Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the end of a Northern California prison’s hunger strikes and a consequent deal struck between prisoners and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. At Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., prisoners observed the anniversary by writing an open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown expressing their frustration at a lack of change in the last year and calling on him to end the indiscriminate placement of inmates in solitary confinement for years on end.
Though it is undoubtedly necessary for some inmates to be placed in solitary confinement to protect the safety of prison officials and other inmates, the policy is flawed in that it leaves prisoners undeserving of such punishment in solitary confinement for years. This is not just a problem at Pelican Bay, but at prisons across the state. Brown must take action to reform Pelican Bay to set a precedent that further prevents the violation of basic civil liberties in all U.S. prisons, especially in those in Los Angeles.
The letter written by the prisoners in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, or SHU, expresses their frustrations with the slow progress on prison reform. The changes they requested are not unreasonable, and a failure to implement these changes represents the state’s failure to protect two constitutional rights: due process of law and the right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
One of the prisoners’ core requests is that no individual should be placed in solitary confinement without extensive administrative review, and that those who are sent there must be given a fixed sentence. The Center for Constitutional Rights claims that anything less than these requests amounts to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which grants protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fifth Amendment, which promises the right to due process of law.
According to the CCR, which filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners last May, SHU inmates spend 22 ½ to 24 hours a day in a tiny windowless cell without access to basic human contact. Such conditions have proven to have a devastating psychological impact on individuals held in such conditions for a prolonged period, and at Pelican Bay, some inmates have been held in this way for more than 20 years.
This is not a problem contained only within Pelican Bay State Prison. Solitary confinement conditions are also far from perfect in L.A. County jails — one ex-lawyer, for example, was held in solitary confinement in the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail for 14 months without being charged for a crime.
Even more disturbingly, many SHU prisoners have not broken prison rules and therefore do not deserve to be held in such a manner. For example, prison officials can take even the most basic actions and turn them into a solitary confinement sentence for affiliation with a prison gang. Shane Bauer, an observer of Pelican Bay’s SHU who has experienced solitary confinement, told the Los Angeles Times that some “evidence” of prison gang activity includes pictures of Malcolm X, possession of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and the use of the words “tio” and “hermano,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
It is one thing to place an inmate who has killed another inmate or assaulted a guard into solitary confinement for the safety of others, but arbitrarily locking an inmate away without judicial oversight for possessing a book remains a glaring inconsistency within California’s prison system that has largely been ignored up to this point.
Unfair solitary confinement also draws attention to a larger problem in California prisons: abuse by prison guards. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, for one, was sued in January by the American Civil Liberties Union for inmate abuse, and the case has yet to be decided. The fact that such a prominent city’s sheriff’s department has been sued multiple times by the ACLU and investigated by the FBI should be a source of enormous public outrage. But the issue remains at the margins of the media and public consciousness, further eroding the ideals all Americans’ constitutional rights are founded upon.
There is no doubt that solitary confinement is necessary for some inmates for safety reasons, and most of the time those inmates are far from model citizens. But if a nation so dedicated to constitutional rights and civil liberties does not protect the rights of all its citizens, no matter how morally defunct they are, it loses its credibility to a certain extent.
Because of this, it is vital that grievances made by people like the prisoners in solitary at Pelican Bay and the allegedly abused inmates in L.A. County jails are addressed, if not for their sake then for the sake of being regarded as a civilized society.
Sarah Cueva is junior majoring in Middle East studies and political science. Her column “Leaning Toward Liberty” runs Mondays.