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.
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.