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Torture facilities: ‘Thousands of US prisoners held in solitary confinements for years at a time’

Published time: May 28, 2014 16:41
AFP Photo / John Moore

Some 80 thousand people in the US are held in solitary confinement for years at a time, which is nothing short of torture. The US prison system needs to come under public scrutiny, Alexis Agathocleous from the Center for Constitutional Rights told RT.

RT: California has the largest prison population in the US. Can you please describe the inhumane conditions of some of these prisoners?

Alexis Agathocleous: We at the Center for Constitutional Rights are engaged in a federal civil rights law right now, challenging California’s use of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement in California outpaces pretty much every other state in the country. They are warehousing thousands of prisoners in solitary confinements, and indeed there is just no other state in the country which consistently retains so many prisoners in solitary confinement for such incredibly lengthy periods of time. Our clients are currently housed at what is called “a special housing unit in Pelican Bay.” Pelican Bay is a California prison, very far north in California. And the plaintiffs in our lawsuit have been isolated in solitary confinement at this unit between 12 and 23 years. And indeed many of them have been sent to Pelican Bay from other solitary confinement units. Some of them have been in solitary confinement up to 25 years, some of them – more than 30 years. What we do know is that there are approximately 500 prisoners at the Pelican Bay facility alone, who have spent at least a decade in solitary confinement. These are really shocking numbers of people who have been warehoused in these conditions, and these are unparalleled periods of time, which we maintain constitutes torture.

RT: Can you describe the 'SHU' (Security housing units) in Pelican Bay?

AA: Certainly. The prisoners at Pelican Bay languish in cramped concrete windowless cells for 22.5-24 hours a day completely alone. No natural light, no face-to-face interaction with any other human beings. Their food is delivered to them through a metal slot in their door by a correctional officer, that food is frequently cold, rotten, lacking in nutritional value. As I said, they have no face-to-face interaction with other human beings, only through the door with correctional officers, and when they are delivered in chains to a barren solid concrete cell that is known as a "dog run" extensively for an hour a day to exercise on their own. There is no equipment apart from a bar and a single board. And they are taken there in chains. They are denied any telephone calls home, so they have no phone calls with their families. Social visits are strictly non-contact, which means that when a family member visits you are not allowed to hug hello, shake hands, anything like that. So it is an incredibly isolating experience. Fundamentally, there is no normal communication with even other prisoners, the only way to communicate with another prisoner is to yell loud enough to be heard through pipes or through the wall, but any communication with another prisoner can be taken as evidence of gang activity. If the other prisoner is a validated member of a gang, it can be used as a rationale to keep you in in solitary confinement even longer. In other words, these are incredibly harsh conditions that have been imposed for decades at a time.

An interior courtyard at Pelican Bay prison in Crescent City, California (Reuters)

RT: Many human rights activists have been voicing their concerns on the treatment of inmates. Has there been any progress?

AA: I think across the country there is a mounting consciousness about the ill effects of solitary confinement. There is a growing understanding of the grave psychological effect. There is a consensus within social science that prolonged solitary confinement causes a significant danger of descending into irreversible mental illness and also results in a constellation of symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, paranoid thoughts, hallucinations. So there is a broad understanding of the impact of this. As a result, we are seeing some positive developments in the country. The first Congressional hearing on solitary confinements took place last summer and signaled that the federal government is fundamentally rethinking its use of solitary confinement in federal facilities. Meanwhile, various states around the country have made voluntary changes to reduce the number of people that are held solitary confinement with very positive results. So states like Maryland and Mississippi have reduced the number of people in solitary confinement without threatening institutional security. In California we are litigating this lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners at Pelican Bay, and we intend to show in this lawsuit that placing prisoners in solitary confinement for such long periods of time places prisoners at an unacceptable risk of psychological harm, and really make that clear through constitutional challenges to this practice.

RT: A great number of prisoners are on a 23-hour lockdown. Prison officials claim that this should not be considered as solitary confinement. Can you comment on this statement?

AA: I think the argument that letting somebody out of a cell for an hour a day to go exercise by themselves in another cell is extreme semantics. If you look at any definition of solitary confinement under international law, under international human rights standards, or any sort of working use of solitary confinement within case law, it is acknowledged that there is no such thing as pure solitary confinement where a person is locked in 4 walls and never lays eyes on another human being. That simply does not happen. But the working definition of solitary confinement is when you are confined in your cell for more than 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact. And that is most certainly what we are seeing in California.

RT: Recently there was a prisoner hunger strike. Can you describe why the prisoners are protesting and if the strike achieved any changes?

AA: Absolutely. The Pelican Bay hunger strike - there have been several of them in fact, and the prisoners of Pelican Bay resorted to this measure in order to draw much needed attention to their plight. And so they were literally willing to risk death in order to draw attention to what has been happening to them for decades now, and to raise consciousness and awareness of this human rights issue. After the first hunger strikes in 2011 they were promised various changes by the California corrections department and unfortunately those changes did not materialize. And so there was another hunger strike last summer. One very positive development that has come out of that is this issue has been taken up by the California legislature, and there are two bills pending before the California assembly about changes in the processes by which prisoners are designated to solitary confinement; and that would hopefully modify some of the conditions there. So there is certainly attention to this matter, both in the legislature and in the courts. But also I think among the public; I think in the last few years this issue has been covered a lot more in the media and people are starting to grapple with the implications of America's vast overuse of solitary confinement. In the US we have approximately 80 thousand people in solitary confinement on any given day, and now that we have an understanding of the psychological and medical impact of that I think we are going to see a real change in our practices around the use of solitary confinement.

Family members of Pelican Bay inmate Antonio Guillen stand outside San Quentin State Prison in support of inmates who are participating in a state-wide prisoner hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite solitary confinement in California's prison system in San Quentin, August 3, 2013. (Reuters / Stephen Lam)

RT: Critics say that solitary confinement is often used on minor prison offenders. Why has this been the case?

AA: I think something that is very important to understand is that solitary confinement is not something that is imposed by a judge or a court based on what you are convicted of. You are placed in solitary confinement as an administrative process that is governed by prison officials. Prison officials generally have very wide discretion to make administrative decisions about where they are going to house prisoners. So in California you do not have to have engaged in any dangerous gang activity in order to be sent to solitary confinement; you do not have to have engaged in a violent act, or any overt act on behalf of the gang. Instead, in California you can be sent to solitary confinement for what the correctional officials see as association with the gang. Now, association with the gang is interpreted incredibly widely. So among our clients, people whose names have appeared on a list of alleged gang members, just the fact that their names were on the list was used for keeping them in solitary confinement. In other instances, artwork that has been in the possession of our clients has been interpreted as evidence of association with the gang. Also possessing black power literature has been interpreted by California corrections officials as evidence of association with the gang. In other words, there is this misperception that solitary confinement is reserved for the worst of the worst, and is only imposed once you have acted dangerously or violently; and that is simply not the case. These administrative decisions are made in a much wider variety of cases than you might expect.

RT: Many prisons in the United States have been privatized. Do you think that the treatment of prisoners would improve if all prisons were state operated?

AA: Obviously a whole host of problematic issues arise from the privatization of prisons. I think it is very important that our prison system be subjected to as much public scrutiny as possible, and obviously privatizing the prison system only shields that kind of scrutiny. But, unfortunately, the fact is that there is use of solitary confinement across the prison systems. It is used in jails, in state prisons, in federal prisons; it is ubiquitous in our system. I think only now people are starting to question the wisdom of using it so widely, and I think there is a growing understanding of the ills associated with solitary confinement and the deep human rights concerns associated with the practice. And we are seeing a questioning of its use across the board, whether it be in publicly run facilities or privatized facilities.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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