Solitary Watch was among the many co-sponsors of a public panel discussion on “Isolation Units within U.S. Prisons,” organized and hosted by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which was held in San Francisco on April 5. The following report on the event comes from David Id, a reporter and editor for San Francisco Bay Area Indymedia. You can listen to the full audio of the panel here on Indymedia’s site.
At the Women’s Building in San Francisco, the Center for Constitutional Rights gathered a panel of experts to discuss the history and the ramifications of solitary confinement and experimental isolation units in the U.S. prison system. The panel featured Zahra Billoo, Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-San Francisco Bay Area; Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., the Wright Institute; Keramet Reiter, JD, PhD Candidate Berkeley Law; Nahal Zamani, Education and Outreach Associate, Center for Constitutional Rights; and Eddy Zheng, former inmate and prisoner rights advocate. The panel was moderated by Sara Norman, attorney, Prison Law Office.
Panelists explain that it was without public involvement that supermax prisons began to be built in the United States in the late 1980s. The first was in Arizona, to be followed by Pelican Bay in California and a federal supermax in Colorado in 1994. Today, a majority of states have at least one supermax prison or penitentiary, several having up to four, and virtually every prison now includes Security Housing Units (SHUs) which specialize in sensory deprivation.
While virtually all jails and prisons in the United States have historically contained isolation units of one form or another, the newer style of prisons known as “supermax,” along with SHUs, consist entirely of segregated, solitary confinement, isolation units, where prisoners are generally allowed outside of their individual cells no more than one hour per day. The ill effects of sensory depravation in these prisons can be devastating for inmates, even more so for those previously suffering from any mental health issues. On a societal level, isolation units are counterproductive to prisons being institutions for rehabilitation when inmates are psychologically tortured while behind bars.
In California and some other states, monitoring prison conditions and inmate health is made especially difficult due the the secrecy enforced through gag rules against reporters interviewing prisoners. Panelists note that the U.S. Constitution is being mooted by rules such as these and other denials of basic civil rights in supermax prisons. Solitary confinement for years without trial, or while awaiting trial, is used to “break” Muslim prisoners. Minors are being held in solitary as well, charged as adults after the passage of Proposition 21 in California.
In 2006, a new type of isolation unit in federal penitentiaries was established called Communications Management Units (CMUs), despite objections from civil liberties organizations. These new facilities offer no contact visits and only four hours a month with family and friends. Due to public pressure, the time allowed was increased to two four-hour visits in January of 2010. Additionally, visits are often difficult as prisoners can be sent hundreds if not thousands of miles from where they live. CMU inmates are allowed two fifteen-minute calls per month, in which family members must be as succinct as possible and pass the phone quickly to everyone who wants to speak.
Over 65% of inmates in CMUs are Muslim. The next largest populations are political prisoners, either environmental and animal activists who are now classified as “terrorists” by law enforcement agencies and those who have become prison civil liberties activists while behind bars. Given who is currently being held in isolation units, there are obvious parallels between the growth of supermax prisons, SHUs, and CMUs domestically and notorious U.S. military prisons abroad such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Panelists field questions from the audience for about twenty minutes at the conclusion of their talk. The event was co-sponsored by the Civil Liberties Defense Center, Solitary Watch, Freedom Archives, Arab Resource and Organizing Center, National Lawyers Guild – San Francisco Chapter, National Lawyers Guild – Boalt Hall Chapter, California Prison Focus, Animal Legal Defense Fund-Stanford University, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Anti-Racism Committee of the National Lawyers Guild-San Francisco Chapter, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Hastings Prisoner Outreach, Stanford Criminal Law Society, ACLU of Northern California, Prison Legal News, All of Us or None, Critical Resistance – Oakland Chapter and Green is the New Red.