A report released yesterday by the Human Rights Coalition, a nonprofit organization concerned with prisoners’ rights, provides a vivid and grim picture of life inside the solitary confinement unit of the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon in south-central Pennsylvania. The report describes what it calls a “culture of terror” in the prison’s Restricted Housing Unit (RHU).
For purposes of this report, a culture of terror is defined as a set of assumptions and practices that divide a community into those with absolute power and those who are absolutely powerless. This dynamic is inherent within the logic of prisons, and is at its most intense in the solitary confinement units…Those with power in this culture reinforce their rule through a strict code of silence whereby they refuse to inform on one another to those higher up or outside of the prison hierarchy. Prison guards enforce their rule through threats and use of force, along with deprivations of basic necessities such as food, water, hygienic items, cleaning supplies, clothing, and bedding. Prison administrators and top officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) adopt an informal though strictly enforced policy of turning a blind eye to reports of torture and abuse.
Those without power—prisoners—are more often than not divided against one another, enticed to assault and inform on one another in exchange for more favorable treatment. Those individuals who strive to cultivate an ethic of solidarity amongst the oppressed are viewed as the system’s greatest threat and consequently made an example of via relentless abuse and indefinite, potentially permanent placement in solitary confinement.
The core elements of this culture of terror include:
- arbitrary, biased process for establishing who is placed in solitary;
- utilization of fabricated misconducts as a tool of retaliation;
- systematic denial of prisoner grievances regardless of their merit;
- the use of violence as a standard technique for enforcing obedience;
- refusal to engage in constructive dialogue on the part of prison authorities;
- targeting witnesses of abuse for purposes of intimidation;
- displays of overt racism as a tool of dehumanization.
The report does an exceptional job of explaining and documenting the mechanics of the process by which prisoners are placed and held–sometimes indefinitely–in solitary. Inmates end up in solitary largely on the say-so of guards, against which they have virtually no recourse. “The threat of solitary confinement and the ability to impose it upon a prisoner arbitrarily creates a predictable and intentional stifling of grievances,” the report argues. “Intimidating prisoners into not pursuing grievances discourages them from filing lawsuits as well, since federal law mandates that prisoners must ‘exhaust administrative remedies’ prior to filing a lawsuit” under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. When an inmate does go ahead and file a grievance, it is likely to go nowhere. According to the report, “97.89 percent of the 43,853 grievances filed by prisoners [in 2008] were rejected for various reasons,” based on the Department of Corrections’ own records.
Prisoners who file grievances or otherwise protest their conditions are also subject to retaliation. The HRC report provides several examples, including withholding food, water, showers, and mattresses as well as forced cell extractions and the use of pepper spray and restraint chairs. It calls retaliation “the lynchpin holding together the culture of terror in the solitary units at Huntingdon, as it involves the targeted application of violence and the deprivation of basic necessities with the deliberate intent of silencing protest, public exposure, and legal action.” One prisoner who says he was punished for trying to report abuse in the RHU asks in a letter, “Are we worthy of the same rights as a civilian witness who is being intimidated not to testify or are we unworthy of protection due to the fact that we are convicts?”
What makes the depth and detail of this report remarkable is the extreme difficulty of obtaining information about what goes on in solitary confinement. It is generally close to impossible for journalists, researchers, and advocates to gain access to these units. HRC based its report largely on what it describes as a “review of more than a thousand pages of letters, affidavits, grievances, misconducts, other prison documents, legal paperwork, and conversations with family members” over the past year. Critics of the report will no doubt raise questions about the veracity of the prisoners’ accounts, but they have the ring of truth and echo what we have heard from and about prisoners in other facilities. More importantly, they represent the public’s only window into a deeply hidden world about which we know virtually nothing–but for which we are, ultimately, responsible.
If nothing else, this report should lead to other investigations and eventually some form of meaningful action and oversight by the state legislature, Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, and Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. HRC ends the report with a series of recommendations that include such investigations. The group has sent the report to state and federal officials, and provides their addresses here.