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Starving For Better Conditions in California Prisons

Amy Fettig,
Deputy Director,
National Prison Project
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July 8, 2011

How terrible would things have to be for you to stop eating and possibly starve yourself to death? For prisoners in California, their conditions of confinement — severe and prolonged isolation in small, windowless concrete boxes — have reached that level. Prisoners in California are now on a hunger strike, protesting inhumane conditions in Pelican Bay State Prison.

Some of the prisoners are incarcerated at Pelican Bay in solitary confinement, but hundreds of others are protesting in solidarity with those prisoners. This is a remarkable action for any group of people and perhaps even more so for people locked up and isolated from one another.

It’s also a good indication of the horrors of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay and other prisons like it. Today, 44 states and the federal government have built similar “supermax” institutions housing at least 25,000 people nationwide. Like Pelican Bay, these institutions place prisoners in solitary confinement where they are alone in a cell for 22-24 hours a day with little human contact or interaction; reduced or no natural light; restriction or denial of reading material, television, radios or other property; severe constraints on visitation; and the inability to participate in group activities, including eating with others. The amount of time a person spends in solitary confinement varies, but in California and too many other states, it can last for years or decades.

The negative effects of such conditions on human beings are well documented and are reflected in the staggering suicide rates and high incidence of self-mutilation seen in solitary confinement prisons. In California, for example, while about 5 percent of the state’s prison population was held in solitary confinement in 2005, those units accounted for almost 70 percent of inmate suicides. Such terrible outcomes cannot be ignored. In fact, in the last few years, states as diverse as Texas, Maine, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois and Mississippi have begun to question the overuse of solitary confinement, its costs, and its harmful impact on prisoners and ultimately, public safety. It’s high time for California to do the same.

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