The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Absolute Isolation:
Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Oct 17, 2011

On October 13, a prisoner advocacy group announced hundreds of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison and several other correctional facilities in California had agreed to end their hunger strike. Between a hundred and two hundred prisoners still remain on strike at two locations.

In September, inmates at the Pelican Bay prison had resumed an earlier strike and were joined by inmates at seven other California prisons. At its height in late September, as many as 12,000 inmates were participating in this second strike.

These inmates are protesting being kept in isolation in windowless soundproof cells, 7½ feet by 11½ feet, for more than 22 hours a day. They are only allowed to leave their cells to go for a lonely 90-minute break each day in barren exercise pens with a limited view of the sky. They can rarely see or talk to other human beings and have very limited access to visitors. They eat their meals in their cells, have nothing to do to fill their time, and no means to actually get out of these barbarous conditions.

At the “supermax” Pelican Bay prison, located north of San Francisco, the average length of isolation for the 1,111 inmates is 6.8 years, according to the California Department of Corrections. Some prisoners have been isolated for more than 20 years.

Such isolation degrades human mind and body. It is nothing but torture – inflicted on inmates by prison officials.

Inmates are kept in these conditions to extract information or punish them for bad behavior. Prison officials claim the isolated inmates are gang members and isolation can force them to inform on other gang members, a process known as “debriefing.” In fact, prison officials themselves have implicitly encouraged the formation of racial and ethnic gangs.

To get out of this trap, prisoners started a first hunger strike in July that at its height involved 6,600 inmates from different backgrounds – black, Latino and white. They demanded an end to their classification into gangs (which enforces racial segregation) and abolition of the debriefing process, an end to long-term solitary confinement, an end to group punishment, to be given adequate and nutritious food, and to have some privileges in isolation (including at least one phone call per week).

Prison officials negotiated with the striking inmates, reaching an agreement to end the strike after three weeks. But, the prisoners said nothing changed. So they resumed their strike.

Now most of the inmates have agreed to end this second strike after receiving renewed promises from prison officials. “But as you know, the proof is in the pudding,” a lawyer representing the prisoners said.