Prisoners’ rights must be protected

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.

Yiwen Fu | Daily Trojan

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.

7 replies
    • Morrighan
      Morrighan says:

      or maybe a family member. why are YOU here what is Your interest? I’M here because i have a very good friend in the pelican bay SHU.

  1. Gabriel
    Gabriel says:

    If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. It is supposed to suck.
    I am all for the following for all prisoners:
    No TVs
    No Telephones (except to call you lawyer)
    No Radios
    No Porno
    No Drugs
    No Coffee or Soda (unless you can pay for and only decaf)
    No Conjugal Visits
    No Law Libraries
    No Special Meals (except for bacon wrapped rats on holidays)
    Yes to Hard Labor
    Yes to Big Black Bubba Your Cellmate and Lover

    • Morrighan
      Morrighan says:

      lol…real bad ass on the internet huh? speak that in person to an inmate or someone who’s been locked up….like me. why even come to sites one has no interest in except to run your mouth. these men are being mistreated,tortured even by the constant deprivations. end of story,oh and gabriel? go find another site to troll on.

  2. Lisa Gomez
    Lisa Gomez says:

    There are men at Pelican Bay who have been in solitary confinement for over 25 years. Solitary confinement used to be used for bad behaviour, but California uses is as a method of control. The men are not asking to be released, but to do their time in the mainline. To have them in solitary confinement for years on end for the sake of having control is barbaric. If other countries did it, we would frown on it, but here in California, it’s the norm.

    Governor Brown should step up to the plate and make the necessary changes we look for in a leader. Not only for the sake of the inmates, but for the savings to tax payers as having inmates in SHU is more costly than having them on the mainline. Not to mention the mental health issues caused to these men from being held in isolation for years on end.

  3. jax4usc
    jax4usc says:

    Prisoners’ rights must be protected! What rights? Study before sounding off. Prisoners are, and should be, deprived of rights as a consequence of being adjuged a felon. Your argument sounds like many I’ve read that illegal entry into the United States should be declared legal.

    Fight On!


  4. CToersbijns
    CToersbijns says:

    When government ignores civil rights, their moral and legal responsibility to provide and protect prisoners with humane conditions, we are on the slippery slope of anarchy. This SHU concept is out of control. It is no longer what it was when designed. Internal forces have changed it and shaped it to be more punitive than necessary. I know, I was one of the few administrators that had an opportunity to work it ground up.. Rights must be protected… otherwise we all suffer as mankind.

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