[Pnews] Confronting California's Abuse of Solitary

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 20 18:52:11 EST 2013


      Confronting California's Abuse of Solitary

By Helen Vera <https://www.aclu.org/blog/author/helen-vera>, National 
Prison Project Fellow, ACLU at 11:52am

Solitary confinement can eat away at someone's mind, making mental 
illness worse and leaving many people depressed, suicidal, hopeless or 
hallucinating. It's no place for individuals with mental illness.

In 1995, a federal court in California agreed. After a trial exposing 
the appalling conditions at Pelican Bay---the state's most notorious, 
all-isolation, supermax prison and the site of repeated hunger 
strikes---a _federal judge ordered 
all mentally ill prisoners out of the prison's security housing unit 
(SHU) in a case called /Madrid v. Gomez/.

But, because of the sometimes frustratingly limited nature of legal 
decisions, this judge's order only impacted Pelican Bay. While Pelican 
Bay has for years been notorious for its conditions of extreme 
isolation---leading thousands of prisoners across California to 
participate in _the largest prisoner hunger strike in history 
some for as long as two months---it is the only California prison in 
which prisoners with mental illness may not be held in solitary 
confinement as a matter of law. This means that seriously mentally ill 
prisoners all over California continue to be held in long-term solitary 
confinement, even though the /Madrid/ order prohibits those conditions 
for the mentally ill at Pelican Bay.

It's time to change that. Today in Sacramento, key witnesses, including 
experts in psychology and corrections practices, will take the stand in 
support of the first statewide case aimed at getting all mentally ill 
people in California out of solitary confinement. The case is called 
/Coleman v. Brown, /and beginning today these experts will help to 
expose the extreme and sometimes irreversible damage of holding people 
with mental illness in solitary confinement.

The /Coleman/ plaintiffs have marshaled stunning evidence to support 
their claims that all California prisons must remove mentally ill 
prisoners from solitary confinement. Statewide, according to case 
filings, about 9 percent of the California Department of Corrections and 
Rehabilitation's (CDCR) approximately 123,600 total prisoners are held 
in some form of segregated housing---but that number includes 21 percent 
of mentally ill prisoners system-wide. This means that mentally ill 
prisoners in California are held in disproportionately high numbers in 
solitary confinement. Even more alarming is evidence uncovered by the 
/Coleman/ plaintiffs showing the dramatically heightened suicide rate 
among prisoners in segregated housing: in 2011, more than one third of 
all suicides in CDCR facilities took place in segregation units; more 
than half of the individuals who committed suicide in the first half of 
2012 were housed in segregation; and 58 percent of the 19 people who 
have taken their life to date in 2013 occurred in segregation units.

These disproportionately high instances of suicide are unfortunately not 
surprising to those familiar with the harms of solitary confinement. 
Psychological studies consistently show that solitary confinement can 
wreak distinctive harms on prisoners, including heightened symptoms of 
hopelessness, depression, hallucinations, self-mutilation, suicidal 
ideation, and suicidal acts. And a _2008 study of California prisons 
<http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=99460>_ noted a 
striking correlation between segregated housing and prison incident 
reports of self-mutilation and suicide.

Although the harms of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners 
are _well known 
many states, including California, have been slow to catch up to the 
growing trend against prolonged solitary. Across the country, 
corrections departments, judges, activists, prisoners and their families 
alike will be watching to see if the Eastern District of California 
holds that the CDRC must forbid the housing of mentally ill prisoners in 
solitary confinement. If the court holds that it must, then 
California---and the rest of the country---will be forced to rethink its 
statewide policies governing the use of solitary confinement.


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863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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