“California Department of Corrections/PBSP-SHU policies and practices, have violated our human rights and subjected us to torture – for the purpose of coercing inmates into becoming informants against other inmates, etc., for the state,” writes one prisoner held in solitary at California’s infamous supermax Pelican Bay State Prison. This excerpt of his letter to the internationally renowned human rights organization, Amnesty International, is featured in Amnesty’s new report on the use of prolonged solitary confinement inside California’s ‘Security Housing Units’ (SHUs), entitled The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units
The Amnesty report states that “no other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.” At least 3,000 California prisoners are being held today in an extreme form of solitary confinement known as “super maximum” custody. Furthermore, the CDCR reported in 2011 that over 500 prisoners had spent over ten years in the Pelican Bay SHU, with 78 having spent over 20 years there. Explaining the recent emergence of SHUs, Amnesty writes that “California was at the forefront of moves to toughen penalties, and its prison population escalated during the 1980s and 1990s following the introduction of some of the nation’s harshest sentencing laws. Once a leader in the philosophy of rehabilitation, California also passed legislation which expressly described punishment rather than rehabilitation as the central aim of imprisonment. Pelican Bay SHU, which opened in 1989, was one of the first super-maximum security facilities specifically designed to be ‘non- programming,’ that is, constructed with no communal space for recreation, education or any other group activity.”
In the Summer of 2011, prisoners held inside the Pelican Bay SHU initiated a multi-racial hunger strike
that began on July 1 and spread throughout California’s prisons. While the Pelican Bay strikers declared victory on July 20
, other prisoners around the states continued for up to several weeks longer. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that at least 6,600 prisoners in at least one third of California’s 33 prisons participated in the hunger strike. Ending the use of prolonged solitary confinement was one of the strike’s five core demands
“Following concern among prisoners about what they perceived as a lack of progress in implementing changes, the hunger strike resumed briefly in late September 2011, but was called off after meetings between prisoner representatives and CDCR and further assurances that CDCR would institute changes. While no disciplinary action had been taken against the first hunger strikers, the second hunger strike was treated by CDCR as a major rule violation and some prisoners were punished by having their property and canteen privileges confiscated. Fifteen of the strike leaders were reportedly moved to harsh conditions in administrative segregation cells for a short period,” writes Amnesty International in their new report.
The CDCR has responded to the striking prisoners’ demands with their own proposals. Amnesty critiques the CDCR’s proposed reforms, arguing that “the reforms do not go far enough. There are continuing concerns about both the fairness of the procedures for assigning prisoners to what could still be indefinite SHU terms, and about the length of time in which prisoners will remain in solitary confinement…. While measures to reduce the number of prisoners held in security housing units are a positive step, in Amnesty International’s view the proposals should ensure that only prisoners who present a clear and present threat, who cannot be safely housed in a less secure setting are assigned to the SHU. Given the serious consequences of SHU confinement, the authorities should ensure that STG [Security Threat Group] validations are based on a thorough and impartial investigation, and only with concrete evidence of gang-related activity posing such a clear and present threat; that prisoners have a fair opportunity to contest the evidence; and that such decisions are subject to regular, meaningful review.”
When these concerns were raised “during Amnesty International’s meetings with CDCR staff in November 2011, the department stressed that there were inmates in the SHU with serious gang connections, but acknowledged that they ‘over-validated’ and that there were prisoners in the SHU who did not warrant such a restrictive level of housing. CDCR also acknowledged that there were people assigned to the SHU as gang associates who had no direct role in gang activity. CDCR stated that the reforms under consideration were aimed at making the system fairer as well as targeting resources more effectively, taking into account the high cost of SHU confinement and the need to manage a tight budget. Amnesty International was told that the process would ultimately reduce the SHU population to ensure that only prisoners who could not be safely housed in a less secure setting would be assigned to the SHU.”
The bottom line of this important new report: “Amnesty International considers that the conditions of isolation and other deprivations imposed on prisoners in California’s SHU units breach international standards on humane treatment, and that prolonged or indefinite isolation, and the severe social and environmental deprivation existing in Pelican Bay SHU in particular, constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law.”
Unfortunately, getting the US to respect international law is not as clear-cut as the act of documenting human rights violations. Notably, The Edge of Endurance explains: “The USA has sought to limit the application of international human rights law in its conduct by entering reservations to article 7 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and article 16 of the Convention against Torture as a condition of ratifying the treaties. The reservations state that the US considers itself bound by the articles only to the extent that ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the ‘cruel and unusual treatment or punishment’ prohibited under the US Constitution. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the USA to withdraw its reservations as defeating the object and purpose of the treaties in question and therefore incompatible with international law.”
Tessa Murphy is the campaigner for the USA team at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. She has provided the research for and worked on Amnesty's reports on supermax prisons and solitary confinement through her visits to a number of prisons, including the recent visit to California SHUs as part of the team that published the report cited above, entitled The Edge of Endurance. She also authored Amnesty's special report on the Angola 3, entitled USA: 100 years in solitary: ‘The Angola 3’ and their fight for justice
A3N: In our introduction to this interview, we cite several key aspects of the recent Amnesty International report about SHUs in California. As someone who visited these prisons as part of the Amnesty delegation, what did you learn about them first hand that perhaps can’t be conveyed in a written report? What did the SHUs feel like?
TM: It is hard to convey the sense of desolation in the SHU's. From the moment you step foot in the SHU, the senses are assailed by artificial lights, stale air and muted silence.
Off long drab corridors, prisoners are isolated from each other in pods of eight cells; these pods are self-contained with a shower and recreation yard, so that, with few exceptions, they rarely leave the pod.
This bleak environment of tiny windowless cells where little natural light infiltrates, few personal possessions, no programming to offset the boredom, out of cell time in ‘outdoor’ yard with a view of a patch of sky, minimum human contact, and a view out of the cell of a dirty white wall is the totality of the prisoners' world.
A3N: Accounts of the prisoners themselves are featured throughout your report. When it came to deciding which topics to focus on in your report, to what extent were you influenced by the striking Pelican Bay prisoners?
TM: AI's report on California is part of a body of work on conditions in prison isolation units in the USA; including Arizona
, and Texas as being of particular concern. When we began our research into conditions in California’s SHUs, a number of issues became apparent very quickly; First that there were a large number of inmates who had been held in the SHU for very long periods of time, secondly, that the majority of inmates in the SHU were being placed there for alleged gang affiliation/membership, thirdly, that there was no step-down system to allow these individuals to transition out of the SHU, and fourthly that physical conditions, particularly in Pelican Bay, were very harsh. Based on this initial research, the organization requested access to California SHU units before the prisoners initiated the hunger strikes.
When the strike began, we were contacted by members of the mediation group who made us aware of the prisoners’ demands. During the course of researching the report, we were in close contact with the mediation team, as well as families and friends of inmates held in the SHUs, as well as with lawyers, as well as state employees, including legislators as well as grass roots groups. Of course, we also sought information from CDCR.
A3N: The Amnesty report states that “the growth of super-maximum security facilities has been linked to the huge rise in the numbers of people incarcerated in the USA from the late 1970s onwards, together with a shift away from rehabilitation as a goal of imprisonment to more emphasis on punishment and control.” Can you say more about how mass incarceration and prolonged solitary confinement relate to each other? Why did they rise together?
TM: The prison population in the USA has quadrupled since 1980; this has come about due not to rising crime but to harsher sentencing policies that emanated out of a "get tough on crime" attitude pervasive in the 90's, such as three-strikes law, truth in sentencing laws, as well as mandatory minimums.
Supermaximum prisons were borne out of this need by elected officials need to be seen to be tough on crime, as well as to respond to the needs of an increasingly overcrowded prison system. The first such prison to be built, designed with social and environment deprivation inbuilt was SMU 1 in Eyman State prison in Arizona, this was the prototype for Pelican Bay Prison, built in 1989. Many states followed in building their own supermax prison, and many retrofitted current prisons to supermax criteria of holding prisoners in isolation with minimum social interaction for prolonged periods.
States rationalized the building of these prisons with the argument that only by the large scale isolation of the "worst of the worst" prisoners, could violence be controlled throughout the prison system. However, studies have shown that predatory violent prisoners are but a small proportion of those held in isolation, which is replete with individuals with mental illness, persistent rule breakers and those alleged to be in a gang.
A3N: With over 2.4 million prisoners today, the US now has the most total prisoners and the highest incarceration rate in the world. Much of the world has rightly condemned the US for the well-documented torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but what do you think the state of human rights inside prisons within US borders says about the US?
TM: The US does have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. It also is the only country that uses prolonged isolation as a routine prison management tool in prisons built for this purpose. This reliance on long term isolation has profound consequences; first, it costs significantly more to house a prisoner in isolation than it does to house them in general population; secondly, the focus on punishment, rather than rehabilitation, that forms the backbone of this prison tool, has severely negative consequences on the prisoner—from mental and physical health, to their success in positively reintegrating back into society. So the costs on society are huge in both financial and other terms.
The conditions and policies of supermax prisons that affect over 30,000 prisoners across the country, falls short of international laws and treaties governing the humane treatment of prisoners, to which the US is a party. This casts a large shadow over any claim by the US administration that it is a champion of human rights.
A3N: In two previous interviews (1
) we covered the case before the European Court of Human Rights, of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom. Recently the Court ruled against the co-appellants, who are fighting extradition to the US on grounds that the US tortures prisoners, which writer Chris Hedges has argued
, “removes one of the last external checks on our emerging gulag state.” What do you think is the significance of this Court ruling for the US, Europe, and beyond?
TM: Although the ruling denied the appeal, it conceded that there were circumstances in which prolonged incarceration in ADX could amount to a breach of Article 3. It accepted that there were sufficient safeguards in these particular cases on the basis of information provided the US government while largely disregarding the submissions provided by the lawyers for the applicants. We will be following the actual conditions under which these prisoners are held post-extradition. See this link to the statement AI issued last week
In terms of the ruling having broader consequences for other cases, each new case that comes before the court will need to be examined on its specific facts and evidence. When it comes to obligation of non refoulement (no transfer to risk of human rights violations of different kinds) a large part of the analysis in each case is highly specific to the evidence in the particular case.
A3N: Shifting to another campaign you’ve worked on, why is Amnesty International calling for
the release of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace of the Angola 3 from solitary confinement?
TM: Amnesty has been working on the case of the A3 for over a decade; however it became a priority case in recent years when the focus of our work shifted to the issue of long term isolation in US prisons. Our support for the case rests on a number of issues: first that they have been held for such a long period in conditions of deprivation; that the process for reviewing their placement in these conditions is no more than a rubber stamping exercise by prison authorities; that serious questions exist about the legitimacy of the legal process - including the evidence used to convict them, the lack of DNA evidence to link them to the crime; and that their political beliefs may in part be responsible for their continued placement in solitary, and even for the charges originally brought against them.
Both men are in their late sixties, the decades of incarceration has debilitated them physically, they have no disciplinary violations, they have never demonstrated that they are a threat to the safety of the prison – or to others, or themselves (and this was confirmed by prison mental health staff). Do they conform to the definition of the “worst of the worst” predatory inmates for whom prolonged detention in solitary confinement is the only administrative option? No, far from it, and yet there they remain after 40 years.
TM: The title comes from a quote by Robert that despite the abolition of slavery in the USA, the 13th Amendment legalizes slavery in US prisons.
A3N: Were you surprised that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal refused to meet
with the Amnesty International delegation that hand-delivered a 67,000 signature petition to his office on April 17, 2012?
TM: No, we weren’t surprised that he didn’t meet with the delegation as he hasn’t engaged at all with AI on this case. In July 2011, we wrote to him asking that we meet to discuss the case at the soonest possible opportunity. He chose not to respond.
A3N: AI responded to Gov. Jindal by launching a newer petition targeting James M. LeBlanc, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. What was your strategic thinking behind targeting the Dept of corrections?
TM: Over the years, a number of statements have been made by authorities involved in this case that are not supported by evidence. This includes statements by Attorney General James Caldwell that Albert Woodfox is “the most dangerous man on the planet” as well as being a violent rapist. Albert’s prison conduct does not support Caldwell’s first statement, and Albert has never been charged with – let alone convicted of rape. And yet, Caldwell is not held to account for such assertions.
We decided to target James le Blanc because he issued a statement on the anniversary of Albert and Herman’s 40th year of incarceration, that they were being held separately from other prisoners to protect prison employees, other inmates and visitors. Yet neither man has had any serious prison infraction for decades, and the prison’s own mental health records indicate that neither man pose a threat to themselves or to others. So, we decided to hold Secretary Le Blanc to account, and ask him for the evidence behind this claim.
- Limit the use of isolation units so that is it imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners whose behaviour constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of others.
- Improve conditions for all prisoners held in isolation units, including better exercise provision and an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even at the most restrictive custody levels.
- Allow prisoners in isolation units to make regular phone calls to their families.
- Reduce the length of the Step Down Program and providing meaningful access to programs where prisoners have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at an earlier stage.
- Immediate removal from isolation of prisoners who have already spent years in those units.