program was introduced following two earlier hunger strikes over SHU conditions in 2011, parole or “debriefing” were virtually the only ways for inmates serving indeterminate terms to get out of solitary. Step Down requires inmates to advance through four steps, demonstrating a “commitment to discontinue gang activity,” before they can be released into the general population. Those in Steps Two or Three are required to complete a journal focusing on such subjects as “the reasons I’ve led a life of crime.”
The program had been in effect for less than a year when the most recent hunger strike erupted at Pelican Bay in early July.
The strikers had five principal demands, including abolition of debriefing, ending long-term solitary confinement, and expanding and providing privileges, such as wall calendars and exercise equipment for SHU inmates. It was not until late August that the CDCR responded, saying the issues had already been addressed or were non-negotiable.
“CDCR does not utilize ‘solitary confinement,’” the department insisted in a statement. ”Additionally, the length of an indeterminate SHU assignment is now determined by individual inmate behavior. It is now possible for an indeterminate term to be reduced to 3-4 years.”
The strike was only suspended Sept. 5 after Sen. Loni Hancock and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the respective chairs of the Senate and Assembly public safety committees, recognized the inmates’ demands as legitimate and promised to work on policy changes.
“I continue to have great concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons,” Hancock said at the committees’ Feb. 11 hearing. “While I understand CDCR is in the process of changing its SHU policy, my initial reading of the SHU policy left many questions unanswered.”
For his part, Ammiano noted, “There are other states that have better practices than we do, that have reduced the need for the SHU to the most minimal and have no recidivism. There’s no reason why the great state of California cannot be embracing these ideas.”
CDCR officials defended the department’s reform efforts, citing, among other things, that gang associates now must have committed “additional gang-related behavior” to be considered for placement in the SHU. A case-by-case review of 632 inmates in segregated housing, they said, had determined that 60 to 65 percent should be returned to the general population.
“Our validation process has been changed dramatically,” CDCR official Suzan Hubbard said.
In a letter to the committees, four long-term SHU inmates called the reform program a “sham” that “still maintains the basic conditions at Pelican Bay, and will continue to keep prisoners in isolation for vague gang affiliation based on artwork, literature, communications, or informants’ testimony.” And in his testimony, Carbone subjected the reforms to a withering critique.
“The coercive qualities of [the] debriefing policy have not changed and the unreliability of that evidence has also not changed,” the attorney said.
Ammiano last week introduced a bill capping the SHU confinement of a validated member or associate of a gang or security threat group at three years. Ontiveros, of the Solidarity coalition, calls that a step in the right direction but is skeptical that, under the new validation policy, there will be any net decrease in the SHU population.
With membership of or association with a “security threat group” now the basis for validation, he said, “they have actually expanded” the reach of the validation protocol.
Dolores Canales, a member of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, said there was “still a long way to go.”
“Even through the Step Down program, they can still use solitary indefinitely,” she told MintPress. “They don’t see a problem with it, with leaving somebody for 30 to 40 years in their cell. They won’t acknowledge it’s a problem.”