California Prisons Isolate Some Inmates for Years

An article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times describes California's policy of separating prisoners from the general population. Throwing the violent or unruly prisoner into "the hole" is a common prison cliche, but unless you're Papillion, it's expected you'll be released the same decade you're thrown in.

California begs to differ:

U.S. prisons typically reserve solitary confinement for inmates who commit serious offenses behind bars. In California, however, suspected gang members — even those with clean prison records — can be held in isolation indefinitely with no legal recourse.

Indeed, hundreds have been kept for more than a decade in 8-by-10-foot cells, with virtually no human contact for nearly 23 hours per day. Dozens have spent more than two decades in solitary, according to state figures.

It's a harsh fate even by prison standards: Under current policy, an inmate who kills a guard faces a maximum of five years of isolation.

Long abandoned by many states, the practice of indefinite solitary confinement persists in California as a last resort for prison officials struggling to thwart gang activity and extract information from the most hardened gang members.

If anyone needs further reason to object to California's unconstitutionally crowded prison system, observe the Gitmo-style justice:

Inmates can be placed in solitary if investigators find three pieces of information linking them to a gang. Some admit their allegiance, but the wrong tattoo, a letter from a known gang member or the whisper of a confidential informant all count as evidence.

Once in solitary, inmates are presented with a choice: If they name gang members and provide detailed accounts of their alleged activities — assaults, killings, drug smuggling — they are promised a place in a yard reserved for inmates who need protective custody. But there is no way for prison officials to protect them when they are released, advocates say, or to guarantee the safety of the inmates' families on the outside.

Should the inmates choose not to talk, they stay in isolation for a minimum of six years. If they fail to maintain a spotless disciplinary record, the isolation can be extended indefinitely.

Whole thing here.

Back in 2009, The New Yorker also asked, "Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?" and described some of the physical effects of isolation:

EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

Even if we assumed every one of these California inmates is actually a violent gang member, adding the equivalent of a traumatic brain injury, especially to those who might eventually be paroled, seems like truly terrible policy for keeping anyone safe.

Reason on prisons, especially the wretched state of California's.

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  • ||

    Back in 2009, The New Yorker also asked, "Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?"

    Well, yes. And considering that the entire promise to close Gitmo was predicated around the idea of moving them (unconvicted) to SuperMax prisons, it was always a promise of more torture for the detainees. (Arguably it's worse than waterboarding, and we'd be doing it to more people than we ever waterboarded.)

  • Colin||

    At least you can't get raped in solitary.

    If I were in prison, that's where I'd want to be.

  • Rev. Blue Moon||

    Not that I am one to read your mind and question your preferences, but I doubt that you would say that after six months in solitary. Keep in mind that in a lot of solitary conditions, there is no television, books, human contact, or privacy. The guards who work solitary love to escalate against you; mace to the eyes and tasering will be routine for you. Your lights are always on and all you have is a concrete bench and a concrete toilet and shower (that's in Supermax conditions).

  • ||

    Still sounds better than rape.

  • Rev. Blue Moon||

    "Well, you say that..."

  • tgs||

    protip: dont be a fucking criminal

  • Nephilium||

    Read the fucking legal code.

    Get back to me when you're done.

  • Mensan||

    Thanks for the tip, numbnuts. Three felonies a day and whatnot.

  • GSL||

    I really hate it when people try to draw parallels between California Supermax prisons and Guantanamo. Supermax prisoners end up in places like Pelican Bay after being convicted and sentenced in a court of law.

  • Liberty 4 me but not 4 thee||

    Wrong. Conviction only results in imprisonment simpliciter. Pelican Bay is solely at the arbitrary whim of prison authorities. No separate "conviction" or "sentencing" is ever necessary to be put in Pelican Bay.

  • Rev. Blue Moon||

    Supermax prisoners end up in places like Pelican Bay after being convicted and sentenced in a court of law.

    Wow, as if that ends the debate on the purposes behind the criminal justice system. "Well, you were convicted, so who cares if you spend the years in psychological torture!"

  • Liberty 4 me but not 4 thee||

    This is news? This has been an issue for years now. See Solitary Watch dot com for detailed coverage.

    Yes, Reason, there are things worse than the death tax.

  • ||

    In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

    1. What type of severe brain abnormality are we talking about?

    2. What is the relative severity between head trauma victims' abnormalities, isolated prisoners abnormalities, and other prisoners' abnormalities?

    Kind of important questions for the conclusions the NYT is drawing (and Reason happily repeats) that are not answered here.

    For instance, when a building burns down on a hot, sunny day, it would be correct to say that the people who got skin burns were those who were trapped in the building during the fire, and the people who stood outside in the sun watching the fire. Does that mean it's just as dangerous to be trapped in a fire as it is to stand in the sun?

  • Rev. Blue Moon||

    That quote is from The New Yorker. And while your questions are valid (and there are other such questions that could be asked throughout the article), the entire New Yorker piece deserves a read.

  • Officer||

    Don't do the crime if you can't do the quiet time.

  • ||

    Prisoners are sent to prison AS punishment not FOR punishment. The arbitrary reasons a person are sent to isolation are never proven in court nor even argued before anyone! You can not offer any rational defense to torture!

  • Lyn||

    America is a goddamn disgrace when it comes to prisons. We would be more humane if we just executed people. Many state prisons and federal prisons are like gladiator academies. Rape is encouraged. Sometimes people are put into solitary until they crack up then put into general population and assigned cellmates that are known sexual offenders. It's sick. California is especially cruel and inhumane.

    And then there's the USP ADMAX at Florence, CO which may be the most hellish place in world history for both physical and psychological torture. Why other countries don't put the US under some kind of sanctions - just for ADMAX Florence - is beyond me. America deserves contempt for this place.

    I won't name any of you, but you're wrong if you think there is due process inside prison. Some people are sent to solitary straight from sentencing. Others are sent there because some guard just decides he doesn't like that inmate. It is that easy to do.

    I'm not liberal. I don't have much sympathy for criminals. But there is no reason to do some of this shit to other human beings. If they're such violent offenders then kill them. How do you think some of these guards behave, by the way, when they're outside prison? I've talked to some of their ex-wives and kids. Many guards are sadists even with their own families.

  • Nike Dunk High||

    thanks

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