July 17, 2013
Challenging Punishment: What the California Prisoners' Hunger Strike Tells Us About Mass Incarceration
By Samuel K. Roberts, PhD
The hunger strike at Pelican Bay is the third such action in the past two years and only the most recent in a 20-year history of protests against conditions there going back to the 1995 Madrid v. Gomez case. Now the strike has spread to roughly two thirds of the state's 33 prisons, currently involving at least 12,000 prisoners and perhaps as many as 30,000. Strikers' demands vary, but in total include an increase in hourly wages (currently 13 cents); more humane treatment; and the restoration of educational, rehabilitative, vocational, and mental and physical health services recently excised from prison budgets. One of the main demands is an address of the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, or extreme isolation, in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) and supermax prisons, in which prisoners are locked in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, and denied contact with anyone except prison staff.
What the strike highlights -missed by most of the public - is the deeply troubling nature of extreme isolation in U.S. penology. According to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons, SHUs, where most prison solitary confinement takes place, are housing units in which "inmates are securely separated from the general inmate population ... [to] help ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation of correctional facilities." In reality, SHUs often are the sites of extreme and indefinite punishment for often trivial infractions. Many prisoners have spent months and even years in SHUs, deprived of the basic human interactions necessary for mental health; and of the forms of education, mental health treatments, and vocational training necessary for the rehabilitation which carceral institutions are ostensibly there to provide. Entire institutions -- supermax prisons -- are based solely on the philosophy of extreme isolation.
The number of individuals in solitary confinement/administrative segregation at any given time is not easily ascertained, largely because of the variance in record keeping and reporting among the U.S.'s city, state, and federal prisons, detention facilities, and jails. Solitary Watch estimates that the number is at least 80,000, "including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons." However, in the long history of the American prison, extreme isolation is relatively new, and brutal, feature. The first 23-hour lockdown came in 1983, after the murders of two of correctional officers at the Marion, Illinois, U.S. Penitentiary. Emerging soon after, supermax prisons modeled themselves on this approach to confinement, while other correctional facilities constructed solitary confinement wards. Various departments of corrections have initiated and escalated their use of extreme isolation over the past 30 years: in just the years between 1995 and 2000, the number of individuals held in segregated cells rose by 40%, and by 2004, as many as 44 states reported having one or another form of supermax housing. The expansion of SHUs, the Vera Institute of Justice has shown, has been "accompanied by increasingly severe conditions of confinement" for infractions far less serious than murder. These may include being involved in a fight or simple disobedience of an order. Human Rights Watch reports that SHU confinement is liberally wielded as retribution for nonviolent or political acts such as voicing protest of prison conditions, assisting other prisoners in habeas corpus appeals, or engaging in litigation against the prison. A growing proportion of SHU residents are individuals with established and diagnosed mental health conditions which penal institutions are ill equipped or unwilling to treat properly. An unknown number of the roughly 95,000 minors held in adult jails in prisons are also subject to extreme isolation, either as punishment or for their own protection from the dangers of incarceration with adults.