[Ppnews] Historic California Assembly Hearing on Solitary Confinement

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 24 10:30:15 EDT 2011

Historic California Assembly Hearing on Solitary Confinement

August 24, 2011
by Sal Rodriguez

In response to the statewide prison hunger strike 
in July, the Public Safety Committee of the 
California State Assembly, chaired by State 
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, met on Tuesday to 
discuss the conditions in California’s Secure Housing Units.

The hearing began at approximately 1:30 PM.

Assemblyman Ammiano  opened his remarks saying, 
“Recent events brought these units to the 
forefront. We want to ensure that these units are 
administrated in such a manner to maximize the 
security of the inmates in the units, general 
population inmates, prison staff and the public generally.”

Glenda Rojas, a family member of a Pelican Bay 
inmate, spoke about her cousin’s experience. “The 
system of validation is wildly out of control,” 
she said. She discussed how false accusations 
resulted in her cousin being placed into the SHU 
for ten months. She talked about the California 
Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation’s 
bureaucratic delays, intimidation, and generally 
making it difficult to challenge the validation.

Afterwards, Earl Fears a former Corcoran SHU 
inmate, spoke out against the SHU. “Things that I 
did going to prison caused me to one time going 
to the SHU program
when I was in the SHU 
program..I felt that ‘this right here has got to 
be crazy.’  I  did 18 years in and out of prison 
but a SHU program was the bottom of the pits
I witnessed in this short time I feel that
you hear a cry, a man cry, a gangster cry, a 
killer cry, a con and an ex-con cry, there’s got 
to be a reason. I feel that those who started the 
hunger strike–they had to be willing to get their 
voice out for someone to hear it for someone to 
be willing to lay down and die just for someone 
to hear the situation what goes on in the SHU 
program they must be serious. Just small thing in 
the SHU program just causes people to yell or beat against the walls

He also condemned the practice of withholding 
shower and exercise privileges as punishment 
against inmates already in a psychologically 
stressful situation. He talked about how the pain 
of solitary  confinement and not having someone 
to talk to leads to emotional anguish and the 
damage that can cause in the long-term.

“I know you said there’s regulations
and that 
it’s not everyday prisoners that are sent to the 
SHU program but they still are human. And someone needs to look into it.”

William McGarvey, a reverend and representative 
of <http://barcat.org/>Bay Area Religious 
Campaign Against Torture, testified on the 
spiritual perspective and gave a history of 
solitary confinement and it’s roots in Quaker efforts to reform prisoners.

“Prisoners suffer and our communities suffer when 
return to our communities
psychologically broken.”

McGarvey raised the placement into solitary of 
Native Americans and Rastafarians for refusing to 
cut their hair or remove dreadlocks, 
respectively. He also spoke about Islamophobia 
and how it has contributed to a ballooning 
solitary population in federal prisons: “60-75% 
in CMU’s (Communication Management Units) are Muslim.”

“[Solitary confinement results in] the 
destruction of the human spirit of the human spirit,” McGarvey said.

At 2:05, Charles Carbone, a San Francisco 
prisoner rights lawyer with extensive experience 
representing gang members, stated that SHU’s 
undermine both prison and community safety.

Carbone blasted the bureaucracy of the CDCR and 
in particular those tasked with reviewing the 
legitimacy of gang validation: “Their record of 
overturning those gang validation packets is next to nil.”

Carbone criticized the validation 
process–including the double counting of 
incidents on the “three point” system to validate 
inmates, and the use of trivial evidence to 
validate someone, citing a case in possessing the 
book “The Art of War” served as grounds for validation.

He also cited $56,000 per inmate  in costs that SHU units incur.

At 2:15, Craig Haney, a professor of psychology 
and a nationally recognized expert on solitary 
confinement, made several points. Officials 
should have known since the 1980s that a prison 
like Pelican Bay will “expose inmates to 
psychologically dangerous conditions of confinement.”

Haney quoted the opinion of Judge Henderson in 
the Madrid v. Gomez case: that Pelican Bay State 
Prison “may press the outer borders of what most 
humans can psychologically tolerate.”

Haney pointed out that the only human contact of 
inmates in solitary is the “incidental brushing 
up against prison guards” as they handcuff them 
for transport to cages for exercise.

“There is now clear and convincing evidence,” 
according to Haney, that the SHU model of dealing 
with gangs doesn’t work and may even make things 
worse. He cited increases in gang violence over 
the past few decades as indicating the 
ineffectiveness of SHU use in curbing such violence.

Laura Magnani of the American Friends and Service 
Committee then spoke. She began by quoting the 
Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s 
Prisons, and noted that SHU’s cost at least 
“twice as much” as general population.

She then read a portion of the United Nations 
Convention Against Torture, Article 1 Section 1:

“Any act by which severe pain or suffering, 
whether physical or mental, is intentionally 
inflicted on a person for such purposes as 
obtaining from him or a third person, information 
or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a 
third person has committed or is suspected of 
having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person

In the case of women, Magnani stated that 
segregation can be an “extreme form of oppression 
and trauma” particularly for women who have a 
prior history of abuse at the hands of men. The 
lack of privacy for women in institutions guarded 
by largely male was also condemned by Magnani.

Magnani pointed to violent cell extractions, 
hogtying and contraband searches as “not only 
violate international treaties but our own sense of human decencies.”

She went on to make various recommendations, 
including restoring the right of reporters to 
enter and interview prisoners, saying, “Free 
press is one of the most important safe guard against abuses.”

She also called for the implementation of limits 
a person can be held in isolation and encouraged 
constant review of whether confinement necessary.

At 2:30, Dorsey Nunn of Legal Services for 
Prisoners with Children/All of Us or None spoke.

He recounted a meeting with an inmate at Pelican 
Bay who has been in PBSB since 1988, who knew 
about Abu Graib abuses and questioned the 
difference between the torture of Abu Graib and 
the outrage it inspired versus the conditions of 
solitary confinement in United States prisons.

The inmate, an African American who, in 20 years, 
had only legally spoken to one other African 
American, had been thrown into disciplinary 
segregation for attempting to speak to another.

Nunn questioned the deprivation of human contact 
and the ability of someone to do something as 
simple as speak to someone of the same race.

He also challenged the validation system, notably 
the confidential nature of debriefings and the 
inability of those accused of being gang members to confront their accusers.

Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and an authority 
on the mental health effects of solitary,  was 
next. “The prisoners demands are very reasonable. 
They’re actually common sense.” He said the CDCR 
is “absolutely not” in compliance with the report 
of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in 
America’s Prisons, despite claims to the 
contrary.  “For prisoners needs to be blatantly 
ignored­the process has to be secret. And otherwise citizens would be upset.”

He echoed calls for lifting of the media bans.

“While the Department of Corrrections will say 
they are implementing changes
they actually haven’t done a thing since 2007.”

Remarking on the claims that the CDCR “need these 
supermax” facilities, he noted the  increase in 
violence within the prison system. He went on to 
speak about Mississippi and its dramatic 
reduction in segregation units and the accompanies decreases in incidents.

“There needs to be conduct based assignment” in 
California prisons, “what we have is not conduct 
that gets you in there, but the assumption that you’re a gang member.”

“In any state prison system
over half of the 
actual successful suicides in the entire prison 
system involve the 2-6% that are in 
Suicide and acting out have their 
roots in the despair of segregation,” Kupers said.

“There need to be alternatives to debriefing,” 
Kupers stated, pointing to the high recidivism 
rates that result from inmates being released 
straight from solitary without any time spent in the general prison population.

At 2:52, CDCR officials arrived to speak and answer questions.

Scott Kernan, Undersecretary of Operations, 
represented the CDCR. He immediately defended the 
practice of segregation on the grounds that it 
allows CDCR to control violent gang members and 
that segregation is “critical” to allow other 
inmates to program successfully and get out.

He noted that 3,000 out of 165,000 California inmates were in solitary.

He defended segregation by noting that various courts have upheld the practice.

“What might be a human rights violation is the 
violence that gangs perpetuation­not segregation,” he said.

“The department agrees that we can and should 
make some changes to SHU policies,” he said, and 
stated that the CDCR and “within months not 
years” will make changes, primarily through the 
implementation of “behavior based systems.” Such 
a system would entail a step-down process and 
will encourage inmates to “earn their way out of the system.”

In response to a question by Ammiano regarding 
the slow speed of reform in CDCR policies, Kernan 
replied, “We’re going through the worst economic 
situation since the Great Depression”

“Are you making changes?” asked Ammiano.

“The inmates have a choice to come out of the 
system,” Kernan said and indicated that of those 
inmates who have been validated “99% of them will 
say you got it right. He also stated that “we 
will continue to have a debriefing process” and 
that keeping it “will not dissuade someone from 
getting out of the gang” as “they will be able by 
their own behavior work their way out of the SHU.”

In response to the confidentiality of the 
debriefing process, Kernan answered that “we will 
continue to use confidential informants.”

Regarding a question as to whether or not 
anonymous accusers will be given an opportunity 
to face their accusers, Kernan replied, “No Sir” 
and went on to say “we are going to make it as fair as we possibly can.”

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner commented in response 
to Kernan’s remarks that “the data that we heard 
indicates that once a prisoner is in the SHU at 
Pelican Bay it is very infrequent for them to be 
moved out. I see a bit of a disconnect between your answer

Kernan repeatedly indicated that the average stay 
in the SHU is 6.8 years and that “what I said was 
that offenders in the SHU with mountains of 
documentation of their violations inmates 
involving themselves in terrible assaults on inmates and staff

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell commented: “I was 
cautiously optimistic about hearing [what you had 
to say]
I have to say I am concerned, quite 
frankly I’m disappointed” by Kernan’s defense of the status quo.

In response, Kernan stressed the need for current 
standards in order to curb gang violence.

Mitchell followed up and asked if there were and 
checks and balances when it came to the 
validation process. Kernan indicated that all 
decisions are made within the CDCR with 
cooperation between prison officials and CDCR 
administrators, to which Mitchell responded that 
CDCR has more say than the judiciary.

Public Comment began at 3:34. A sample of those who spoke and what was said:

Julie Tackett spoke and told the story of Bryan. 
You can read more of Bryan’s story 

James Harris of the Socialist Workers Party spoke 
out calling for the abolition of the SHU.

Gail Brown with Life Support Alliance stressed 
the need for stakeholders to be included in the process of reform.

“Hariett”, a sister-in-law of an inmate in 
solitary for 25 years, asked how her 65 year old 
brother-in-law could possibly be a gang member 
anymore after 25 years in solitary.

Manuel LaFontane a former prisoner stated that 
the CDCR’s comments before the hearing were “a 
smokescreen to get away with inhumanity.” He 
recounted an experience in prison in which a 
prison guard told him “We are the gang.” He left 
with the question: “Does the fact that we cab 
label someone mean we can torture them?”

Amber, sister of PBSP inmate, asserted that 
inmates were willing to lose their lives for what they felt was right.

Carol Travis, of Walnut Creek, who had the 
opportunity to interview multiple inmates at 
Pelican Bay described the emotional experience as “profound and surprising.”

Dolores Canales, mother of a son in the SHU for 
10 years: “They do have dignity and they want to be heard.”

Some speakers described reasons for their loved 
ones being placed in solitary. Among them: 
exercising with validated gang member, and for 
having a book by George Jackson. Many spoke to 
the ease of being placed in the gang database.

A representative of the California Network of 
Mental Health Clients stated that “the conditions 
in the SHU’s are so deleterious to mental and 
physical health that many more people experience 
mental health issues in the SHU and in the 
community when and if they improve” and declared support for reform.

A Ventura Youth Facility parole officer pointed 
to the commonality of problems in the juvenile 
prison system and said to the assembly-members, 
“If you’re not compelled by the stories here I don’t know what will.”

A representative of the Critical Resistance 
spoke, saying “Long term broad based action 
necessary. We the people and residents of 
 are making it clear that we want changes to the prison system

 From California Prison Focus,A phone 
call­havwn’t seen in 14, haven’t talked for 2 
years, only had 10 minutes to inform the death of his grandmother

A story was told of an inmate not allowed to 
donate his kidney because he was in the 
SHU­resulting in the intended recipient dying. 
The inmate had been sent to solitary due to 
possessing a book that suggested gang ties.

A member of the San Quentin Six spoke on behalf 
of 66-year old Hugo Pinell who has been in 
solitary for 40 years despite not having a 
disciplinary write up for over 30 years.

Public comment went on until 4:48 and the hearing thereafter adjourned.

Ammiano has said that there will be future hearings on the issue.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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