Amnesty International Denounces Torture in California Prisons
--An interview with Tessa Murphy
By Angola 3 News
"California Department of Corrections/PBSP-SHU policies and practices, have violated our human rights and subjected us to torture -- for the purpose of coercing inmates into becoming informants against other inmates, etc., for the state," writes one prisoner held in solitary at California's infamous supermax Pelican Bay State Prison. This excerpt of his letter to the internationally renowned human rights organization, Amnesty International, is featured in Amnesty's new report on the use of prolonged solitary confinement inside California's "Security Housing Units' (SHUs), entitled The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California's Security Housing Units.
The Amnesty report states that "no other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation." At least 3,000 California prisoners are being held today in an extreme form of solitary confinement known as "super maximum" custody. Furthermore, the CDCR reported in 2011 that over 500 prisoners had spent over ten years in the Pelican Bay SHU, with 78 having spent over 20 years there. Explaining the recent emergence of SHUs, Amnesty writes that "California was at the forefront of moves to toughen penalties, and its prison population escalated during the 1980s and 1990s following the introduction of some of the nation's harshest sentencing laws. Once a leader in the philosophy of rehabilitation, California also passed legislation which expressly described punishment rather than rehabilitation as the central aim of imprisonment. Pelican Bay SHU, which opened in 1989, was one of the first super-maximum security facilities specifically designed to be "non- programming,' that is, constructed with no communal space for recreation, education or any other group activity."
In the Summer of 2011, prisoners held inside the Pelican Bay SHU initiated a multi-racial hunger strike that began on July 1 and spread throughout California's prisons. While the Pelican Bay strikers declared victory on July 20, other prisoners around the states continued for up to several weeks longer. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that at least 6,600 prisoners in at least one third of California's 33 prisons participated in the hunger strike. Ending the use of prolonged solitary confinement was one of the strike's five core demands.
"Following concern among prisoners about what they perceived as a lack of progress in
implementing changes, the hunger strike resumed briefly in late September 2011, but was
called off after meetings between prisoner representatives and CDCR and further assurances that CDCR would institute changes. While no disciplinary action had been taken against the first hunger strikers, the second hunger strike was treated by CDCR as a major rule violation and some prisoners were punished by having their property and canteen privileges confiscated. Fifteen of the strike leaders were reportedly moved to harsh conditions in administrative segregation cells for a short period," writes Amnesty International in their new report.
The CDCR has responded to the striking prisoners' demands with their own proposals. Amnesty critiques the CDCR's proposed reforms, arguing that "the reforms do not go far enough. There are continuing concerns about both the fairness of the procedures for assigning prisoners to what could still be indefinite SHU terms, and about the length of time in which prisoners will remain in solitary confinement". While measures to reduce the number of prisoners held in security housing units are a positive step, in Amnesty International's view the proposals should ensure that only prisoners who present a clear and present threat, who cannot be safely housed in a less secure setting are assigned to the SHU. Given the serious consequences of SHU confinement, the authorities should ensure that STG [Security Threat Group] validations are based on a thorough and impartial investigation, and only with concrete evidence of gang-related activity posing such a clear and present threat; that prisoners have a fair opportunity to contest the evidence; and that such decisions are subject to regular, meaningful review."
When these concerns were raised "during Amnesty International's meetings with CDCR staff in November 2011, the department stressed that there were inmates in the SHU with serious gang connections, but acknowledged that they "over-validated' and that there were prisoners in the SHU who did not warrant such a restrictive level of housing. CDCR also acknowledged that there were people assigned to the SHU as gang associates who had no direct role in gang activity. CDCR stated that the reforms under consideration were aimed at making the system fairer as well as targeting resources more effectively, taking into account the high cost of SHU confinement and the need to manage a tight budget. Amnesty International was told that the process would ultimately reduce the SHU population to ensure that only prisoners who could not be safely housed in a less secure setting would be assigned to the SHU."
The bottom line of this important new report: "Amnesty International considers that the conditions of isolation and other deprivations imposed on prisoners in California's SHU units breach international standards on humane treatment, and that prolonged or indefinite isolation, and the severe social and environmental deprivation existing in Pelican Bay SHU in particular, constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law."
Unfortunately, getting the US to respect international law is not as clear-cut as the act of documenting human rights violations. Notably, The Edge of Endurance explains: "The USA has sought to limit the application of international human rights law in its conduct by entering reservations to article 7 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and article 16 of the Convention against Torture as a condition of ratifying the treaties. The reservations state that the US considers itself bound by the articles only to the extent that "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment' means the "cruel and unusual treatment or punishment' prohibited under the US Constitution. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the USA to withdraw its reservations as defeating the object and purpose of the treaties in question and therefore incompatible with international law."
Last week, on October 10, following a public call to end racial hostilities among California prisoners, another hunger strike was initiated at Pelican Bay, with 500 prisoners statewide participating, according to the CDCR.
Tessa Murphy is the campaigner for the USA team at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. She has provided the research for and worked on Amnesty's reports on supermax prisons and solitary confinement through her visits to a number of prisons, including the recent visit to California SHUs as part of the team that published the report cited above, entitled The Edge of Endurance. She also authored Amnesty's special report on the Angola 3, entitled USA: 100 years in solitary: "The Angola 3' and their fight for justice.
A3N: In our introduction to this interview, we cite several key aspects of the recent Amnesty International report about SHUs in California. As someone who visited these prisons as part of the Amnesty delegation, what did you learn about them first hand that perhaps can't be conveyed in a written report? What did the SHUs feel like?
TM: It is hard to convey the sense of desolation in the SHU's. From the moment you step foot in the SHU, the senses are assailed by artificial lights, stale air and muted silence.