[Pnews] California's Savage System of Confinement - An End to Solitary is Long Overdue

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Dec 9 11:39:38 EST 2014

December 09, 2014

*California's Savage System of Confinement*

  An End to Solitary is Long Overdue


Less than two weeks ago the United Nations Committee against Torture 
issued a report strongly criticizing the U.S. record on a number of 
issues, among them the extensive use of solitary confinement. While the 
U.S. uses long-term solitary more than any other country in the world, 
California uses it more than any other state. It's one of the few places 
in the world where someone can be held /indefinitely/ in solitary. 
This practice is designed to break the human spirit and is condemned as 
a form of torture under international law.

Despite these repeated condemnations by the U.N., the California 
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is harshening rather 
than easing its policies, currently with three new sets of regulations. 
The administration's iron-fisted strategy is emerging: project the 
appearance of a reforming system while extending its reach, and restrict 
the ability of prisoners and their loved ones to organize for their rights.

First, the CDCR has instituted a "Step Down Program" ostensibly to 
create a pathway out of indefinite solitary. However, the program 
actually widens the net of who can be considered a threat and therefore 
eligible for placement in solitary. Recently adopted regulations replace 
the old language of "gang" with "Security Threat Group" (STG) and the 
previous list of a dozen identified gangs is now replaced with a 
dizzying list of over 1500 STGs. Under these new regulations, even 
family members and others outside the prisons can be designated as part 
of an STG. Given the fact that indefinite solitary is used 
disproportionately against people of color -- in Pelican Bay, 85% of 
those in isolation are Latino -- the language used to justify placement 
in solitary eerily mirrors the rhetoric of the federal government and 
its permanent state of war against its declared enemies, all of whom are 
people of color.

The CDCR promulgated a second set of rule changes last summer with 
sweeping new "obscenity" regulations governing mail going both in and 
out of prisons. The original proposal was to explicitly ban any 
"publications that indicate an association with groups that are 
oppositional to authority and society," yet after coming under heavy 
criticism, CDCR decided to mask its Orwellian motives by hiding behind 
the above mentioned language of STGs. This ominous language violates 
First Amendment rights, and reveals a broader agenda: to censor 
writings that educate the public about what is actually occurring 
inside the prisons, and to stifle the intellectual and political 
education and organizing of prisoners themselves.

A third element of CDCR's strategy of containment is the implementation 
of highly intimidating visiting procedures designed to keep family 
members away from their loved ones. Draconian new visiting regulations 
authorize the use of dogs and electronic drug detectors to 
indiscriminately search visitors for contraband, even though both 
methods are notoriously unreliable. These procedures effectively 
criminalize family members and deter them from visiting, especially in a 
period of a growing family-led movement against solitary.

The three new policies are also intended to extend CDCR's reach beyond 
the prison walls. As an organizer and family member of a prisoner, I'm 
censored when sending letters to my brother, Sitawa N. Jamaa, subjected 
to gratuitous and intimidating searches during visits, 
and susceptible to being labeled an STG associate. These are all ways 
that CDCR is trying to keep me from knowing how my brother and others 
are doing, and to repress my organizing.

Taken individually, these regulations may seem to address unrelated 
issues. But given they are all coming down simultaneously -- just a year 
after the last of a series of historic hunger strikes by people in 
California prisons has given rise to the highest level of 
self-organization and empowerment among imprisoned people since the 
1970s -- these regulations are nothing less than a systematic attempt to 
silence and retaliate against prisoners' growing resistance. Over 30,000 
prisoners participated in 2013's strike, some for 60 days, risking their 
health and lives for an end to indefinite solitary. Prisoners' family 
members and loved ones also took up leadership roles in political 
organizing in unprecedented ways. The movement to abolish solitary 
continues to gain momentum around the country.

The hunger strikes were a significant part of an ongoing national sea 
change regarding the use of solitary, as states are waking up to its 
dangers. Illinois, Maine and Mississippi have closed or drastically 
downsized their solitary units without any loss of institutional safety. 
New York and Arizona were recently forced to reduce their use of 
isolation, with Colorado and New Jersey following suit.

Yet California steadfastly remains an outlier seemingly impervious to 
change, led by an administration that relies on tired rhetoric about 
"the worst of the worst" to justify torture. People locked up in 
California have a decades-long history of fighting for the rights and 
dignity of prisoners, affirming their humanity in the face of inhumane 
conditions and demanding change. The U.N. report calls on this 
government to "ban prison regimes of solitary confinement such as those 
in super-maximum security detention facilities." It's time for 
California to listen.

/*Marie Levin* is the sister of Sitawa N. Jamaa, a prisoner in solitary 
confinement at Tehachapi. She is a member of California Families Against 
Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity 
Coalition (PHSS)./

/*Mohamed Shehk *is the**Media and Communications Director of Critical 
Resistance, and also contributed to this piece./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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