Critique follows lawsuit alleging psychological torture at infamous Pelican Bay
Tucked away in a remote corner of Northern California is one of the most brutal behavioral experiments of the modern era: Upwards of 500 men housed for more than a decade straight in tiny, windowless, concrete tombs.
Pelican Bay, which opened in 1989, was specifically designed to foster maximum isolation. Prisoners are denied phone calls, contact visits, and recreational or vocational programming. But the designers did not plan for the sensory deprivation to be perpetual; stays in the "SHU" (Segregated Housing Unit) were originally intended to last 18 months or less.
Now, in a scathing report, Amnesty International has lambasted conditions in the SHU as "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" punishment that violates international law on the treatment of prisoners.
California holds more than 3,000 prisoners in SHU's, with more than 1,000 at Pelican Bay. No other U.S. state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation, the Amnesty International investigators found.
A spokesman for the prison system responded with the rather outlandish nonsequitur that California has no solitary confinement, because SHU prisoners are able (if they have funds) to buy televisions and watch cable channels, including ESPN.
The Amnesty report follows on the heels of a class-action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Law on behalf of 10 SHU prisoners who claim that long-term isolation is slowly destroying their bodies and minds, in violation of international standards against torture and inhumane treatment.
Ruiz v. Brown, alleges that prisoners have no means to escape solitary confinement, other than to become government informants against prison gangs, which would put them and their families at risk.
While the prison system claims these are the "worst of the worst," the men claim they are being held in solitary confinement as punishment for their lack of cooperation with prison administrators, based on very thin evidence of gang affiliation. For several, their housing status alone prevents them from being eligible for parole.
Evidence of their supposed continued gang affiliation, the lawsuit says, includes:
- Saying "hello" to a prisoner from a different gang
- Possessing a drawing of an Aztec tattoo
- Possessing a pamphlet in Swahili, a language spoken by 60 million Africans that is categorized by the Department of Corrections as a "banned language"
- Having a Black Power tattoo
- Having a book about George Jackson (Paul Liberatore's The Road to Hell: the True Story of George Jackson, Stephen Bingham, and the San Quentin Massacre)
Plaintiff Paul Redd, for example, has spent 33 of the past 35 years in solitary confinement, the last dozen at Pelican Bay. He would be eligible for parole if not for his purported status as a "captain" in the Black Guerrilla Family despite no evidence of any gang activity in the past six years. His SHU status is allegedly based on old confidential memoranda stating he had communicated with other BGF members, plus possession of drawings, collages and booklets related to George Jackson and the Black Panthers.
A hunger strike last year, supported by up to 6,600 prisoners at 13 other prisons around the state, led to raised hopes, but so far no meaningful reform.
Psychological effects of long-term isolation
In their lawsuit, prisoners who have spent a mind-boggling one to two decades in solitary confinement describe an inexorable descent into hopelessness and despair, with crippling loneliness and a constant struggle to stave off psychosis. They report pervasive insomnia, anxiety, hallucinations, mood swings, violent nightmares, panic attacks and a profound rage that they attempt to stifle by numbing all feeling. One prisoner described feeling like "walking dead," while another said he hears disembodied voices and feels like he is "silently screaming 24 hours a day."
Plaintiff Danny Troxell, for example, reports that he does not initiate conversations, is not motivated to do anything, and feels as if he is in a stupor much of the time. He often becomes "blank" or out of touch with his feelings.
These symptoms echo the findings of mental health experts who examined Pelican Bay prisoners as far back as 1995, six years after the prison opened, in connection with an earlier lawsuit (Madrid v Gomez) over the mental health effects of solitary confinement. At that time, Stuart Grassian, MD, an expert on segregation psychosis, found many men were already deteriorating into psychosis, paranoia, suicidality, and other psychological reactions to their unnatural isolation. Craig Haney, meanwhile, found that nearly all of the prisoners he sampled during that period reported symptoms of psychological distress such as intrusive thoughts, oversensitivity to external stimuli, difficulties with attention or memory, profound depression and social withdrawal.
Over time, prisoners can barely recall what it feels like to experience physical contact with another human being. Luis Esquivel, for example, has not shaken another person’s hand in 13 years and fears that he has forgotten the feel of human contact; "he spends a lot of time wondering what it would feel like to shake the hand of another person," according to the class-action lawsuit.
And what about mental health treatment?
"Every two weeks, a psychologist walks past the prisoners' cells, calling out 'good morning,' or 'you okay?' The psychologist walks past eight cells in approximately 30 seconds during these 'rounds.' "
Last year, a Special Rapporteur with the United Nations declared that prolonged solitary confinement constitutes torture, and that even 15 days in solitary confinement violates an individual’s human rights.
In the wake of its investigation, Amnesty is calling for ratcheting down isolation so it is only used as a "last resort" for severely unruly prisoners who endanger others, immediate removal of prisoners who have already spent years in the isolation units, and improving conditions for those who remain by allowing them more exercise and opportunity for human contact and phone calls to their families.
The Amnesty report can be found HERE; the amended petition in Ruiz v. Brown is HERE. An online petition in support of the SHU prisoners' demands is HERE. The featured artwork is by Gabriel Reyes, one of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. More information on Reyes and his art is HERE.
Related blog posts:
Supermax: Hell on earth or . . . not as bad as we thought? (Jan. 6, 2011)
Historic hunger strike by Supermax prisoners continues (July 15, 2011)
Willie Bosket: Tale of a wasted life (Sept. 23, 2008)
Why does the United States lock up so many people? (Jan. 29, 2012)