CRESCENT CITY, California—News coverage of the two part California inmate hunger strike focused mostly on the inmates refusing food, with little coverage on the effects of their living in solitary confinement.
On 1 July 2011, Pelican Bay State prison’s secure housing unit (SHU) inmates began a three week hunger strike, protesting SHU prison conditions. They were joined by SHU inmates from other California State prisons and went on strike for nearly another three weeks, beginning on 26 September 2011.
It was one of the largest prison strikes in California, involving tens of thousands of inmates and supporters worldwide and contributing to an ongoing debate regarding solitary confinement.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on torture Mr. Juan Méndez was quoted in a UN News Centre article on 18 October 2011. “Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”
The inmates called off the strike on 13 October 2011, when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed to meet their demands, calling for changes to SHU placement policies and treatment of SHU inmates.
CDCR’s current policy places inmates in solitary confinement if they have committed crimes in prison, or are labeled as gang members or gang affiliates. The policy has been criticized as unjust.
“There are pronounced racial disparities in solitary confinement,” University California of Santa Cruz (UCSC) Director of the Social Psychology Graduate program and Legal Studies program Professor Craig Haney told the Viễn Đông, referring to the SHU placement policy as part of the reason for the disparity. “That is certainly true in California, where Latino prisoners predominate in solitary confinement units.”
Conditions in solitary confinement are various, though the California inmates were protesting torture, including lack of medical treatment, inadequate food and water amounts, lack of activity, as well as group punishment and length of time spent in solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement’s impact on mental health
According to the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website, inmates have been placed indefinitely in solitary confinement for the past 40 years.
Although not everyone who goes into solitary confinement develops mental health issues, there are some people who do, Professor Haney told the Viễn Đông.
“We are fundamentally social animals who depend on others for feedback about the appropriateness of our feelings, the contours of our identity, and so on,” he continued, adding that isolation is a stressful experience in which people are forced to cope with an existence of nothingness. “When we don't have social contact, or live in an isolated world that doesn't "make sense," we are pushed to the edge of madness.”
People who are mentally healthy are better able to cope with solitary confinement than juveniles, whose minds are more fragile, or mentally ill people whose minds are already “damaged,” Professor Haney told the Viễn Đông.
UN call to limit solitary confinement
Mr. Méndez was quoted in the UN News Centre article as calling for limits on solitary confinement and a ban on the practice used for juveniles and mentally ill inmates.
He defined solitary confinement as any time an inmate is kept isolated from anyone except for guards, for at least 22 hours in one day.
Mr. Méndez said solitary confinement should be no longer than 15 days, adding that only a few days of isolation can produce permanent mental damage.
“In the exceptional circumstances in which its use is legitimate, procedural safeguards must be followed,” he said, adding that solitary confinement could be used as a means of protecting some inmates, including gay, lesbian, and bisexual inmates from harm. “I urge States to apply a set of guiding principles when using solitary confinement.”
According to one of Mr. Méndez’s recent reports, the United States currently holds 20,000 to 25,000 inmates in solitary confinement.
“Social isolation is one of the harmful elements of solitary confinement and its main objective,” he said. “It reduces meaningful social contact to an absolute minimum.”
Thoughts to consider
Will there be more prison hunger strikes nationwide, considering the amount of inmates currently held in solitary confinement? Was the California strike the beginning or the end? A continuation?