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Challenging Punishment: What the California Prisoners Hunger Strike Tells Us About Mass Incarceration

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The hunger strike at Pelican Bay is the third such action in the past two years and only the most recent in a 20-year history of protests against conditions there going back to the 1995 Madrid v. Gomez case. Now the strike has spread to roughly two-thirds of the state's 33 prisons, currently involving at least 12,000 prisoners and perhaps as many as 30,000. Strikers' demands vary, but in total include an increase in hourly wages (currently 13 cents); more humane treatment; and the restoration of educational, rehabilitative, vocational and mental and physical health services recently excised from prison budgets. One of the main demands is an address of the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, or extreme isolation, in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) and supermax prisons, in which prisoners are locked in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, and denied contact with anyone except prison staff.

What the strike highlights -- missed by most of the public -- is the deeply troubling nature of extreme isolation in U.S. penology. According to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons, SHUs, where most prison solitary confinement takes place, are housing units in which "inmates are securely separated from the general inmate population ... [to] help ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation of correctional facilities." In reality, SHUs often are the sites of extreme and indefinite punishment for often trivial infractions. Many prisoners have spent months and even years in SHUs, deprived of the basic human interactions necessary for mental health; and of the forms of education, mental health treatments, and vocational training necessary for the rehabilitation which carceral institutions are ostensibly there to provide. Entire institutions -- supermax prisons -- are based solely on the philosophy of extreme isolation.

The number of individuals in solitary confinement/administrative segregation at any given time is not easily ascertained, largely because of the variance in record keeping and reporting among the U.S.'s city, state, and federal prisons, detention facilities, and jails.

Solitary Watch estimates that the number is at least 80,000, "including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons." However, in the long history of the American prison, extreme isolation is relatively new, and brutal, feature. The first 23-hour lockdown came in 1983, after the murders of two of correctional officers at the Marion, Illinois, U.S. Penitentiary. Emerging soon after, supermax prisons modeled themselves on this approach to confinement, while other correctional facilities constructed solitary confinement wards. Various departments of corrections have initiated and escalated their use of extreme isolation over the past 30 years: in just the years between 1995 and 2000, the number of individuals held in segregated cells rose by 40 percent, and by 2004, as many as 44 states reported having one or another form of supermax housing. The expansion of SHUs, the Vera Institute of Justice has shown, has been "accompanied by increasingly severe conditions of confinement" for infractions far less serious than murder. These may include being involved in a fight or simple disobedience of an order. Human Rights Watch reports that SHU confinement is liberally wielded as retribution for nonviolent or political acts such as voicing protest of prison conditions, assisting other prisoners in habeas corpus appeals, or engaging in litigation against the prison. A growing proportion of SHU residents are individuals with established and diagnosed mental health conditions which penal institutions are ill equipped or unwilling to treat properly. An unknown number of the roughly 95,000 minors held in adult jails in prisons are also subject to extreme isolation, either as punishment or for their own protection from the dangers of incarceration with adults.

The inhumane effects of extreme isolation are fairly well known, and have been for some time. In 1890, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller observed firsthand (in In Re Medley, 134 U.S. 160) that prisoners denied meaningful contact with other human beings quickly exhibited a range of behaviors, including signs of heightened violent state, suicide attempts, and severe depression "from which it was next to impossible to arouse them." Even those who survived relatively undamaged "were not generally reformed." Germany initially modeled its prison system after America's, but there physicians in the latter half of the 19th century documented the mental health harms -- including psychosis -- of extreme isolation. More recently, studies have confirmed these and other findings, including elevated risk of suicide and self-harm, and severe anxiety and paranoia. The frequent denial of access to needed medical and psychiatric services also has been documented. Perhaps most importantly, as one scholarly review has argued "the characterization of SHU convicts as being 'the worst of the worst' contributes to an us-against-them mindset among correctional staff. This orientation serves only to heighten the potential for the abuse of prisoners ... The primary purpose of SHUs is to exercise complete control and dominion over convicts."

So apparent are the negative effects of extreme isolation that several organizations - including the ACLU, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Human Rights Watch, and others -- have taken public stands against the practice. In October 2011, Juan Mendez, the United Nations' United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture called on all member states to abolish solitary confinement except in very exceptional cases, in which it should be limited to 15 or fewer days, and never applied to children or the mentally impaired. At the prompting of a petition submitted by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter (AIASF) in early March of this year voted to amend its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to ban even the design of solitary confinement or execution chambers. For several years, the Correctional Association of New York has made the investigation of solitary confinement one of its top priorities.

Over a century of evidence makes it clear that the inhumane treatment of prisoners by the practice of extreme isolation furthers no goal of rehabilitation, and dehumanizes its practitioners as well as its victims. This is a human rights issue, but it is also one of governance. A robust democracy and healthy populace cannot be maintained by or despite the infliction of such psychological and physical damage on tens of thousands of its citizens.