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Nearly 15,000 California Prisoners Held in Long-term Isolation

The American Friends service committee (AFSC) has taken the position that “long-term solitary confinement is ineffective and inappropriate in all circumstances.”

In May 2008, it launched a national STOPMAX campaign calling for an end to the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. In conjunction with the launch of that campaign, the AFSC Oakland office published Buried Alive: Long-term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons, authored by Laura Magnani.

Magnani traces the history of extended solitary confinement to the killing of a guard at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois in 1972. Following that incident, a large part of the penitentiary was converted into a Management Control Unit -- a “prison within a prison” -- one of only a handful of such units around the country at the time.

By 1997, according to a 2003 AFSC report, 45 states, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the District of Columbia were operating one type of control unit or another. Notable among those was/is the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado -- the first prison built specifically for the purpose of solitary confinement.

By 2006, more than 40 states had specially designed “supermax” facilities. In California, the first such prison -- Pelican Bay state Prison (PBSP) – became operational in 1989. Purportedly designed to hold California’s “most serious criminal offenders,” PBSP now operates one of five security Housing Units (SHUs) in California; the others operate in Corcoran, Tehachipi, High Desert State Prison in Susanville and the Valley state Prison for Women in Chowchilla. Together, these SHUs now house over 3,500 men and nearly 100 women.

But this is only a fraction of the total population of California prisoners held in isolation. AFSC estimates that, on any given day, the total number of prisoners held in long-term lockdown exceeds 14,600 (approximately 8½ percent of the entire California prison population). Of that number, over 7,500 are in administrative segregation, over 2,500 in protective custody, over 600 in different types of psychiatric lockup and about 100 in death row’s adjustment center.

Magnani’s report describes the harsh conditions in supermax units. Those conditions include an “eerie silence” or its opposite, a “din of constant noise;” no windows; cell lights left on 24 hours a day; extremely limited contact with other human beings; 30 minutes a day of exercise alone in a cage; no jobs or programs; restricted visits, mail and telephone calls. It notes that approximately half of California’s SHU prisoners are “validated gang members;” that “validation” is an arbitrary process with few procedural safeguards; that it is often racially motivated (and consequently discriminatory); and that validated gang members, unlike behavior-based offenders, serve indeterminate SHU terms, potentially for the rest of their lives.

Conditions are so harsh that mental illness is common. A disproportionate number of SHU prisoners commit suicide. While several federal court cases have led to decisions ostensibly improving medical and mental health care – both in the SHUs and throughout the rest of the prison system -- Magnani reports that the Department of Corrections “seems consistently to be able to undermine the decisions and delay compliance.”

Magnani’s report includes a brief overview of the conditions in California’s juvenile prisons. It found over 300 wards in restricted housing, in conditions that were “oppressive and punitive -- certainly not conducive to treatment and rehabilitation.” The report is available on PLN’s website.

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