In July, hundreds of prisoners confined in Pelican Bay State Prison and nine other California correctional facilities protested the heinous conditions of their confinement with the only means they had: their ability to peacefully refuse food. After the prisoners starved for three weeks, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed to a policy review of its solitary confinement, or Security Housing Units (SHU), where prisoners are confined alone in tiny, windowless concrete cells, often for years on end. With that agreement, the prisoners ended their hunger strike.
The prisoners’ demands include a request that the prison implement the recommendations of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (CSAAP) to end the damaging, unnecessary and counterproductive conditions of severe isolation. The findings of CSAAP’s 2006 report indicate what the prisoners at Pelican Bay know firsthand: solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness and significantly reduces the odds of successfully reentering society upon release.
Beyond the inhumanity of locking someone up for years in a barren, bathroom-sized cell, this practice is exceedingly expensive – the construction of solitary confinement units can cost two to three times more than traditional housing units. And the lack of success upon release of those confined in the SHU means they’ll likely end up right back in prison, costing taxpayers even more money.
Despite these facts, the CDCR responded to the first strike with embarrassingly paltry concessions, such as watch caps and calendars for the prisoners. While such niceties did not go unappreciated, the CDCR has not addressed the root of the severe problems that lurk in the SHU. By handing prisoners these “consolation prizes” and ignoring the real issues at hand, prison officials ensure that the abusive cycle of solitary confinement will continue, producing prisoners who are unfit to successfully return to society.
Facing the second strike, prison officials are threatening to “crack down” on strikers, responding with disciplinary action. But treating the prisoners’ peaceful response to excessively harsh punishment with more punishment only creates more problems. It’s time for the CDCR to step up and respond appropriately. Continuing to deny the facts about solitary confinement is a self-defeating practice that damages human beings, incurs incredible costs and negatively affects public safety.
Are you one of the many people who have been affected by solitary confinement - either because you experienced it yourself or you know someone who did? If so, tell us your story and what it meant to you.