As we have written before, the three-week-long hunger strike in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay–which was joined by inmates at a dozen other California prisons–may have wrung few tangible concessions from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But it achieved something less measurable, but in some senses far more important: For a few weeks, the men of the Pelican Bay SHU ceased to be invisible. They forced the media and the public to bear witness to their torment, and see long-term solitary confinement for what it is: one of the most pressing domestic human rights issues of our time.
The media’s responses varied, as did the public’s (as any reader of online comment will know). One of the publications that refused to turn its face away from the reality of prison torture was arguably the most important one of all–the New York Times. The Times not only covered the strike as news, but also addressed it directly on its editorial pages. First came a powerful op-ed by Colin Dayan, author of The Story of Cruel and Unusual, which pointed out: “Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention. The Supreme Court, over the last two decades, has whittled steadily away at the rights of inmates, surrendering to prison administrators virtually all control over what is done to those held in ‘administrative segregation.’” In this context, Dayan wrote, “Hunger strikes are the only weapons prisoners have left.” He suggested: “Maybe one way to react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to death might be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings.”
Today, the New York Times’s lead editorial is “Cruel Isolation.” Appearing with the tag line “A California prison protest spotlighted widespread use of torturous solitary confinement,” it was clearly inspired by the hunger strike. It states that “the protest has raised awareness about the national shame of extended solitary confinement at Pelican Bay and at high-security, ‘supermax’ prisons all around the country.” By publishing the editorial, the Times ensures that this awareness will be further raised, and brings a desperate cry out of the depths of the Pelican Bay SHU to millions of readers worldwide. The full text of the editorial follows.
For many decades, the civilized world has recognized prolonged isolation of prisoners in cruel conditions to be inhumane, even torture. The Geneva Conventions forbid it. Even at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where prisoners were sexually humiliated and physically abused systematically and with official sanction, the jailers had to get permission of their commanding general to keep someone in isolation for more than 30 days.
So Americans should be disgusted and outraged that prolonged solitary confinement, sometimes for months or even years, has become a routine form of prison management. It is inflicting unnecessary, indecent and inhumane suffering on tens of thousands of prisoners.
The issue came to the fore most recently because of a three-week hunger strike by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in California near the Oregon border that began on July 1 in the Orwellian Security Housing Unit, where inmates are held in wretched isolation in small windowless cells for more than 22 hours a day, some for many years.
Possessions, reading material, exercise and exposure to natural light and the outside are severely restricted. Meals are served through slots in steel cell doors. There is little in the way of human interaction. Returning to the general prison population is often conditioned on inmates divulging information on other gang members, putting themselves in jeopardy.
How inmates in these circumstances communicated to organize the protest is unclear, but it quickly spread to other California prisons. About 6,600 inmates participated at its peak. California’s huge prison system is dysfunctional in so many ways. In May, the Supreme Court found conditions at the overcrowded prisons so egregious that they violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to cut its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates. The case did not address the issue of long-term solitary confinement.
With their health deteriorating, those inmates continuing to fast resumed eating after state prison officials met a few modest demands. Inmates in Pelican Bay’s isolation unit will get wool caps for cold weather, wall calendars to mark the passing time and some educational programming. Prison officials said current isolation and gang management policies are under review. But the protest has raised awareness about the national shame of extended solitary confinement at Pelican Bay and at high-security, “supermax” prisons all around the country.
Once used occasionally as a short-term punishment for violating prison rules, solitary confinement’s prevalent use as a long-term prison management strategy is a fairly recent development, Colin Dayan, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said in a recent Op-Ed article in The Times. Nationally, more than 20,000 inmates are confined in “supermax” facilities in horrid conditions.
Prison officials claim the treatment is necessary for combating gang activity and other threats to prison order. It is possible to maintain physical separation of prisoners without ultraharsh levels of deprivation and isolation. Mississippi, which once set the low bar for terrible prison practices, saw a steep reduction of prison violence and ample monetary savings when it dramatically cut back on long-term solitary several years ago.
Holding prisoners in solitary also is very expensive, and several other states have begun to make reductions. In any case, decency requires limits. Resorting to a dehumanizing form of punishment well known to induce suffering and drive people into mental illness is beyond them.