Five Reasons To Limit California’s Indefinite Solitary Confinement

Some 29,000 prisoners in California are entering the fourth consecutive day on hunger strike to protest indefinite solitary confinement that can go on for decades, with little opportunity to challenge placement in isolation. Confinement typically involves isolation in a single, sometimes windowless cell with a steel door for as much as 23 hours a day. In California, inmates are reportedly denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. Here are five harms caused by the practice in the state whose prison conditions were deemed so cruel and unusual that they violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment in 2011:

1. Those who spend even a few days in solitary confinement can suffer lasting severe psychiatric harm, from hypersensitivity to ordinary stimuli and hallucinations, to panic attacks and difficulty thinking, to persistent post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme irritability/anger. Former Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Stuart Grassian wrote in a recent study, “The restriction of environmental stimulation and social isolation associated with confinement in solitary are strikingly toxic to mental functioning, producing a stuporous condition associated with perceptual and cognitive impairment and affective disturbances. As a consequence, the practice has been deemed torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, and a “living death.”

2. Federal courts and the Department of Justice have deemed solitary confinement of the mentally ill unconstitutional. In 1995, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional the solitary confinement of the severely mentally ill at the California maximum security prison that is the focus of this strike, Pelican Bay. It did not, however, affect the more mild mental illnesses that can quickly become severe during confinement. Just this year, an Indiana federal judge held in a sweeping class action challenge that the “effect of segregation on mentally ill prisoners in Indiana is toxic to their welfare,” exacerbating their condition and severely limiting their chances for rehabilitation. Not only are the mentally ill most susceptible to the most severe, long-term devastation from solitary confinement; there is reason to believe that they are even more likely to end up in solitary confinement. As former Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Stuart Grassian wrote in his study of the severe psychological impacts:

It is a great irony that as one passes through the levels of incarceration—from the minimum to the moderate to the maximum security institutions, and then to the solitary confinement section of these institutions—one does not pass deeper and deeper into a subpopulation of the most ruthlessly calculating criminals. Instead, ironically and tragically, one comes full circle back to those who are emotionally fragile and, often, severely mentally ill. The laws and practices that have established and perpetuated this tragedy deeply offend any sense of common human decency.

3. Pelican Bay, the high-security prison at the center of the protests, has historically had an arbitrary, secret, and virtually irreversible system for placing individuals in solitary confinement, in which one institutional gang investigator decides in a secret, 20-minute hearing who belongs in solitary. A common justification is to isolate those thought to be “associates” in prison gangs, and the types of evidence deemed to prove that fact have included possession of black literature, left-wing materials and writing about prisoner rights as evidence. After the last round of hunger strikes in 2011, the state said it had improved the process for solitary placement, and reports that more than half of the 400 individuals have been taken out of solitary. But some 10,000 more remain in solitary without review of their status.

4. California is mired in litigation that hinges on its treatment of prisoners, particularly the mentally ill. While the litigation is not focused on solitary confinement, courts have ordered the state both to decrease its population to ease overcrowding, and to improve its treatment of the mentally ill, particularly in light of a spate of suicides. Both of these problems would be alleviated by limiting solitary confinement, particularly given the increasingly high percentage of prisoners who suffer from mental illness. According to psychologist Terry Kupers, prisoners in isolation account for just 5 percent of the total prison population, but nearly half of its suicides.

5. Solitary confinement can foster rage and violent tendencies that increase public safety risks. Studies have warned that releasing inmates with fixed sentences directly from solitary confinement can pose particular risks to the general public, and face higher rates of recidivism. Studies have also shown that removing prisoners from solitary confinement reduces prison-wide violence. Prisoners have described hatred and anger that develops, with one prisoner saying in a a National Geographic documentary on the practice, “I think 90 percent of the people that are locked up here, if they ran into a staff member on the streets, they’d hurt ‘em. … It’s hate that’s been building up in you.”