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Prisons and American values

Our treatment of prisoners expresses our values, and mistreatment such as that alleged by California hunger strikers should not be tolerated.

August 07, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • Pelican Bay State Prison inmate Javier Zubiate is seen standing in a secure holding area after being led away from the Secure Housing Unit (SHU).
Pelican Bay State Prison inmate Javier Zubiate is seen standing in a secure… (Los Angeles Times )

At nine prisons across California, more than 500 inmates continuing a hunger strike they began July 8 to protest what they call cruel and inhumane conditions, and this action — the third hunger strike in two years — must surely lead many Californians to wonder: Why should we care? What concern is it to peaceful and law-abiding citizens that people convicted of serious crimes experience deprivation? Is their fate not deserved?

We should care. Our treatment of prisoners, even the most dangerous and irredeemable, is a fundamental expression of American values. It is the primary illustration of what we actually mean when we speak of justice, and it is our announcement to the world that we do or do not have the courage, and the honesty, of our convictions.

We say we lock people up to keep ourselves safe, to deter other would-be criminals, to express our respect for and reliance on law, to rehabilitate when possible. And, yes, to punish. Retribution has a role. But torture does not. There is a point beyond which, without constant review, oversight and checks of the conscience, incarceration can give way to sadistic torment.

PHOTOS: Inside Pelican Bay State Prison

In so-called Supermax prisons, inmates are held, some for years at a time, in solitary confinement, deprived of human contact for 22½ hours a day. Correspondence with the outside world is restricted.

Given the prevalence of mental illness among the general population of state prisoners — an estimated 30% of such inmates have significant mental illness — it is reasonable to assume that at least some of those who are placed in secure housing units already have mental problems, and psychologists and other experts assert that even the healthiest of people are pushed to the edge by such treatment.

Prison officials argue that these units are necessary to prevent gang leaders from ordering killings or other crimes. In a Times op-ed Tuesday, California prisons chief Jeffrey Beard argued that the hunger strike was an attempt by leaders of four violent prison gangs to regain power. And we should not be naive; harsh measures may indeed be necessary to prevent shot-callers from continuing their criminal ways when locked up. But when inmates face the possibility of a lifetime in solitary confinement, as they still do, and when the key to returning to the general prison population is to "snitch" on another inmate — although that virtually guarantees gang retaliation — there is a legitimate question as to whether the institutions and the personnel we pay to do our most difficult tasks are living up to our ideal of justice.

A hunger strike may be the only way inmates in solitary can reach us with their message of protest. We may find their complaints warranted. Or we may not. But if we care about justice, we should listen.

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