When I finally got involved in fighting America’s prison industrial complex, I googled my way to a human rights organization called California Prison Focus. The nonprofit aims to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement. Aside from corresponding with over 100 incarcerated individuals a month, the group acts as a watchdog of human rights abuses with maximum security prisons and conducts legal investigative visits with prisoners in solitary confinement. Here in West Marin, where we enjoy so much open space, it is easy to feel far removed from the cruelty of this practice. One can hardly imagine spending 23 hours a day in a concrete windowless room the size of a parking space. But between 8,000 and 11,000 men and women in California prisons are held in some type of segregation, and thousands of those are there based on alleged gang associations rather than acts of violence or rule violations. Prison staff determines solitary confinement terms with little to no due process.
I joined the movement just months before the historic, 60-day California prisoner hunger strike of 2013, in which men and women across California and even nation-wide demanded human rights for prisoners held in solitary confinement. Approximately 30,000 prisoners refused food on the first day. The more I learned, the more I began to understand why prisoners were willing to starve themselves to try to save others from the same suffering. California prisoners held in Secure Housing Units—solitary confinement, also known as the SHU—cannot call or have any physical contact with loved ones. They lack adequate medical care, receive little to no programming opportunities and suffer severe abuse by prison officials.
The work and sacrifices of California prisoners and their allies on the outside has finally made a difference. On Sept. 1, a historical settlement was reached in the federal class action suit, Ashker v. Brown, limiting the use of solitary confinement in California prisons. (The court has not finalized that settlement.) The lawsuit was filed on behalf of prisoners held in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison for more than 10 years. As of the filing in 2009, 500 men at Pelican Bay State Prison had lived in solitary confinement for over a decade, and nearly 80 for more than two decades.
The settlement dictates that California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation cannot put inmates in the SHU based on gang status alone, but only based on behavioral violations. There is now a 10-year cap on the amount of time a man or woman can be kept in the extreme sensory deprivation of the SHU. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 individuals will be released from the SHU within one year of this settlement.
But stopping the widespread and excessive use of solitary confinement in California prisons will be a protracted struggle. Prison officials skirt regulations by creating loopholes and simply changing the names of old policies, programs or units to make it look like they have changed. Though the settlement prohibits retaliation against prisoners, there has already been an influx of reports of retaliation by prison staff. The corrections department has been using trumped up violations to return inmates to the SHU, while being able to maintain their claim that hundreds of men are being released from solitary confinement. Those who are released back into the general prison population are not receiving transitional services or provided the necessary safety measures. Recently, Hugo “Yogi Bear” Pinell—held in solitary confinement for 47 years, more than any other American prisoner—was killed two days after he was released into the general prison population.
Other men and women will be released into society directly from solitary confinement, leaving the public to suffer the consequences of keeping Californians in long-term solitary confinement. Extreme sensory deprivation causes mental health problems, including rage, paranoia, and a hyper-sensitivity to stimulation.
Still, thousands of Californians will continue to be held in extreme isolation. Aside from the blatant cruelty, there are many reasons to completely end solitary confinement in California once and for all.
California Prison Focus, which is 100 percent volunteer-run, will continue our investigative work to see that the settlement terms are properly implemented and enforced. Between June 2014 and August 2015, California Prison Focus met with 117 men housed in the SHU. We need to increase our monitoring at this critical post-settlement junction.
We invite you to get involved with California Prison Focus or to become a pen pal with a prisoner in solitary confinement through the Human Rights Pen Pal Program. Most importantly, educate yourself on the issue. Without public awareness and pressure, it is impossible to make and sustain positive changes with California prisons. We need everybody to pay attention.
Kim Pollak, who lives in Inverness Park, is the president and executive director of California Prison Focus. To learn more about the organization, visit prisons.org. To contribute to the organization’s work, send tax deductible donations to 1904 Franklin St., Oakland, CA 94612, or through their website at www.prisons.org.