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Jailhouse Knock

Solitary confinement under fire

Activists like Steve Pleich have been protesting solitary confinement on the 23rd of each month, which is the number of hours inmates in solitary confinement spend locked up alone each day. PHOTO: ARDY RAGHIAN

On the 23rd of each month, prison reform activists on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz hold up signs and banners reading “End Solitary Confinement.” The date signifies the number of hours many prison inmates spend in solitary confinement each day, in a windowless concrete cell barely larger than a king-sized bed.

Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, says the monthly protests in Santa Cruz and around the state are part of a movement that has made a big impact since inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City staged a hunger strike that spread through state prisons in 2011. Her son John Martinez was in solitary for 15 years in Pelican Bay.

“There were lawsuits and hunger strikes in the past, but they died down and went away. It has only gotten bigger since the 2011 hunger strikes,” says Canales.

On Monday, President Obama announced a series of executive actions that will ban the use of solitary confinement as punishment for “low-level infractions” by adult prisoners, and prohibit its use entirely for juvenile prisoners in federal prisons. In June, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, one of the court’s more conservative judges, denounced the widespread use of solitary confinement, a modern-day restating of the Supreme Court’s ruling 125 years ago that solitary confinement bears a “terror and peculiar mark of infamy”—although the court never abolished it.

Prisons have defended their use of these isolating units, saying the prisoners in them would otherwise pose a threat to staff and other inmates.

CFASC is part of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS), which organizes the community actions on the 23rd of each month statewide. Both groups formed in the aftermath of the 2011 hunger strike at the Pelican Bay State Prison, which led to more than 6,000 prisoners protesting solitary confinement conditions. There were three hunger strikes from 2011 to 2013, resulting in two deaths. While demands for better conditions were ultimately denied, the strikes brought attention to the issue.

So did a lawsuit that prisoners in solitary at Pelican Bay filed in 2012, challenging California’s use of solitary units. The plaintiffs settled in September of last year, but their case, Ashker v. Brown, secured significant reforms. For instance, the state agreed to limit prolonged solitary confinement and end the process of indeterminate detention.

During the trial, UCSC psychology professor Craig Haney testified that after interviews with numerous prisoners, he found that the negative effects of solitary confinement are comparable to those found in torture and trauma victims.

Word Games

But there is one surprising complication to the growing fight against solitary: The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) says it doesn’t use solitary confinement and that it never has.

“It’s not solitary confinement, it never has been, and it certainly isn’t now,” Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for CDCR, tells GT.

“I came to realize the SHU was designed to break you physically, spiritually and psychologically. It wasn’t designed to rehabilitate yourself or make you a better person,” he says.

The department, instead, uses terms like “security housing unit” (SHU) or “administrative housing unit” (AHU) to describe cells where inmates spend a minimum of 22 hours a day. Prisons and jails across the state use acronyms for what essentially amounts to solitary confinement, according to legal experts.

Carol Strickman, an attorney and founding member of PHSS, takes issue with Thornton’s description, saying the CDCR is just trying to avoid negative buzz words. “Solitary is a dirty word, everyone’s going to deny it,” Strickman says. “It’s a semantic game to avoid admitting that they’re doing something that is disapproved of by a lot of people.”

The U.S. Department of Justice defined solitary confinement in 2013 as being confined to a cell for about 22 hours per day or more, alone or with other prisoners, in a way “that limits contact with others”—not necessarily eliminating it altogether.

Thornton says inmates in SHU units have meaningful human contact—that, for instance, they can talk to each other through the walls. Strickman disagrees, saying that yelling between cells or being forced to have a bunkmate doesn’t qualify.

Sometimes the CDCR houses two people in one SHU, but both are crammed into a unit the same size as those that hold one person—8 by 10 feet.

Thornton calls this another form of “human contact,” but Haney, the UCSC psychologist, has indicated otherwise. He testified in March that double-celled prisoners “have the worst of both worlds.” They are “denied opportunities for any semblance of ‘normal’ social interaction,” explained Haney.

Haney testified that inmates in these units, which he refers to as being solitary confinement, are “at grave risk of psychological harm.” He added that the term solitary confinement “is generally used to refer to conditions of extreme but not total isolation from others.”

Danny Murillo, who served seven years in an SHU, five of them at Pelican Bay State Prison, describes his experience as torture.

“I came to realize the SHU was designed to break you physically, spiritually and psychologically. It wasn’t designed to rehabilitate yourself or make you a better person,” he says.

Murillo, who graduated UC Berkeley in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies, says he knows of people who have committed suicide while in the SHU, and others who “lost it,” or showed signs of mental instability.

Strickman, one of several attorneys who prosecuted the Ashker v. Brown case, says the recent settlement ensures that fewer people will be in solitary and that they’ll be there for shorter periods of time. “That’s progress,” she adds.

There are roughly 1,500 prisoners in solitary units throughout the state, she says, and they are going to have their cases re-evaluated as a result of the Ashker lawsuit. She adds that more than 1,000 will join the general prison population.

Strickman’s team of attorneys and groups like CFASC are keeping a close eye to ensure that prisons abide by the new stipulations, which put an end to the prolonged solitary and the practice of holding someone indefinitely.

Prior to September’s court settlement, prisons were placing inmates in solitary based merely on alleged associations with prison gangs.

“We’re monitoring and pressuring them to do what they’re supposed to do,” Strickman says.

The United Nations defines solitary confinement as the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact, which is essentially the same as the Department of Justice’s definition. In May 2015, the U.N. adopted a revised text of the “Mandela Rules,” which prohibits solitary for more than 15 days at a time, as well as for persons with mental or physical disabilities.

The CDCR hasn’t indicated whether or not they will adhere to the new policy, which is not legally binding.

Strickman says prisons across the nation are locking inmates, including those with mental and physical disabilities, in solitary under the guise of innocuous-sounding acronyms for long periods, while fervently denying their use of solitary confinement.

Solitary in Santa Cruz?

The Santa Cruz Main Jail doesn’t practice solitary confinement, Chief Sheriff Deputy Craig Wilson says. Instead, it uses a similar system called Restricted to Cell (RTC), where inmates are locked in their cell for 23 hours a day.

“There’s a big difference between solitary. Solitary means you don’t have contact. That’s not what happens in a jail. Correctional settings are different than prison settings,” Wilson says.

“It doesn’t make sense to have a system where someone is so restricted and isolated that one day they’re in their cell almost all the time, and the next they’re walking down the street.”

Wilson says the key difference is that inmates in RTC are able to communicate through their cells with other inmates in their housing unit, which general-population prisoners are free to roam. (The county jail is split into 16 units.) Three times a week, Wilson adds, the mental health, medical personnel, corrections team, and chaplain visit and communicate with each inmate.

Three and a half percent of the jail population is in RTC status, down from 10 percent earlier this year. Wilson says the jail has adopted a more active management style where they’re willing to take more risks with the population, knowing there could be incidents.

“It’s always our goal to get people out of RTC, with a few exceptions. We have some people in the building who are assaultive toward other inmates and staff,” Wilson says.

Wilson has been working with Pam Rogers-Wyman, Adult Services Program Chief for Santa Cruz County Mental Health, to help inmates in RTC transition out.

With help from a federal grant, the county jail has outlined several steps to actively push people out of RTC and into therapeutic supportive environments. There is a modified RTC schedule, where inmates are let out for three hours to demonstrate that they can get along with others, and a half-RTC status where inmates are let out for half the day.

“We actually want people to be out and communicating with others, and problem solving, because almost everyone in county jail is going back into the community,” Wilson says. “It doesn’t make sense to have a system where someone is so restricted and isolated that one day they’re in their cell almost all the time, and the next they’re walking down the street.”

Two thirds of inmates in RTC status are self-requested. Wilson says these inmates are either afraid of potential enemies in jail, detoxing from drugs and want to be isolated, or have a mental illness and feel safer alone.

“A couple of the individuals who have serious paranoid schizophrenia who requested to be in a cell [RTC], for them they’re feeling so much better knowing that they’re safe,” Rogers-Wyman says.

On a recent visit to the jail, one prisoner, who recently transitioned out, told GT he faced a severe depression and “developed suicidal thoughts,” while in RTC.

Rogers-Wyman acknowledges that in some cases, being locked in isolation can cause mental illnesses, “but when you get down to the individuals,” she adds, “there’s specific reasons that people are RTC.” She says it is traumatizing for someone to be trapped in an open housing setting if they don’t feel safe there.

“It’s a balance between looking at the needs of the whole group,” she says. “If someone is aggressively violent, do we really want them fully integrated with other people who can be harmed and victimized?”

Some decry the jail’s RTC system as being inhumane and mirroring solitary confinement. “Changing the name to ‘restricted to cell’ doesn’t change the reality,” says Willow Katz, an organizer for PHSS.

Strickman says prisons and jails throughout the state deny the use of solitary confinement and rename it because of how stigmatized the word has become.

“They don’t want to admit it because people who have thought about it or studied it know that solitary confinement is inhumane and is akin to torture,” Strickman says.

Wilson adamantly denies the use of solitary in the Santa Cruz County Jail, and says they are “ahead of the curve” in terms of restricted housing practices compared to other jails. Activists like Katz say they’d like to see the RTC system replaced with a process of healing. “People who have mental health issues or are violent need therapy,” Katz says.

Wilson agrees, saying it would be “wonderful” if the county could build a psychiatric unit and place inmates who are RTC in a psychiatric hospital.

“You won’t find anyone who says that’s a bad idea, you’ll only find people who say that’s great, but how can we afford that?” Wilson says. “What are we going to invest in—prisons, schools, roads? That’s one of the actual criticisms in society right now, that we’ve overinvested in incarceration.”

Contributor at Good Times |

Ardy is a part-time freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including Cnet and Tahoe Daily Tribune. He graduated from UCSC in 2015, where he was the city news editor for City on a Hill Press and a radio journalist for an environmental news show on KZSC. Ardy works full-time with the Lakota People's Law Project, where he is a paralegal, press director and organizer. 

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