[Pnews] Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 4 10:18:07 EDT 2015


  Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life


            August 3, 2015

In 1993, Craig Haney, a social psychologist, interviewed a group of 
inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, 
California’s toughest penal institution.

He was studying the psychological effects of isolation on prisoners, and 
Pelican Bay was among the first of a new breed of super-maximum-security 
prisons that states around the country were beginning to build.

Twenty years later, he returned to the prison for another set of 
interviews. He was startled to find himself facing some of the same 
prisoners he had met before, inmates who now had spent more than two 
decades alone in windowless cells.

“It was shocking, frankly,” Dr. Haney said.

Few social scientists question that isolation can have harmful effects. 
Research over the last half-century has demonstrated that it can worsen 
mental illness and produce symptoms even in prisoners who start out 
psychologically robust.

But most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates 
who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s 
interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from 
normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound 
losses that such confinement appears to produce.

The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit 
over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay 
<https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/our-cases/ashker-v-brown>, have 
not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other 
researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men 
so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone 
a “social death.”

Sealed for years in a hermetic environment — one inmate likened the 
prison’s solitary confinement unit to “a weapons lab or a place for 
human experiments” — prisoners recounted struggling daily to maintain 
their sanity. They spoke of longing to catch sight of a tree or a bird. 
Many responded to their isolation by shutting down their emotions and 
withdrawing even further, shunning even the meager human conversation 
and company they were afforded.

“If you put a parakeet in a cage for years and you take it out, it will 
die,” one older prisoner said. “So I stay in my cage.”

In recent weeks, the use of prolonged solitary confinement, a practice 
that has been widespread in the United States, has received 
unprecedented levels of attention 

President Obama, who last month became the first president to visit a 
federal prison 
questioned whether “we really think it makes sense to lock so many 
people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or 
even years at a time.”

And in a Supreme Court ruling in June, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, 
writing about solitary confinement 
noted that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.”

In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights <https://ccrjustice.org/> 
filed suit in federal court against state officials on behalf of Pelican 
Bay inmates who had spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement, 
claiming that their prolonged isolation violated their Eighth Amendment 
rights. The parties are now in settlement negotiations, said Jules 
Lobel, the president of the center and a constitutional law professor at 
the University of Pittsburgh who is the lead lawyer for the case.

Dr. Haney and several other expert witnesses retained by the plaintiffs’ 
lawyers prepared reports in the case 
<https:/ccrjustice.org/expert-reports-ashker-v-brown>, copies of which 
were obtained by The New York Times.

Dr. Haney, a professor of psychology 
at the University of California, Santa Cruz, interviewed 56 prisoners 
who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s 
security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed 
in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected 
inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates 
who were not in solitary.

The inmates landed in prison following convictions for serious, often 
violent crimes. Paul Redd, 58, murdered a competing drug dealer; Gabriel 
Reyes, 49, was found guilty of burglary and sentenced under California’s 
three-strikes law. The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Todd Ashker, 52, 
was convicted of second-degree murder, burglary, assault with a deadly 
weapon and possession of a deadly weapon.

But most were placed in the isolation unit not because of their original 
crimes but because they were deemed to be gang members or gang 
associates, under California’s policy at the time. The state corrections 
department said that such long-term confinement was necessary because of 
gang killings in the prisons and attacks on staff members and other inmates.

Prison administrators say there are some inmates so violent or 
unmanageable they must be kept apart from other people. But consigning 
inmates to solitary for years — or even decades, as California has done 
— is viewed by an increasing number of top corrections officials around 
the country as unnecessary and ineffective, and some human rights groups 
have called it torture.

Many of the inmates Dr. Haney interviewed talked wistfully about 
mothers, wives and children they had neither touched nor spoken to for 
years — prisoners in the isolation unit were not allowed personal phone 
calls and were prohibited from physical contact during visits. Some had 
not had a single visitor during their years in solitary.

“I got a 15-minute phone call when my father died,” said one inmate who 
had been isolated for 24 years. “I realized I have family I don’t really 
know anymore, or even their voices.”

Another prisoner described placing photographs of his family facing the 
television in his cell and talking to them while he watched.

“Maybe I’m crazy, but it makes me feel like I’m with them,” he told Dr. 
Haney. “Maybe someday I’ll get to hug them.”

Some prisoners became so disoriented they began to question their own 

Another inmate said that the hour or so he had spent in the interview 
was “the most I’ve talked in years.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, citing the 
continuing litigation, declined to comment on the lawsuit or on the 
reports of Dr. Haney or other expert witnesses for the plaintiffs. But 
since the lawsuit was filed, the department has moved many inmates who 
had been in isolation at Pelican Bay for more than a decade to other 
settings. All but two of the 10 inmates originally named as plaintiffs 
in the lawsuit are now in other facilities, according to Jeffrey 
Callison, a department spokesman.*/[most are locked down 23 hours a day 
in one of two other prisons - ed]/*

In an interview, Dr. Haney said that he was especially struck by the 
profound sadness that many of the inmates he interviewed seemed to carry 
with them.

“The weight of what they had been through was apparent on them and in 
them,” he said.

“They were grieving for their lost lives, for their loss of 
connectedness to the social world and their families outside, and also 
for their lost selves,” he said. “Most of them really did understand 
that they had lost who they were, and weren’t sure of who they had become.”

        ‘There Is No Other Reality’

An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners in the United States are 
held in solitary confinement, according to prison experts. Most spend 23 
or more hours a day in their cells, allowed out only for showers, brief 
exercise or activities like medical visits.

Prison experts say the use of long-term isolation escalated in the 1980s 
and 1990s, when many states, dealing with gang violence and overcrowding 
caused by stiffer sentences, built super-maximum-security facilities 
intended to house “the worst of the worst.”

In recent years, however, a growing number of states — driven by 
lawsuits, budgetary constraints and public opinion — have begun to 
reduce the number of prisoners in isolation. Prison consultants called 
in by state systems to assess the risks posed by the prisoners in 
solitary have often found that only a small minority require such 
restricted confinement.

Pelican Bay, when it opened in 1989 in a remote area near the Oregon 
border, quickly gained a reputation as one of the most severe penal 
institutions in the nation. The sprawling complex houses more than 2,700 
prisoners, more than 1,000 of them in solitary confinement.

Other California prisons also have isolation units. But Pelican Bay’s 
S.H.U. was designed to minimize human interaction. The windowless, 
7.6-feet-by-11.6-feet cells were built to face concrete walls. Doors 
opened and closed electronically. Corrections officers spoke to the 
inmates through intercoms.

Although prisoners could communicate with other inmates by shouting 
through steel doors perforated with little holes, or the ventilation 
shafts, they otherwise had little interaction.

“If you go to Corcoran, there’s a window; if you go to Tehachapi, 
there’s a window,” said Joseph Harmon, 51, a former gang leader who 
spent eight years in isolation at Pelican Bay after five years in 
solitary confinement at other prisons.

“At Pelican Bay, there is no other reality,” said Mr. Harmon, who said 
he was sent there after a violent attack on another inmate but 
eventually renounced gang activity and became a pastor in Stockton, 
Calif. “It was a tomb. It is concrete tomb.”

Gang members make up a significant portion of the inmates in solitary 
confinement around the country, in most cases placed there for acts of 
violence or disruption.

But until recently in California, any prisoner deemed to be a gang 
member or an associate of gang members, regardless of the prisoner’s 
behavior, was sent to Pelican Bay or one of the state’s three other 
security housing units for an indefinite period.

The state’s gang policy shifted after several hunger strikes by inmates 
at Pelican Bay and other prisons and criticism by civil rights groups. 
The corrections department now uses different criteria to place inmates 
in isolation, and it has created a program that allows them to 
eventually work their way out.

Mr. Callison, the department spokesman, said that 1,081 inmates were 
currently housed in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay for 
indefinite terms. Of those, 34 have been there for more than 10 years 
and 28 for more than 20 years; in 2012, there were 308 inmates in the 
security unit who had been there for more than a decade. Most of those 
longtime inmates have entered the step-down program, Mr. Callison said.

Civil rights lawyers, however, have criticized the department’s program, 
saying that it takes too long to complete and that inmates are still 
held in isolation unnecessarily.

In a report prepared for the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the suit, James F. 
Austin, a corrections consultant, called the department’s revised 
procedures for assigning inmates to isolation “grossly inadequate.”

The step-down program, Dr. Austin added, was “flawed in its basic 
structure and needs to be significantly revised.”

        ‘Just Give Me the Death Penalty’

In 1993, the prisoners Dr. Haney interviewed reported high rates of 
psychiatric complaints like depression 
irrational anger and confused thinking, and stress symptoms like 
and sweating hands.

When he returned to Pelican Bay, he expected that over two decades, 
those men would have adjusted to their circumstances.

But the inmates, Dr. Haney found, still had many of the same symptoms. 
“The passage of time had not significantly ameliorated their pain,” he 

For comparison, Dr. Haney also interviewed 25 randomly selected 
maximum-security inmates at Pelican Bay who were not in solitary 

While 63 percent of the men in solitary for more than 10 years said they 
felt close to an “impending breakdown,” only 4 percent of the 
maximum-security inmates reported feeling that way.

Similarly, among the prisoners in isolation, 73 percent reported chronic 
and 78 percent said they felt emotionally flat, compared with 48 percent 
and 36 percent among the maximum-security inmates.

In depositions prepared for the Pelican Bay lawsuit, the inmates in 
long-term solitary also described having anxiety, paranoia, perceptual 
disturbances and deep depression.

One plaintiff, Mr. Reyes,said he had severe insomnia 
and that in the silence of the isolation unit, he sometimes heard a 
voice calling his name and cell number. Other times, he said, “I just 
see spots, just little things move.”

Mr. Redd, said that his dreams were often violent but that they became 
that way only after coming to Pelican Bay.

“I didn’t even have dreams,” he said. “I didn’t even have thoughts of 
looking up at the top of my bunk and you see cracks on the bunk and say, 
‘Hey, man, if they got a little earthquake, this wall, this top bunk is 
going to fall down on you.’ You know, you start getting a little nervous 

Locked in his cell, Mr. Redd said, he often plunged into despair.

“It’s not to the point where you want to commit suicide,” he said, “but 
sometimes, I’m at the point that I’d be wanting to write the judge and 
say, ‘Just give me the death penalty. Just give me the death penalty, 
man.’ ”

Studies have found that suicides among prisoners in solitary 
confinement, who make up 3 to 8 percent of the nation’s prison 
population, account for about 50 percent of prison suicides. Cutting and 
other forms of self-harm are also more common in isolation units than in 
less restrictive settings.

Mr. Redd, who spent more than 11 years in Pelican Bay, has now been 
moved to a treatment facility at the State Prison at Corcoran.

But other inmates’ experiences suggest the effects of his incarceration 
at Pelican Bay are likely to linger.

Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and an expert on prison mental health 
issues, found in interviews of former Pelican Bay inmates conducted for 
the lawsuit that even years after their release, many still carried the 
psychological legacy of their confinement. They startled easily, avoided 
crowds, sought out confined spaces and were overwhelmed by sensory 

“They become very impaired in terms of relating to other people,” Dr. 
Kupers said.

Lonnie Rose, 64, was convicted of drug possession and sentenced under 
California’s three-strikes law. He was released in 2013 after eight 
years in isolation. At Pelican Bay, he said, he had worked hard to stay 

“I was pretty much resigned to spend the rest of my life in that cell,” 
he said. “But what we do is make the best of a bad situation. I studied, 
I exercised; one day turns into another.”

Still, he said, he has difficulty in crowds, and his 
obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which worsened in solitary, have persisted.

“Everything has to be just so,” he said. “Being in a concrete box for a 
long time makes you even more O.C.D. 

Mr. Harmon, the former gang leader who was released from Pelican Bay in 
2010, said that even five years later, he does not like people touching him.

“As a pastor, it’s hard,” he said. “People come up and want to touch 
you, they want to hug you.”

Mr. Harmon is married now and said he had put his past life behind him. 
But a few times a month, he is seized with the urge be alone in a small, 
silent space. He tells his wife, “Don’t talk to me,” and retreats to the 

“It’s just something that takes over my being,” he said.

Mr. Harmon said he thought he deserved to be in solitary confinement for 
a time.

“There are violent men in prison, and I was one of them,” he said. But, 
he added, “I’m against long-term mental torture.”

He compared an inmate in long-term isolation at Pelican Bay to a dog 
kept in a kennel for 10 years.

“Let that dog out of that cage and see how many people it bites,” he 
said. “I don’t understand why people can’t understand that concept. It’s 

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