07/30/2013 01:20 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Religious Leaders Join the Call for an End to Torture in California Prisons

On Monday, July 8, prison inmates across California began a peaceful hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of their confinement related to solitary confinement -- a practice where prisoners are confined 23 to 24 hours a day in a small, windowless cell, without sunlight, fresh air, meaningful human contact or constructive activity, often for years or even decades. The California prisoners engaged in the hunger strike have presented five core demands, including an end to the egregious use of solitary confinement, an end to punishing whole racial-ethnic groups for the action of a single individual, and access to educational opportunities currently denied to people in solitary confinement.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture gathered more than 1,000 clergy members and faith leaders from across the country to sign a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown, asking him to honor the core demands of California prisoners in SHU (Security Housing Units), some of whom have now spent decades in indefinite solitary confinement.

The conditions of solitary confinement are so egregious that in California, thousands of prisoners continue to risk their lives to call attention to the harmful nature of prolonged solitary confinement. Many of us in the religious community are not only deeply concerned about the prisoners who are on a hunger strike, but also about their parents, spouses and children who are worried that their loved ones in prison might die. The family members also worry that the harm caused by long-term isolation may deeply affect the people they love.

The United States, with just five percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of the world's prisoners and the vast majority of all prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement. According the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 80,000 people in the U.S. criminal justice system are held in some form of segregated housing.

Many studies have documented the severe psychological effects of solitary confinement, such as hallucinations, paranoia, and increased rates of self-mutilation and suicide. Cut off from any normal human interaction, prisoners often describe the experience as one of being "buried alive." Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur for Torture for the United Nations, has testified that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be prohibited.

Prolonged solitary confinement has been recognized as torture for a long time. In 1829, the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary was opened. It was called a penitentiary because the voices of the day, including Quakers, wanted the inmates to think deeply about their crimes and to become regretful and "penitent." To help them become truly penitent, every inmate was held in solitary confinement. They had no contact with other prisoners and rarely with the guards.

However, instead of becoming penitent, the prisoners developed serious mental health problems, and many went insane. In 1842, Charles Dickens, the novelist, visited the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary and said, "The system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it... to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." When it was clear that prolonged solitary confinement was harmful, the Quakers apologized and have called for its prohibition.

In the face of indefinite solitary confinement in California Security Housing Units (SHU), I join my clergy colleagues in asking Governor Brown: "What do you say to the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (a group comprised of families of inmates who are on hunger strike) and other family members in your state about why their loved ones are harmed by long-term solitary confinement? What do you say to the mothers about why their children are risking their lives to change the nature of their confinement? What do you say when their children begin to die as a result of the hunger strike?"

As people of faith, we join with California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) in calling for an end to the torture of their sons and daughters in California Security Housing Units. The prison system in California is the largest and the most complex prison system in the country, but change can occur. The first step is for Governor Brown and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to take seriously the core demands of prisoners in SHU in order to end the hunger strike.

The faith traditions that comprise the National Religious Campaign Against Torture share a recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of each human being. Prolonged solitary confinement denies the essential human need for community, impedes genuine rehabilitation, and dishonors a person's inherent dignity.

"What will we say to the mothers?"

The time is now to heed their calls for an end to the torture that is solitary confinement.