[Ppnews] Confronting Torture in US Prisons

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 14 10:42:40 EDT 2011

Confronting Torture in U.S. Prisons: A Q&A With 
Activists/Journalists James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

By Angola 3 News, AlterNet
Posted on June 13, 2011, Printed on June 14, 2011

Prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at 
Pelican Bay State Prison in California have 
announced they are beginning an indefinite hunger 
strike on July 1, 2011 to protest the conditions 
of their imprisonment, which they say are cruel 
and inhumane. An 
petition has been started by supporters of the 
strikers. While noting that the hunger strike is 
being “organized by prisoners in an unusual show 
of racial unity,” five key demands are listed by 
<http://www.prisons.org/hungerstrike.htm>California Prison Focus:

1) Eliminate group punishments; 2) abolish the 
debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang 
status criteria; 3) comply with the 
recommendations of the US Commission on Safety 
and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to 
long term solitary confinement; 4) provide 
adequate food; 5) expand and provide constructive 
programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

Notably, Pelican Bay is "home" to the only US 
prisoner known to have spent more time in 
solitary confinement than the 39 years that 
Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 
3, have spent--since April 1972. Imprisoned now 
for a total of 47 years and held at Pelican Bay 
since 1990, <http://hugopinell.org/>Hugo Pinell 
has been in continuous solitary for over 40 
years, since at least 1971--probably even since 
the late 1960s. Pinell was a close comrade of 
Black Panther leader George Jackson, who 
organized a Panther chapter inside California’s 
San Quentin Prison, similar to the prison chapter 
organized by the Angola 3 in Louisiana.

<http://kiilunyasha.blogspot.com/>Kiilu Nyasha 
writes that on Aug. 21, 1971, the day of 
Jackson’s assassination, “three prison guards and 
two inmate trustees were also killed. 
Subsequently, six prisoners, including Hugo 
Pinell, were singled out and put on trial. 
Reminiscent of the slave auctions, they were each 
forced to bear 30 lb. of chains in a Marin 
courtroom after being charged with numerous 
counts of murder and assault.” They became known 
as the San Quentin Six. Johnny Spain, the only 
defendant to be convicted of murder, was released 
in 1988, making Pinell the last of the San 
Quentin Six behind bars, despite having being 
convicted of a lesser assault 
charge  (<http://www.hugopinell.org/a-freedom-fighter-to-board.htm>read more).

Robert King, of the Angola 3, released in 2001 
after 29 years in solitary, has expressed support 
for Pinell, saying that he "is a clear example of 
a political prisoner." In January 2009, Pinell 
was denied parole for the ninth time, despite a 
clean record with no write-ups for the past 25 
years. Now, in 2011, with 27 years of "clean 
time," Pinell is eligible for parole once again, 
but his hearing has been postponed for six months 
and is expected later this year.

For decades now, human rights activists 
criticized the infamous Pelican Bay supermax 
prison. Journalists James Ridgeway and Jean 
Casella, co-founders of the new 
<http://solitarywatch.com/>Solitary Watch Web 
site, are similarly critical of conditions at 
Pelican Bay, and they argue that the treatment of 
prisoners at Pelican Bay is a reflection of a 
widespread human rights crisis throughout the US prison system.

Angola 3 News: How did you first become 
interested in the issue of solitary confinement 
and ultimately become inspired to start Solitary Watch?

Solitary Watch: We started Solitary Watch because 
this issue grabbed us by the throats. The 
solitary confinement of tens of thousands of 
prisoners may be the most grievous mass human 
rights violation that’s taking place on American 
soil, yet it’s been largely concealed from and 
ignored by the public, and seriously under-reported by the press.

Solitary confinement is a hidden world within the 
larger hidden world of the prison system, and 
prisoners in solitary are an invisible and 
dehumanized minority within the larger population 
of prison inmates in general--who also remain 
remarkably invisible and dehumanized, considering 
that they now number 
2.3 million and constitute one in every 100 adults in this country.

We don’t mean to sound self-righteous about any 
of this, because until two years ago we were as 
ignorant about this subject as anyone. Like so 
many other people, we were outraged by the abuses 
taking place at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, yet we 
knew relatively little about the abuses happening 
here at home, in our own prisons and jails. What 
changed that was 
reporting for Mother Jones on the Angola 3. To 
discover that there were men who had been living 
isolated in 6 x 9-foot cells for nearly 40 
years­well, that clearly shocked the conscience.

That was the beginning of our education. We began 
to learn more and more about this torturous 
netherworld of solitary confinement that exists, 
in one form or another, in every state of the 
union. And we discovered that there were 
activists and lawyers and scholars and prisoners’ 
families and even a handful of journalists out 
there who were trying to draw attention to the 
issue, but no centralized, comprehensive source of information.

A3N: Can you please briefly tell us about your 
background before Solitary Watch?

SW: Jim has more than 40 years of experience as 
an investigative journalist, and Jean has been an 
editor for independent media and run small 
nonprofit organizations. It seemed like together 
we had the skills we needed to start up a 
web-based project that would serve as an 
information clearinghouse on solitary 
confinement, as well as a forum for whatever 
original reporting we might do on the subject. 
And we’ve been fortunate enough to get some 
funding from several 
donors. That was the genesis of Solitary Watch, 
which went online a year and a half ago.

A3N: What is a SHU?

SW: SHU is just one of many euphemisms prison 
systems have developed to avoid using the term 
“solitary confinement.” In California, it stands 
for Security Housing Unit; in New York it is 
Special Housing Unit. Elsewhere we see Special 
Management Units, Behavioral Management Units, 
Communications Management Units, Administrative 
Segregation, Disciplinary Segregation­the list 
goes on. There are nuances of difference among 
them, but they all consist of 23- to 
24-hour-a-day lockdown. Most of these 
systems­including the federal Bureau of 
Prisons­deny that they use solitary confinement, 
even while they have tens of thousands of 
prisoners locked alone in their cells for months, years, even decades.

A3N: When was the first SHU made?

SW: Solitary confinement was actually invented 
here in the United States, in the early 19th 
century in Philadelphia, as a supposedly humane 
alternative to things like floggings and hard 
labor. Prisoners were locked up alone, with 
absolutely nothing to do but contemplate their 
crimes, pray, and supposedly become 
“penitent”­thus the term “penitentiary.” Of 
course, nothing like that happened. The U.S. 
Supreme Court looked at conditions in the 
Philadelphia prison in 1890 and found that "A 
considerable number of the prisoners fell, after 
even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous 
condition, from which it was next to impossible 
to arouse them, and others became violently 
insane; others still, committed suicide; while 
those who stood the ordeal better were not 
generally reformed, and in most cases did not 
recover sufficient mental activity to be of any 
subsequent service to the community."

For nearly 100 years after that, solitary 
confinement was rare; the famous Birdman of 
Alcatraz spent six years in solitary, and that 
was unusual. Things really began to change in 
1983, when two guards at the federal prison in 
Marion, Illinois, were killed by inmates on the 
same day. That was the beginning of the notorious 
Marion Lockdown, where prisoners were permanently 
confined to their cells without yard time, work, 
or any kind of rehabilitative programming.

A3N: How have they developed since?

SW: Other prisons followed suit, and in 1989 
California built the first supermax­Pelican Bay. 
There was a supermax boom in the 1990s, and 
today, 40 states and the federal government have 
supermax prisons holding upwards of 25,000 
inmates. Tens of thousands more are held in 
solitary confinement in lockdown units within 
other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date 
nationwide count, but according to best 
estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps 
more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary 
confinement on any given day in America.

Solitary confinement has become the disciplinary 
measure of first resort, rather than of last 
resort. Today you can be placed in solitary 
confinement not only for violence, but for any 
form of “insubordination” toward prison 
officials. Others are put there for having 
contraband­which includes not only drugs but cell 
phones or even too many postage stamps. Still 
others­including many of the juveniles in adult 
prisons--end up in solitary for their own 
“protection” because they are targets of prison 
rape. A lot of the men in Pelican Bay’s SHU are 
there because they’ve been “validated” as gang 
members, based on the say-so of inmate “snitches” 
who are rewarded for informing. The reasons are 
countless, and sometimes absurd. In Virginia, a 
group of Rastafarian men was in solitary for a 
decade because they refused to cut their 
dreadlocks, in violation of prison rules.

A3N: What are effects of the SHU on prisoners’ health and well-being?

SW: As <http://www.yearten.org/>one prisoner at 
the Tamms supermax in Illinois said, "Lock 
yourself in your bathroom for the next 10 years 
and tell me how it will affect your mind."

If it weren’t already obvious enough, research 
conducted over the last 30 years confirms 
solitary confinement has an extremely damaging 
on mental health. One study found that a single 
week in solitary produced a change in EEG 
activity related to stress and anxiety. There’s 
that long-term isolation profoundly alters the 
brain chemistry, and that longer stretches in 
psychopathologies­including panic attacks, 
depression, inability to concentrate, memory 
loss, aggression self-mutilation, and various 
forms of psychosis--at a considerably higher rate 
than other forms of confinement. Yet we have 
prison systems that insist they are placing 
prisoners in solitary so that they can “learn 
self-control,” and many cases where inmates are 
released directly from long-term isolation onto 
the streets. Unsurprisingly, they have a notably 
higher recidivism rate than other prisoners.

It’s important to acknowledge, also, that a huge 
number of prisoners who are placed in solitary 
suffer from underlying mental illness. After 40 
years of cuts to funding for mental health care, 
prisons and jails in general­and solitary 
confinement cells in particular--have become 
new asylums. Prisoners are placed in solitary for 
being disruptive, when what they are doing is 
simply exhibiting the untreated symptoms of 
mental illness. One report by 
Rights Watch found that in prison systems around 
the country, one-third to one-half of the 
prisoners held in solitary were mentally ill. 
Other studies have found that two-thirds of all 
prison suicides take place in solitary confinement.

There has been less research done on the physical 
effects of solitary confinement, but evidence 
from recent court cases suggests a relationship 
to things like extreme insomnia, joint pain, 
hypertension and even damage to the 
eyesight­which makes sense when you are talking 
about not being able to walk or look more than 
ten feet in any direction for years or decades on 
end. We will clearly see more evidence of health 
damage as more and more prisoners grow old in long-term solitary confinement.

A3N: The hunger strike at Pelican Bay will begin 
on July 1, and the strikers have made 
demands. Do you think these policies being 
protested are violations of international human 
rights standards? Of domestic US laws?

SW: First, we want to say what a remarkable 
document this is, remembering that it was written 
by a group of men who are largely unable to 
communicate with one another or with the outside 
world, and who have limited access to research 
materials. It’s a tribute to their perseverance 
and dedication to their cause, as well as their courage.

Second, we should emphasize how measured and 
reasonable their set of demands is. It draws 
heavily on the findings of the 
<http://www.prisoncommission.org/>Commission on 
Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, which was 
a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission that studied 
U.S. prisons and jails. As one of its three major 
findings on prison conditions, the Commission 
said that the growing use of “high-security 
segregation” was counterproductive and often 
cruel. The Pelican Bay hunger strikers have 
adopted the recommendations of the Commission for 
reforming and limiting the use of solitary 
confinement. Beyond this, they are simply asking 
for an end to group punishment and guilt by 
association, which are used to confine prisoners 
to the SHU indefinitely. And finally, they are 
asking for decent, nutritious food. This is hardly a radical agenda.

There’s no doubt that solitary confinement, as 
it’s practiced in the United States at Pelican 
Bay and elsewhere, stands in violation of 
international human rights standards, including 
the <http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html>UN 
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, 
Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 
and the 
Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners. 
Recently, the European Court of Human Rights 
the extradition to the United States of several 
British terrorism suspects, because of the 
possibility that they would be sentenced to life 
in a supermax prison, which was deemed to violate 
the European Convention on Human Rights 

Unfortunately, U.S. courts have been more 
reluctant to take a stand against solitary 
confinement. We are not Constitutional scholars 
or even lawyers, but to us it would seem obvious 
that long-term solitary, at least, violates 
Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual 
punishment. However, the courts, with a few 
exceptions, have not found that to be the case. 
The exceptions for the most part have to do with 
prisoners with mental illness.

In a few cases, courts have found that holding 
prisoners in solitary violates their 
Constitutional right to due process, since they 
can be placed in isolation based on a system in 
which prison officials act as prosecutors, judge, 
and jury. Prisoners have no real opportunity to 
defend themselves, and no way to “earn” their way 
out of solitary through good behavior. That’s 
certainly the case at Pelican Bay, and it’s one 
of the things the hunger strikers are protesting.

At the moment there are two important cases 
pending in federal court, which claim that 
long-term solitary violates the Constitution. One 
is the case of the 
3, now in their 40th year of solitary in 
Louisiana; the other is the case of 
Silverstein, who has spent 28 years in extreme 
solitary confinement in federal prison under a “no human contact” order.

A3N: Looking beyond these specific demands, what 
are some other characteristics of the Pelican Bay SHU?

SW: California is particularly bad when it comes 
to holding prisoners in solitary confinement 
indefinitely based on highly questionable 
determinations of gang status, which as we said 
are often based on 
system of snitching in return for various 
rewards.  Otherwise, conditions in Pelican Bay 
are similar to those in most supermax prisons and SHUs.

These prisons have made a science out of 
isolation. The cells usually measure between 60 
and 80 square feet, and those cells are a 
prisoner’s entire world. They are fed through 
slots in the solid steel doors, and if they 
communicate with prison staff, including mental 
health practitioners, that also takes place 
through the feeding slot. If they’re lucky they 
get to exercise one hour a day, alone, in a 
fenced or walled “dog run,” and leave their cells 
a few times a week to take a shower­in shackles, 
of course. In some cells the lights are on 24 
hours a day, and there’s round-the-clock video surveillance.

Prisoners may or may not be permitted to have 
visits. They may or may not be allowed reading 
and writing materials, art supplies, or other 
things to help them pass the time, and they may 
or may not have television, with close-circuit 
programming supplied by the prison. At ADX, the 
federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, they have 
black and white televisions that actually had to 
be specially retrofitted for the Bureau of 
Prisons, reputedly because they didn’t like the 
PR implications of prisoners having color TV.

In fact there’s a lot of concern about inmates 
being perceived as having it “too easy”--so they 
often don’t have air conditioning in summer or 
enough heat in the winter, and the food is barely 
adequate. Some states still use “the loaf”­made 
of a tasteless puree of foods­as punishment.

A3N: For over 40 years, Hugo Pinell has been in 
solitary confinement, most recently at Pelican 
Bay. Considering the political context of 
solitary confinement in Pinell’s case, as well as 
that of the Angola 3, what do you think this says 
about how prison authorities have used solitary 
confinement as a political tool against prisoner 
activists and organizers? Is the practice widespread?

SW: There’s no doubt that solitary confinement is 
widely employed against prisoners who are 
perceived as representing any kind of threat to 
the absolute power and control of prison 
authorities. This is true even if inmates are 
seeking to organize for positive change and even 
if they are completely nonviolent.

In the case of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, 
the two still-imprisoned members of the Angola 3, 
and of Hugo Pinell at Pelican Bay, we are talking 
about men who have had virtually clean 
disciplinary records for several decades, and who 
are now in their sixties. The fact that they 
continue to be held in solitary confinement 
clearly has everything to do with their involvement as prison organizers.

We have the warden of Angola, Burl Cain, 
under oath in a deposition that Wallace and 
Woodfox have to be kept in solitary because they 
are still “trying to practice Black Pantherism,” 
and if he let them into the general population 
they would “organize the young new inmates” and 
“have the blacks chasing after them.”  And we 
have a prisoner in California being 
to the SHU simply for having reading materials 
written by George Jackson and contact information for Hugo Pinell.

But you don’t have to be associated with the 
Black Panthers, or indeed any organized political 
group, to be punished for prison activism. In 
Massachusetts, an inmate named 
Muise was sent to solitary after he tried to 
expose a sex-for-snitching ring run by guards at 
his prison; they said his offense was “engaging 
in or inciting a group demonstration or hunger 
strike.” A prison journalist in Maine named 
Brown was isolated and eventually shipped out of 
state for sending broadcasts called “Live from 
the Hole” to a local radio station.

Solitary confinement is routinely used to punish 
prison whistleblowers, and to suppress nonviolent dissent and free expression.

A3N: How well do you think the mainstream and 
progressive media have covered the issue of solitary confinement in prisons?

SW: Well, there has actually been some 
outstanding reporting on this subject in the 
mainstream media. Of course there’s dreadful 
stuff as well, like the “Lockup” and “Lockdown” 
TV series. But as far as print media goes, there 
are a few of cases where journalism helped spur 
grassroots movements against solitary 
confinement. We are thinking, in particular, of 
the investigations by 
Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer on Tamms supermax 
in Illinois, by 
Tapley on Maine State Prison, and by 
Beth Pfeiffer on suicides in New York’s 
Atul Gawande’s 2009 article in the New Yorker was excellent, as well.

In the progressive media, there’s been some 
powerful reporting by 
Cusac in The Progressive, 
Theoharis in The Nation,  and 
Greenwald at Salon. And of course, Mother Jones 
has been extremely supportive of Jim’s reporting 
on the Angola 3 case, and on the broader issue of prison conditions as well.

The problem we have with media coverage is that 
there isn’t nearly enough of it. And it doesn’t 
get anything close to the attention it deserves 
or produce the kind of outrage it should, 
considering the fact that this is one of the 
major domestic human rights issues of our day. 
Our impression is that the media­including, to a 
lesser extent, the progressive media­is simply 
reflecting how effectively prisoners have been marginalized in our society.

A3N: Today, in the post-9/11 so-called “War on 
Terror” era, do you think the US public supports 
the use of torture against US prisoners?

SW: We do think that the public is tolerating the 
torture of prisoners­some because they don’t know 
about it, others because they simply don’t care. 
But we’d actually like to turn your question 
around, because we believe that a tolerance for 
the torture of U.S. prisoners helped to produce a 
tolerance for the torture of foreign terrorism 
suspects, rather than vice versa. The “War on 
Crime” predates the “War on Terror,” and places 
like Pelican Bay and ADX Florence made it that 
much easier for Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and Bagram to exist.

To discuss what produced this tolerance for 
torture in the first place, we need to return to 
the point we made at the beginning of this 
interview: Prisoners are today by far the most 
dehumanized members of our society. This has been 
the case to some extent historically, but the 
dehumanization has grown more intense since the 
advent of the War on Crime, which dates back to 
the 1960s but really heated up in the 1980s and 
1990s. For at least the last 30 years, 
politicians from both parties have been cynically 
exploiting public fears about crime to win 
elections, and the prison population has grown by 
leaps and bounds with tacit public approval.

Racism clearly plays a role in all of this: A 
highly disproportionate number of prisoners are 
African American, and a majority of people today 
accepts the mass incarceration and abuse of black 
prisoners just as a majority once accepted racial 
segregation and before that slavery. Again, it 
comes down to depriving a certain group of people 
of their full humanity. Once you do that, it 
becomes a lot easier to deprive them of their 
basic human rights, not to mention their civil rights.

A3N: Strategically speaking, how do you think 
supporters of human rights can best use 
media-activism to challenge the powerful forces 
currently trying to convince the US public that 
torture is good policy? What are key points that we should be making?

SW: When it comes to solitary confinement, we 
probably need to emphasize different key points 
with different audiences. For those people who 
already have a firm opposition to all torture, we 
simply need to share information about the nature 
and widespread use of solitary confinement, and 
try to bring this issue out of the shadows and 
into the public square. The 
Friends Service Committee has shown real 
leadership on this issue, and more recently the 
<http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights>ACLU and 
Religious Campaign Against Torture have been 
trying to draw attention to solitary confinement, 
so that's a positive development. We need to 
encourage people to see the torture of all U.S. 
prisoners as a human rights issue just as 
pressing as the torture of Bradley Manning, or of 
the captives at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib­because 
torture is torture, and if you believe this, it 
shouldn’t matter whether or not the victim has committed a crime.

For those who think that prisoners are criminals 
who deserve whatever they get, we can still 
emphasize the fact that solitary confinement is 
not only cruel, but also costly and 
counterproductive. It can cost two to three times 
as much to keep a prisoner in a supermax, rather 
than in the general prison population. And it 
simply doesn’t “work,” in that it makes prisoners more likely to re-offend.

A3N: You have just released the first print 
edition of Solitary Watch. What are your future 
plans for this? Anything else coming up that we should be looking for?

SW: We launched 
print edition, which includes just a small 
selection of our stories, because we began 
receiving letters from prisoners nearly every 
day, telling us about their own situations and 
asking for information. Prisoners, of course, do 
not have Internet access, so we needed to become 
more than just a web publication.

In addition, we’re going to be publishing a 
series of 
sheets on different aspects of solitary 
confinement; we’ve just posted the first one, and 
there are many more to come. We just began 
shooting our first video interviews with some 
survivors of solitary confinement. Along with the 
writings we publish under 
from Solitary,” we hope the videos will help 
provide a forum for a group of people who 
actually know what it’s like to be buried alive.

Angola 3 News is a project of the International 
Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Visit 
for the latest news about the Angola 3 and 
various media projects spotlighting the issues 
central to their story, including racism, 
repression, prisons, human rights, and solitary confinement as torture.

© 2011 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/151279/


Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20110614/335ec314/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list