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Indefinite solitary confinement persists in California prisons

Long abandoned by many states, the practice is a last resort for California authorities struggling to thwart gang activity and extract information from the most hardened members. Critics say it amounts to torture.

September 05, 2011|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. prisons typically reserve solitary confinement for inmates who commit serious offenses behind bars. In California, however, suspected gang members, even those with clean prison records, can be held in isolation indefinitely with no legal recourse.
U.S. prisons typically reserve solitary confinement for inmates who commit… (Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Sacramento — U.S. prisons typically reserve solitary confinement for inmates who commit serious offenses behind bars. In California, however, suspected gang members — even those with clean prison records — can be held in isolation indefinitely with no legal recourse.

Indeed, hundreds have been kept for more than a decade in 8-by-10-foot cells, with virtually no human contact for nearly 23 hours per day. Dozens have spent more than two decades in solitary, according to state figures.

It's a harsh fate even by prison standards: Under current policy, an inmate who kills a guard faces a maximum of five years of isolation.

Long abandoned by many states, the practice of indefinite solitary confinement persists in California as a last resort for prison officials struggling to thwart gang activity and extract information from the most hardened gang members.

The policy attracted international attention earlier this summer, when thousands of protesting California inmates joined a three-week hunger strike by prisoners at the state's maximum-security lockup at Pelican Bay.

Administrators say the violent gang culture is so entrenched in state prisons that isolation is the only way to keep leaders from ordering killings, rapes and assaults on staff and other inmates.

But critics say the unending confinement amounts to torture.

Isolated inmates frequently descend into "hopelessness, desperation and thoughts of suicide," said Craig Haney, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz, who has studied men held alone in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay. Many become paranoid, while others lose the ability to interact in social situations without severe anxiety.

"It's worse than prisoners in any civilized nation anywhere else in the world are treated," Haney told lawmakers during an emotional four-hour hearing in Sacramento, where hundreds of inmate advocates and family members packed the gallery to protest the isolation policy.

Other large prison systems prohibit indefinite solitary confinement, in large part because of the psychological toll it can take, rendering inmates even less fit to rejoin society upon their release.

Officials at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and in many states, including New York, Florida and Pennsylvania, say they use isolation only to punish serious crimes committed behind prison walls — and then for a limited duration. The typical term lasts weeks or months, not years.

"There aren't special rules for those suspected of being gang members," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections. "Everybody in prison is dangerous."

Texas, however, also sends unrepentant gang leaders to "the hole" indefinitely. "We've seen in the past what happens if we leave these guys in general population," said state Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark, "and there is a significant difference" in the level of violence.

According to California officials, gangs are so prevalent in state prisons that it's all but impossible for inmates to complete their sentences without becoming involved in the violence. "An inmate who wants to rehabilitate himself cannot," prisons undersecretary Scott Kernan testified during the legislative hearing last month. "Not when he has an inmate, like the people we have in [isolation], telling him to go stab somebody or he will be killed."

Though prison authorities make no apologies for their policy, they bristle when observers use "solitary confinement" to describe life in Security Housing Units. "Is it really solitary confinement if you can take correspondence courses and watch something like 27 channels on your own TV?" prisons spokeswoman Terry Thornton asked a reporter. "If I went to prison, I wouldn't want to share a cell with anybody."

All but 26 of the 1,056 prisoners isolated in Pelican Bay as of July 1 were being held for their suspected gang affiliations, not for other specific actions or rule violations. Nearly 300 had been there for more than a decade, 78 for more than 20 years.

Inmates can be placed in solitary if investigators find three pieces of information linking them to a gang. Some admit their allegiance, but the wrong tattoo, a letter from a known gang member or the whisper of a confidential informant all count as evidence.

Once in solitary, inmates are presented with a choice: If they name gang members and provide detailed accounts of their alleged activities — assaults, killings, drug smuggling — they are promised a place in a yard reserved for inmates who need protective custody. But there is no way for prison officials to protect them when they are released, advocates say, or to guarantee the safety of the inmates' families on the outside.

Should the inmates choose not to talk, they stay in isolation for a minimum of six years. If they fail to maintain a spotless disciplinary record, the isolation can be extended indefinitely.

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