Protesters campaign against the use of solitary confinement in California prisons
on May 13, 2015
East Bay residents are joining with demonstrators across the state to protest against what advocates call “solitary confinement” on the 23rd of each month. The first joint protest was on held in downtown Oakland on March 23, and demonstrators will continue to meet monthly. The date was chosen “to signify the 23 hours a day that these men spend in these tiny cages when they’re subject to solitary confinement” said Laura Magnani, program director at Healing Justice, and the director at the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco.
Her program is part of the statewide effort to reform conditions in the Segregated Housing Unit (the SHU) which is also referred to as solitary confinement. Advocates like Magnani also asking for more transparent record-keeping capabilities, as well as for authorities to monitor inmates’ health and the behavioral progress they are making. Her organization helped craft a state bill to establish the reporting of simple statistical information like the prisoner’s gender, age, mental health status, and race, as well as on the number of prisoners paroled directly from a SHU or Psychiatric Service Unit to the community.
Magnani says the public and the legislature need more and better information about what goes on inside the unit. “Right now they don’t keep statistics on the racial breakdown on people in solitary confinement. My organization estimates 90 percent of the people in long-term isolation are people of color, primarily because they use it as a gang management tool and gangs are usually identified by ethnicity,” she said.
In March, demonstrators stood at the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street, holding up a 25-foot banner that read “End Long Term Solitary Confinement.” Behind it, family members, advocates and formerly incarcerated people gathered in support.
Jerry Elster, who held one end of the banner, was once an inmate in the state of California. He said that in his five years in segregated housing, he was confined to his cell for 23 hours a day and let outdoors for less than an hour. “That means we don’t talk to nobody. We don’t get on the phone, none of that. All communication is cut off for 23 hours,” Elster said. “That alone is enough to mentally de-capacitate someone, you know what I’m saying? Were talking about days on end, 365 times 30. That’s ridiculous. So what happens is it challenges a person’s mental capability.”
Terry Thornton, the California Corrections and Rehabilitation Department (CDCR) spokesperson, disputes Elster’s claims that inmates in the SHU are alone and cut off from communication outside their cells. “Most people would seem to agree that solitary confinement can be defined by putting an inmate in a cell all by himself and limiting human contact with them,” she said in a phone interview. “If you go by that definition, there is nothing in the CDCR that even approximates that. So this idea that they are just isolated all alone in their cell with no human contact—that’s a myth.”
Thornton has been with CDCR for more than fifteen years. She says the conditions that Elster and others describe are things of the past, and that the department has turned over a new leaf concerning the SHU. “In 2013, we started totally overhauling the way we house inmates in the SHU, the way we validate inmates,” she said. “We used to automatically put them in the SHU just if they were gang associates. We stopped doing that.”
The only inmates in the state prison system who are not routinely housed two to a cell when put in segregated housing are the condemned inmates on Death Row and inmates with special circumstances, Thornton said. However there are a few cases where an inmate would be in a cell on their own. “Some inmates just have to be single-celled because if you put that inmate with another inmate, he might kill him,” Thornton said. “Even at Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates are doubled. So these inmates are not single-celled and alone, they’re not deprived of human contact. They have cable TV. They even have ESPN at Pelican Bay State Prison.”
Pelican Bay State Prison is one of the newest maximum facilities designed to house California’s most serious criminal offenders in a high-tech institution in the middle of a Northern California forest. Half of the prison houses maximum-security inmates in a general population setting and the other half houses inmates in SHU who require more administrative attention.
When asked about the demographics of SHU inmates in Pelican Bay and other institutions like San Quentin, where Death Row inmates are housed, Thornton said that she couldn’t corroborate or deny the 90 percent statistic that Magnani’s organization claims. She did say that the majority of inmates in CDCR custody are men and women of color, which may be an indication of higher rates of minorities in SHU.
Magnani and her group have worked with members of the state legislature to generate a bill that would order the state’s Inspector General to collect the data the CDCR already collects and share it with the public safety committees in both houses of the state legislature. State Senator Joel Anderson from eastern San Diego County authored the bipartisan senate bill SB 759, also called the Security Housing Unit Data Collection. The bill would require the state’s Inspector General to use the data to prepare reports to the legislature on nine specified areas of importance, beginning January 1, 2018. The first tenet would be the recording and sharing of “the prisoner’s gender, age, mental health status, and race.”
State Senator Loni Hancock, who represents the East Bay, authored a bill with similar language in 2014, but withdrew it as the session grew to a close, in order to support Anderson’s bill, which recently past the Public Safety Committee and is expected to pass in the state senate with bipartisan support.
“Isolating large numbers of inmates in solitary confinement for long periods of time is an expensive and deeply troubling practice that undermines effective rehabilitation and long-term public safety. There are many, many problems with the current solitary confinement system,” Hancock wrote in an email. “It is ineffective at controlling gang behavior in prisons; useless in helping to rehabilitate prisoners; costly to taxpayers; and a threat to public safety when inmates are released directly to the streets after years—sometimes decades—of solitary confinement.”
But the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents the prison guards, replied to questions regarding segregating housing with the following statement: “The union is in favor of maintaining the Security Housing Units because it is a necessary tool to protect the general prison population from the most serious violent inmates.”
And there are even a few inmates who support its use. James Bryan Elrod is a current inmate who was identified by the CDCR as a former associate of the Aryan Brotherhood, a White prison gang. After stabbing a fellow inmate who was African-American, Elrod was sentenced to a 16-month term in the SHU, which grew longer over time. In a declaration that was submitted to a federal court in Oakland in order to support the state’s case against another inmate and to identify members of jail-house gangs, Elrod claimed that his time in the SHU was beneficial.
“The SHU is austere and no place for the mentally ill. But it is not inhumane, or torture. I came to Pelican Bay’s SHU in 1995 and have been living under these conditions for about 16 ½ of my 18 years, and I am in no way mentally debilitated. At 40, I will leave the SHU far saner than the out-of-control 22-year-old kid who arrived here,” Elrod stated.
Ellrod’s statement is drastically different from those of the protesters who gathered at the March 23 protest. The SHU was “tantamount to torture” said Elster, who was confined in solitary units at Tehachapi, Folsom, and Tracy, California. Elster compared the space and conditions of the SHU to a windowless bathroom, where one has “no social encounters whatsoever.”
Marie Levin, an Oakland resident who is a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition and California Families Against Solitary Confinement, was protesting on behalf of her brother. She said her brother is housed at Pelican Bay’s SHU, and was one of the inmates who organized the hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 that encouraged 30,000 inmates statewide to protest overcrowded conditions in the SHU and in the general inmate population.
In order to combat some of the issues associated with overcrowding, many of the SHU inmates find themselves transferred from location to location where sometimes the rules and conditions are different. Levin says that when her brother was transferred from Pelican Bay to Tehachapi, “The water was bad.” She also said that the inmates rarely get to go outdoors, because they are “on a cycle so every six to seven days they will get out of there cell to go on a three hour yard visit. Then they go back into their cell for another six to seven days.”
Oakland protesters will join those from cities from Humboldt County to San Diego to continue their monthly rallies. On May 23, the Oakland demonstrators will increase their awareness campaign by holding two events. At 12:30 the local chapter of the campaign will be at Mosswood Park holding a rally and distributing information. The local leader of the campaign says there will be a strong presence at San Francisco’s Pier 33 beginning at 8:30 am, when demonstrators hope to inform the public about SHU conditions as patrons line up to visit Alcatraz.
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