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Editorial

California's torture chambers?

Prison-advocacy groups want the U.N. to investigate conditions under which suspected gang members are confined.

March 21, 2012
  • Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, speaks at a news conference in Los Angeles to announce they are petitioning the United Nations to intervene to stop California prisons from holding inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely.
Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional… (Reed Saxon / AP Photo )

Human rights activists rallied in downtown L.A. on Tuesday to call for intervention by the United Nations to stop the torture of prisoners by an amoral regime. But they weren't talking about Syria, Cuba or some African dictatorship; the rogue state in question is the state of California.

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, along with a handful of prison-advocacy groups, submitted a petition to the U.N. requesting an on-site investigation of conditions in California's Security Housing Units, the segregated cells where prisoners suspected of gang involvement are placed. The groups claim these units violate international statutes barring the torture of prisoners because inmates are held in solitary confinement for years for a "crime" (gang membership) for which they were never tried or convicted.

The petition is, of course, a stunt; as badly as California has mismanaged its prisons, there are state and federal avenues for addressing such problems. But that doesn't mean the activists' concerns should be dismissed. There is reason to suspect that in the name of fighting gang violence, corrections officials have exposed some prisoners to conditions that are extraordinarily harsh, unfair and possibly unconstitutional.

In July, prisoners began a series of hunger strikes to protest policies in the Security Housing Units, which often consist of tiny 8-foot-square cells in which inmates are confined, in isolation, for 22 1/2 hours a day, allowed out only for a short stretch in a tiny concrete-walled yard. Anyone suspected of gang membership can be placed in these units, and the only way to get out is to denounce the gang by "snitching" on other members — a highly dangerous act in prison — or to spend at least six years inside. Some prisoners have been in solitary for decades.

Corrections officials say this is needed to protect other prisoners from gangsters and to prevent "shot-calling," the passing of orders from imprisoned gang leaders to members. Prisons spokesman Jeffrey Callison says the policy is under review, and a proposed revision would let well-behaved prisoners out of solitary after four years instead of six. But that's still an incredibly long period to serve in solitary confinement, which is often mentally destabilizing.

It shouldn't require the U.N. to fix California's prisons; instead, we'd like to see Gov. Jerry Brown convene an independent panel to investigate the housing of suspected gang members and recommend reforms. We'd also like the state to give reporters access to prisoners in solitary confinement, because the public has a right to know more about conditions inside prison walls. Unless action is taken, the issue is likely to end up in court. A panel of federal judges has already found that California violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment by exposing inmates to overcrowded conditions, and activists have a case that it's doing so again in its Security Housing Units.

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