Living in a box
By Alex Hannaford Photos by Adam Voohres 07 November 13
Solitary confinement is an American human-rights scandal, recently prompting hunger strikes across Californian jails in protest. Think you could survive being isolated in a tiny, windowless, concrete cell, 23 hours a day? GQ prepares to experience lockdown…
On 8 July 2013, 30,000 inmates throughout California’s prison system refused to eat. Many of the men were incarcerated at the state’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison – an enormous grey fortress built on a 275-acre clearing in a pine forest near the coast, six hours north of San Francisco. Charles Manson was once locked up there, as was notorious Cripps gang member “Monster” Kody.
There, 1,500 of its 3,000 prisoners were in cells within an X-shaped cluster of white buildings known as the Secure Housing Unit. It depends what state you’re in, but secure housing, special housing, administrative segregation – all are solitary confinement by another name. In an extraordinary show of solidarity, inmates across the state joined the Pelican Bay protestors in their hunger strike to demonstrate against California’s practice of locking up its inmates for 22 out of 24 hours in isolated, windowless, concrete cells that measure about 11ft by 7ft (3.35m by 2.13m), often for years at a time. By the time August had rolled around, the California Department Of Corrections And Rehabilitation had won the legal right to force-feed around 70 of the remaining hunger strikers. By then, however, the world was watching.
Solitary confinement has become the United States’ next great human-rights scandal. Inmates can be put in solitary for a number of reasons, including violating prison rules, if they’re deemed an escape risk, because they’re a danger to other inmates, or for their own protection. And it’s not just California that excels at the practice. According to Solitary Watch, an independent body that collects information about solitary confinement, at least 44 states within the US federal system now have “supermax prisons”, most of which almost entirely comprise solitary confinement cells. Although Solitary Watch says it’s difficult to determine just how many people are currently held in solitary in the US due to a lack of reliable state-by-state information, a 2005 census of state and federal prisoners conducted by the Bureau Of Justice Statistics – considered the most accurate – found more than 81,622 inmates were held in “restricted housing”.
As far as Britain is concerned, a spokeswoman for the UK’s Ministry Of Justice told GQ the government didn’t have details of the number of people in solitary, but a report for Solitary Watch said even though Britain had the highest per-capita incarceration rate in Europe (153 out every 100,000 people), it “pales in comparison to the US”. By some estimates, about 500 people are housed in solitary in the UK at any one time, but even then it’s not for extensive periods. The Solitary Watch report noted that “overcrowding, brutal use of segregation and general mismanagement sparked extreme violence in British prisons throughout the Seventies and Eighties … [and] by 1998 solitary confinement was reduced in favour of Close Supervision Centres … designed to combine isolation with engagement … education programmes, libraries and daily exercise.” Compared to the US, then, our own prison system seems somehow progressive.
The 2013 California prison protests – which ended on 5 September – and the media coverage they attracted shone a light on an otherwise covert, unregulated corner of the US justice system: that placing prisoners in solitary is often an arbitrary arrangement, conducted at the discretion, some would say whim, of the individual prison warden. According to James Ridgeway, co-director and editor-in-chief of Solitary Watch, there’s rarely, if any, judicial oversight on imposing solitary confinement. “Placing an inmate in solitary is not determined in court – it’s determined by wardens and a self-serving committee of guards,” he says. “Unfortunately the American public has an appetite for retribution and that’s not going to change overnight.”
The unpalatable truth is that solitary confinement is tantamount to torture. Studies have proved that the practice of isolating prisoners for extensive periods of time can precipitate a descent into madness. Devoid of human contact for so long, often with just a handful of books and possibly a radio for company, many inmates in isolation scream out in the night; some lie naked in their recreation yards, urinating on themselves; smearing excrement over their bodies; indulging in often gruesome bouts of self-mutilation with razor blades or shanks fashioned from items in their cell.
In June 2012, Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator for Illinois, chaired the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. “America has led the way with human rights around the world,” Durbin said in his introductory remarks. “But what do our prisons say about our American values?”
The US has five per cent of the world’s population, but a shocking 25 per cent of the world’s prison population. That’s 2.3 million inmates. And the US leads the world in incarcerating some of those prisoners in isolated boxes, often for decades. As David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project told me, the US is a “global outlier” in that respect, and no other democratic country comes close.
During the senate hearing, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University Of California, Santa Cruz, told the room that solitary confinement could lead to psychosis, mutilation, and suicide. As one of the country’s leading experts on inmate mental health, Haney wrote in a paper he published on the psychological impact of prison that it was in the mid-Seventies that the US moved from a society that saw incarceration as a means of facilitating “productive re-entry into the free world” to one that “used imprisonment merely to inflict pain on wrongdoers”. Studies have found those in solitary confinement develop psychopathologies at higher rates (28 per cent to 15 per cent) than those in the general population and are much more likely to engage in self-mutilation. Solitary Watch says suicide, too, is a consistent trend among inmates in isolation.
Wherever American penal law is applied, of course, solitary confinement – the practice, plus the scandal – travels. In February this year, 100 detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, embarked on a hunger strike for several months, protesting their continued incarceration without trial. They were force-fed by the US Military. I visited Guantánamo in July 2010 and was shown how detainees are fed Ensure, a powdered nutritional supplement, using a tube inserted into their nostril and down their oesophagus. I was also shown the tiny solitary cells, with beds formed from concrete. Approximately 70 per cent of the men detained there are still in solitary confinement. One described his cell as his “tomb”.
Juan Méndez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, has called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in exceptional circumstances, and even then for 15 days at most. He also called for an outright ban in the case of juveniles and the mentally ill. The United States has yet to take Méndez up on his suggestion.
PLEASE, read whole article here: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/comment/articles/2013-11/07/solitary-confinement-american-human-rights
Please, visit my other Blogs: http://www.childreninprison.wordpress.com
My Blog InCaseofinnocence.wordpress.com
My Blog Women in Jail
- EVIL CHILDREN? SOLITARY CONFINEMENT = NO PLACE FOR CHILDREN! please, sign my PETITION (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- UN Top Turture Investigator Wants Access to American Prisons (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- EXCITING NEWS: Lessons From European Prisons! (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- “Taking Action Against Solitary: NYCLO Lawsuit” by Keri B. (childreninprison.wordpress.com)
- SolitaryWatch: “Dying Angola 3 Prisoner Wins Full Habeas Relief After 41 Years; Federal Judge Orders His Immediate Release – and more informations! (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- Percentage of NM prisoners in solitary confinement higher than national average (KOB.com)
- When Prisons Retaliate: Calif. Inmates Still Paying Price for Demanding Rights | Common Dreams (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- End solitary confinement (dailycal.org)
- This Is America? Men Tortured in Solitary for Having the Wrong Tattoo or Political Books (alternet.org)
- An Animated Look at California’s Solitary Confinement (colorlines.com)