[Ppnews] Barbarous Confinement

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 18 10:19:26 EDT 2011


Barbarous Confinement


Published: July 17, 2011

MORE than 1,700 prisoners in California, many of 
whom are in maximum isolation units, have gone on 
a hunger strike. The protest began with inmates 
in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State 
Prison. How they have managed to communicate with 
each other is anyone's guess — but their protest 
is everyone's concern. Many of these prisoners 
have been sent to virtually total isolation and 
enforced idleness for no crime, not even for 
alleged infractions of prison regulations. Their 
isolation, which can last for decades, is often 
not explicitly disciplinary, and therefore not 
subject to court oversight. Their treatment is 
simply a matter of administrative convenience.

Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an 
occasional tool of discipline into a widespread 
form of preventive detention. The Supreme Court, 
over the last two decades, has whittled steadily 
away at the rights of inmates, surrendering to 
prison administrators virtually all control over 
what is done to those held in "administrative 
segregation." Since it is not defined as 
punishment for a crime, it does not fall under 
"cruel and unusual punishment," the reasoning goes.

As early as 1995, a federal judge, Thelton E. 
Henderson, conceded that so-called "supermax" 
confinement "may well hover on the edge of what 
is humanly tolerable," though he ruled that it 
remained acceptable for most inmates. But a 
psychiatrist and Harvard professor, Stuart 
Grassian, had found that the environment was 
"strikingly toxic," resulting in hallucinations, 
paranoia and delusions. In a "60 Minutes" 
interview, he went so far as to call it "far more 
egregious" than the death penalty.

Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, 
claim that those incarcerated in the Security 
Housing Unit are "the worst of the worst." Yet 
often it is the most vulnerable, especially the 
mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in 
indefinite isolation. Placement is haphazard and 
arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as 
troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional 
officers and, most of all, alleged gang members. 
Often, the decisions are not based on evidence. 
And before the inmates are released from the 
barbarity of 22-hour-a-day isolation into normal 
prison conditions (themselves shameful) they are 
often expected to "debrief," or spill the beans on other gang members.

The moral queasiness that we must feel about this 
method of extracting information from those in 
our clutches has all but disappeared these days, 
thanks to the national shame of "enhanced 
interrogation techniques" at Guantánamo. Those in 
isolation can get out by naming names, but if 
they do so they will likely be killed when 
returned to a normal facility. To "debrief" is to 
be targeted for death by gang members, so the 
prisoners are moved to "protective custody" — 
that is, another form of solitary confinement.

Hunger strikes are the only weapon these 
prisoners have left. Legal avenues are closed. 
Communication with the outside world, even with 
family members, is so restricted as to be 
meaningless. Possessions — paper and pencil, 
reading matter, photos of family members, even 
hand-drawn pictures — are removed. (They could 
contain coded messages between gang members, we 
are told, or their loss may persuade the inmates 
to snitch when every other deprivation has failed.)

The poverty of our criminological theorizing is 
reflected in the official response to the hunger 
strike. Now refusing to eat is regarded as a 
threat, too. Authorities are considering 
force-feeding. It is likely it will be carried 
out — as it has been, and possibly still 
continues to be — at Guantánamo (in possible 
violation of international law) and in an evil caricature of medical care.

In the summer of 1996, I visited two "special 
management units" at the Arizona State Prison 
Complex in Florence. A warden boasted that one of 
the units was the model for Pelican Bay. He led 
me down the corridors on impeccably clean floors. 
There was no paint on the concrete walls. 
Although the corridors had skylights, the cells 
had no windows. Nothing inside could be moved or 
removed. The cells contained only a poured 
concrete bed, a stainless steel mirror, a sink 
and a toilet. Inmates had no human contact, 
except when handcuffed or chained to leave their 
cells or during the often brutal cell 
extractions. A small place for exercise, called 
the "dog pen," with cement floors and walls, so 
high they could see nothing but the sky, provided the only access to fresh air.

Later, an inmate wrote to me, confessing to a 
shame made palpable and real: "If they only touch 
you when you're at the end of a chain, then they 
can't see you as anything but a dog. Now I can't 
see my face in the mirror. I've lost my skin. I can't feel my mind."

Do we find our ethics by forcing prisoners to 
live in what Judge Henderson described as the 
setting of "senseless suffering" and "wretched 
misery"? Maybe our reaction to hunger strikes 
should involve some self-reflection. Not allowing 
inmates to choose death as an escape from a 
murderous fate or as a protest against continued 
degradation depends, as we will see when doctors 
come to make their judgment calls, on the skilled 
manipulation of techniques that are 
indistinguishable from torture. Maybe one way to 
react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial 
treatment is to starve themselves to death might 
be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings.

Colin Dayan, a professor of English at Vanderbilt 
University, is the author of "The Law Is a White 
Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons."

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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