Approximately 30,000 prisoners have entered the third day of what might be the largest hunger strike in California’s history. The strike, which has spread to Washington state, has already left ten prisoners under medical observation. Abby Ohlheiser provides context:
While the California prison system has a less than stellar reputation on a handful of issues–many of which trace back to its astonishing overcrowding–the striking prisoners are focusing their message on improving conditions for those locked in solitary confinement. Last October, Mother Jones published a must-read on solitary in California, written by Shane Bauer, one of the three hikers kept in an Iranian solitary confinement cell for 26 months. Spoiler: Bauer thought California’s conditions were worse.
Julianne Hing adds:
The United Nations has found that just 15 days in solitary confinement violates human rights standards and can do irreperable psychological harm to a person, according to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Yet hundreds of California inmates have been in indefinite isolation for more than a decade, according to Amnesty International.
Lauren Kirchner reports that some prisoners have expressed solidarity with GTMO detainees. In the midst of the ongoing force-feeding controversy, Robin Abcarian notes:
In California, according to hunger strike protocols released by the Department of Corrections, no prisoner will be forced to eat at any time if he makes it clear in advance that that is his wish. In California, a prisoner has the right to starve himself to death. It shouldn’t have to come to that.
David Berreby chronicles the plight of Sunnat, an Uzbek captured in Afghanistan at age 16 who was taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 – a situation made especially harrowing by his near total linguistic isolation:
Sunnat was, in many ways, simply unlucky. He spoke a language that was rare at Guantánamo. The camp had only six Uzbek speakers; none were housed near him. He was held for eight years not because he was dangerous but because no country, not even his native Uzbekistan, would accept him as a Guantánamo deportee. (The military was required to hold him until a nation agreed to take him.) In fact, his innocence isolated him further: once he was no longer deemed a threat, he ceased meeting with an Uzbek interpreter and an interrogator. Then he was denied materials to learn English or Arabic, because the detention center has a policy against helping the presumed-dangerous detainees communicate with one another.
Depriving a prisoner of linguistic company can be a strategy: it can increase a prisoner’s dependence on an interrogator, making him more likely to talk, or it can prevent prisoners from organizing resistance. More typically, cases like Sunnat’s are unfortunate consequences of policy and circumstance. Whatever the cause, Honigsberg argues in his paper, “Alone in a Sea of Voices: Recognizing a New Form of Isolation by Language Barriers, or Linguistic Isolation,” the psychological effects of solitary confinement through linguistic isolation are largely the same as those via lock and key: impaired impulse control, an inability to concentrate or think clearly, confusion, obsessive behaviors, paranoia, and even a state resembling catatonia. A growing body of evidence suggests that a few weeks of solitary confinement for a prisoner amounts to torture. “Isolation by language barriers,” Honigsberg writes, “should be recognized as a distinct human rights abuse.”
Shane Bauer, who was kept in solitary confinement while held hostage in Iran, visited Pelican Bay, a supermax California prison with a large solitary population. One of his guides at Pelican Bay asked him how Iranian situation compared:
"There was a window," I say. I don't quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. "Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—" Without those windows, I wouldn't have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.
Here, there are no windows.
Lisa Guenther argues isolating prisoners doesn't help rehabilitate them:
When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive them of both the support of others, which is crucial for a coherent experience of the world, and also the critical challenge that others pose to our own interpretation of the world. Both of these are essential for a meaningful experience of things, but they are especially important for those who have broken the law, and so violated the trust of others in the community. If we truly want our prisons to rehabilitate and transform criminal offenders, then we must put them in a situation where they have a chance and an obligation to explain themselves to others, to repair damaged networks of mutual support, and to lend their own unique perspective to creating meaning in the world.
James Ridgeway argues against the absurd over-use of solitary confinement in America's jails:
Adam Cohen chimes in:
Rather than reserving solitary confinement for the most vicious, unrepentant criminals, American prisons dole it out in heaping portions – and often for no good reason. Some inmates are put in solitary confinement for repeated violations of minor prison rules. There was a report at the congressional hearing of a prisoner who was caught with 17 packs of cigarettes and given 15 days for each pack, or eight months. Worse still: many inmates are put in solitary not because they have done anything wrong, but for their own protection. This includes victims of in-prison attacks and sexual assaults, gay inmates, and children.
Human beings are social animals. To deprive someone of any human contact for long stretches of time does seem to me to be a form of torture – as psychologically disturbing as sleep deprivation, although not as punishing. I don't believe it should be abandoned tout court. In some rare circumstances, it may well be appropriate. But routine? As unthinkable to me as keeping prisoners in effective temperatures above 120.
That's Adam Gopnik's view of mass incarceration in the US:
Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.)
Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.
(Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
A reader continues the ever-expanding thread
I think the line between people who are for or against capital punishment can be drawn between those who believe humans can transform themselves from bad to good, and those who believe the opposite. I believe that no human has the right to steal another human’s right to redemption. People make choices. Just as a convict once made wrong choices, it is entirely possible that one day, he/she will realize their mistakes and choose to be a better person. There is always a chance for an internal repentance – just between them and their conscience (and if they believe, between them and God). By executing a human, however heinous their crime, we take away this chance. And that according to me, is an unconscionable act.
Maybe this shift in conscience will never occur, and the convict remains violent – and as others have suggested, in solitary confinement – till the end of their days. But I am sure there are many whose lives have taken a turn while serving a life sentence, and they have gone on to be better humans while behind bars. (Life in prison doesn’t necessarily have to be a “waste to nothing”. Haven’t prisoners earned degrees and done great works of art while behind bars?) It’s too bad that this internal transformation is not quantifiable, and cannot be used to decide which “life without parole” convict should and should not be released from prison.
One of your readers responded: “What’s more humane about imprisoning a human being for their lifetime instead of killing them? This has always baffled me.” The difference, of course, is the scenario where evidence comes to light after conviction that casts doubt on that conviction. If the suspect is still in prison, there is a remedy – you can consider the new evidence and, if it shows that the suspect was wrongly convicted, that person can be released from prison. If the suspect has been executed, there is no remedy. That’s the fundamental problem with the death penalty.