As the California prisons hunger strike enters its third week the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has been less than forth-coming with information on the number of inmates involved in the action, and their conditions, according to several news sources. Amnesty International (AI) claims that approximately 1,000 inmates are still on hunger strike, a significant drop from the 30,000 that originally began the action on July 8, but that the remaining number are steadfast in their determination to continue with their protest until the CDRC ends its inhumane policy of locking people up in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. Click here to go to website.
Solitary Watch, a website that educates the public on issues surrounding solitary confinement offers a fact sheet, which includes the following:
Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating inmates in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods of time ranging from days to decades. Few prison systems use the term “solitary confinement,” instead referring to prison “segregation.” In California, long-term solitary confinement units are referred to as Security Housing Units (SHUs); in New York, the same acronym stands for Special Housing Units. In Oregon, the long-term isolation units are called Intensive Management Units (IMUs), while in Pennsylvania they are called Restricted Housing Units (RHUs). In the federal system, one type of extreme solitary confinement takes place in Communication Management Units (CMUs). Despite the variety of names, the general practice of incarceration in these units and facilities is solitary confinement.
Some systems make a distinction between various reasons for solitary confinement. “Disciplinary segregation” is time spent in solitary as punishment for violating prison rules, and usually lasts from several weeks to several years. “Administrative segregation” relies on a system of classification rather than actual behavior, and often constitutes a permanent placement, extending from years to decades. “Involuntary protective custody” is especially common among juveniles in adults prisons, LGBT inmates, and other at-risk prisoners, who live in indefinite isolation despite having done nothing wrong.
The number of people held in solitary confinement in the United States has been notoriously difficult to determine. The lack of reliable information is due to state-by-state variances and shortcomings in data gathering and in conceptions of what constitutes solitary confinement. However, a census of state and federal prisoners conducted in 2005 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics–and cited by the Vera Institute of Justice–found more than 81,622 inmates held in “restricted housing.” A widely accepted 2005 study found that some 25,000 of these segregated prisoners were being held in supermax prisons around the country. (Rikers Island alone has 990 isolation cells, according to the New York City Department of Corrections.)
Far from being a last-resort measure reserved for the “worst of the worst,” solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort in many prisons and jails. Today, inmates can be placed in complete isolation for months or years not only for violent acts but for possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, ignoring orders, or using profanity. Thousands of prisoners are held in indefinite solitary confinement because they have been named as gang members by other inmates who are rewarded for the information. Others have ended up in solitary because they have untreated mental illnesses, are children in need of “protection,” are gay or transgender, are Muslim, have unsavory political beliefs, or report rape or abuse by prison officials. In Virginia, a group of Rastafarian men were placed in solitary–some for more than a decade–because they refused to cut their hair on religious grounds.
Approximately 50 percent of California SHU inmates may have committed no offense at all; instead, they are held in solitary due to the gang “validation” process, in which inmates deemed to be active gang members are sent to six-year terms in the SHU. Gang validation can take place based in large part on anonymous accusations.
Over the past 30 years, prisons and jails have become the nation’s largest inpatient psychiatric centers, and solitary confinement cells, in particular, are now used to warehouse thousands of prisoners with mental illness. In a 2003 report, Human Rights Watch estimated, based on available state data, that one-third to one-half of inmates in isolation had some form of mental illness.
Following extensive interviews with Pelican Bay SHU inmates in 1993, Dr. Stuart Grassian found that solitary confinement induces a psychiatric disorder characterized by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems. Psychological assessments of Pelican Bay’s solitary confined prisoners indicated high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.
On November 23, 2011, the California Department of Corrections published the “2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report”, the second of what CDCR promises to be an annual report of the recidivism rate of its institutions. The one-year recidivism rate for those in the SHU was 52.2 percent while those not assigned to the SHU had a one year recidivism rate of 47.6 percent. At two years, 64.9 percent vs. 60.2 percent were the figures, and by three years 69.8 percent (or, 4,189 of the 6002) were back in prison vs. 64.8 percent of those who hadn’t served time in the SHU.
Solitary confinement units cost more to build than the average prison and cost more per inmates per year than general population inmates. Nationally, it has been estimated that the average cost of a year in solitary costs taxpayers $75,000.
For example, the California Department of Corrections released the following housing costs for Pelican Bay State Prison: $70,641 per Security Housing Unit inmate, $58,324 per General Population inmate, $171,857 per Psychiatric Services Unit (PSU)/Enhanced Outpatient (EOP) inmate. $77,740 per Administrative segregation Unit inmate, and $43,640 per Level l inmate.