Confronting Torture in U.S. Prisons: A Q&A With Activists/Journalists James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
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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 online 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 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, 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.
Journalist Kiilu Nyasha writes that on Aug. 21, 1971, the day of George 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 (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 have criticized the infamous Pelican Bay supermax prison. Journalists James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, co-founders of the new 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 nearly 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 Jim’s 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 years—well, 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 generous 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 Segregation—the 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 systems—including the federal Bureau of Prisons—deny 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 supermax—Pelican 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 contraband—which includes not only drugs but cell phones or even too many postage stamps. Still others—including 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 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 effect 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 evidence that long-term isolation profoundly alters the brain chemistry, and that longer stretches in solitary produce psychopathologies—including 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 general—and solitary confinement cells in particular--have become America’s 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 Human 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 eyesight—which 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 madefive 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 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 UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners. Recently, the European Court of Human Rights delayed 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 (read more).
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 Angola 3, now in their 40th year of solitary in Louisiana; the other is the case of Thomas 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 a 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 shower—in 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 foods—as 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, saying 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 sent 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 Timothy 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 Deane 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 George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer on Tamms supermax in Illinois, by Lance Tapley on Maine State Prison, and by Mary Beth Pfeiffer on suicides in New York’s SHUs.Atul Gawande’s 2009 article in the New Yorker was excellent, as well.
In the progressive media, there’s been some powerful reporting by Anne-Marie Cusac in The Progressive, Jeanne Theoharis in The Nation, and Glenn 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 media—including, to a lesser extent, the progressive media—is 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 prisoners—some 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 American Friends Service Committee has shown real leadership on this issue, and more recently the ACLU and the National 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 Ghraib—because 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 the 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 fact 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 “Voices 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 www.angola3news.com 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.