Tuesday, July 16, 2013

California's Shame

(Editorial cartoon by Steve Sack and published 4/26/13 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and featured at Cagle.com.)

No, this post isn't about hunger strikers at Gitmo.  It's about hunger strikers in California.  More than 30,000 inmates are protesting conditions in the state's prisons.  Specifically, they are protesting the policy of  isolating certain prisoners in small cells without windows or any human contact. This "solitary confinement" is done for various reasons, none of which appear to be too valid.

Shane Bauer, who wrote this opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, investigated the situation.  He has some good credentials for doing so.  He was held for 26 months (four of them in solitary confinement) in an Iranian prison after being arrested while hiking near the Iranian border with Iraq.

If the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was as serious about reforming its use of indefinite solitary confinement as it says it is, nearly 30,000 inmates wouldn't have started on a hunger strike last week, with many thousands still refusing meals. ...

These units are bleak. In Pelican Bay State Prison's SHU, which I have visited, most inmates live alone in a 7-by-11-foot cell without windows. They are allowed to exercise, alone, for an hour a day in a 16-by-25-foot cell with a plexiglass roof. They cannot make or receive phone calls or have contact visits with family or friends. They have no access to drug treatment programs and cannot attend religious services. The average inmate remains in isolation for 7 1/2 years.

Some SHU inmates have committed heinous acts in prison, but a prisoner doesn't have to be violent to get put in the hole indefinitely. Until recently, all it took was evidence that the inmate was associated with one of a number of gangs, and the evidence had to satisfy only prison authorities; it was never reviewed by an external body or court.

The parameters for what constitutes gang activity can be arbitrary. In the thousands of pages of prisoners' case files I have reviewed, "evidence" of gang affiliation has included possession of prisoner-rights literature or books like Sun Tzu's "Art of War" or Machiavelli's "The Prince." It has included journal writings on African American history. Even use of the words tio and hermano — Spanish for "uncle" and "brother" — have been cited as evidence of gang affiliation.

A year ago when I checked the numbers, the majority of those serving indefinite SHU terms were not even considered to be gang members but rather "associates," which required only that they had been involved, at least periodically, with other gang members or associates. ...

Prison officials say that, since the last hunger strike, they have moved toward a "behavior-based" approach to SHU incarceration. While previously association with a gang was enough to earn an indefinite SHU term, now an associate must commit one or two (depending on the ranking of the gang) serious rule violations to land there.

But a close look at the new policy reveals that the department has changed the definition of "serious" rule violations. In the past, these violations would have been the kinds of things you'd expect: selling drugs, attacking another inmate, attempting to escape. Under the new policy, a serious rule violation can be the possession of self-made drawings, the wrong books or anything that "depicts affiliation" with a security threat group — in other words, the kind of stuff that has always been used to lock people in the SHU.   [Emphasis added]

It's bad enough that several years ago a federal court held that California's prisons were seriously over-crowded and ordered the release of 20,000 prisoners or the building of new prisons to house the incarcerated in a safe and humane way and to provide them with adequate medical treatment.  California responded by shipping some prisoners to out of state facilities.  Gov. Jerry Brown has resisted doing much more because the state cannot afford new structures or the addition of hundreds of parole officers to handle all of the releases.

Now we learn that there is enough room in our prisons to put prisoners in single units away from everyone else for years.

For shame, California.

For shame.

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