(Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, prisoners in special security units at Pelican Bay State Prison will begin a hunger strike. These inmates, who have spent between 10 and 28 years in isolation, are demanding that changes be made to the prison’s special housing units, where they spend almost all their time alone. They claim that long-term isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and that prisoners are sometimes locked in these units for insubstantial reasons. We discuss these issues with a former inmate, the Department of Corrections, an investigative reporter, and a lawyer representing the prisoners in a class action federal lawsuit. The Center for Investigative Reporting and The California Report will feature in-depth series on this topic this week.

Guests:
Michael Montgomery, reporter for KQED News and The Center for Investigative Reporting
Lonnie Rose, former Pelican Bay inmate who was held in a security housing unit for 9 1/2 years
Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, and part of the team of lawyers bringing the lawsuit on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoners in the solitary confinement units
Daniel Vasquez, former warden at San Quentin Prison

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Studies done decades ago where abandoned babies were never held, talked to and treated in a humane way show very damaged babies who grew into damaged children and then adults. How many of the inmates at Pelican Bay were neglected as babies and children?

    Primates can teach us a lot about what happens when one is isolated and deprived of positive interaction with ones species. It’s one thing to choose once we reach adulthood to become a hermit, because one can be better prepared. And even then hermits are not deprived of positive human interaction.

    And what about the prison guards and others who work at places like Pelican Bay? Surely there are some mental and physical health issues amongst them.

    • thucy

      Beth,
      You’re right. It does take a toll on the guards, even as they profit.
      As Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker points out, “Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.—more than were in Stalin’s gulags.”
      This country has made a fetish out of law enforcement and imprisonment. And thus a travesty of actual justice.

      • Sanfordia113

        This is why the death penalty needs to be executed much more often.

        • Selostaja

          I’m a strong believer in capital punishment. What I don’t believe in is our ‘justice’ system or the ability of our ‘peers’ to determine the innocence or guilt of a person without bias. Reading some of the comments from the listeners of Forum you can see we are a long ways from an enlightened society. Weren’t they listening to the numerous discussions regarding the need to take into account neurological or psychological pathologies? Do we fry the good doctor who killed his dad under the influence of Huntington’s disease? Separate and study drug related crimes. Rehab is cheaper than prison.

          On the long run, legalization of recreational drugs would take the power and money from cartels, and through legislation and control provide billions to our health & education systems while shrinking the prison population. Wouldn’t hurt to have a more educated society.

  • Sam Badger

    The extent of the American prison system, and the extreme punishments for minor offenses is one of the major human rights violations of our era. Putting people in isolation for years is a form of extreme torture, especially for “minor” offenses. People need human contact as much as they need life, and putting them in an isolation unit for years for nothing is as much torture as making them break rocks in the Siberian snow. And we’re not even touching on issues like the socially permissive attitude of sexual assault, severe prison overcrowding and so on! The US prison system is absolutely perverse, and this is just the most extreme example.

    • Sue Pah

      You don’t get into a Security Housing Unit by committing “minor” offenses. You get there by committing crimes while IN prison. Also, they’re not “isolated”…if they were, how would they be able to organize the hunger strike? Your frame of references are all wrong in the case of California SHU inmates dude.

      • thucy

        “You don’t get into a Security Housing Unit by committing “minor” offenses.”

        Sorry, but that contradicts the information provided by host and guests. Your source for that is…?

        • Sanfordia113

          no, it doesn’t.

  • Sanfordia113

    The heart of the issue is not overutilization of Pelican Bay – it is the vast underutilization of capital punishment. Put all prisoners who are repeat murderers or sadistic torturers into an airplane and drop them out at 30,000 feet over the Pacific.

    • MattCA12

      The 30,000 foot drop aside, California could dramatically cut its murder rate overnight if we actually used the death penalty. Ever looked at murder stats in Saudi Arabia? Singapore? Handfuls per year, compared with the tens of thousands in America. That is because everyone in those countries knows that if they kill, they will almost certainly lose their own life at the hands of the state. Criminal psychologists tell us that by “understanding” the behavior of murderers, we may hope to reduce the number of people killed. Utter nonsense. We need to hang killers, publicly. If our society was serious about protecting its citizenry, we would make an example of every murderer.

      • thucy

        Singapore? Saudi Arabia? Hmmm… something tells me there’s a lot more separating our culture from theirs besides our penal system….

    • thucy

      You’re missing the point. We don’t have the highest per capita prison population in the world because of murder. Rather, we have the highest per capita prison population in the world because of our (lost) trillion dollar drug war and our for-profit prison system.

      • MattCA12

        Both Saudi Arabia and Singapore execute drug traffickers. How do those countries’ rates of incarceration and drug use compared with the US? I’m not advocating that we model our society upon either, but we could certainly adopt a stricter approach to law and order. We have completely lost and pretense of deterrence here in America. Punishments are not severe enough, and when/if they are implemented, nobody remembers why except victims’ loved ones.

  • Nathaniel

    Can we please address the issue of lawyers using human rights violations as a platform to line their pockets with frivolous lawsuits? These lawyers do not care about the prisoners they represent by look for any excuse in regards to prison to file lawsuits and bleed the state dry.

    • thucy

      Really? And not discuss police and prison guard unions profiting from the prison “warehousing” of so many non-violent drug offenders through our trillion dollar drug war, which, by the way, we lost?
      As Prohibition made Capone, so has the drug war built the cartels. It’s also made us #1 in per capita prison population – yes, we imprison more people than China or Russia.
      And the police union, the prison guard union, and the weapons manufacturers are laughing all the way to the bank on our dime. Ever complain about that?

  • Selostaja

    A friend was in prison 4 years and spent most of the time in solitary. He was an undiagnosed bipolar and ‘chose’ solitary to avoid sexual attacks or coercion into gangs by defending himself violently. Unfortunately, he was wrongly imprisoned in the first place.

    • Sue Pah

      Aren’t they all?

      • thucy

        Sue,
        Do you deny that the “war on drugs” has resulted in the US having the highest per capita prison population in the world, with a disproportionate number of inmates being non-violent drug offenders?

        • Sanfordia113

          This is propaganda that you keep spouting off. Read the case history of the criminals ou are talking about and most of them deserve the sentence they received, despite over-zealous prosecutions for drug offenses.

      • Selostaja

        no. In this case he was setup to take a fall by a mother who was abusing her own disabled child.

  • Jeremy

    It sounds like the debate in many ways is about reforming
    prisoners or not. From what I understand solitary can be very damaging and make individuals who are already unstable even more unstable. At the same time, is allowing prisoners the chance to build a strong crime network in prison really best for society as a whole? Seems like a double edged sword?

  • Amisha

    You just mentioned that the statistics of inmates who had been abused are alarming. Could you state what they are and the source? Kudos to the woman who quoted a criminal about judging lives before understanding their decisions. Yes, prisoners have committed crimes but aside from sociopaths, pedophiles and those with serious mental issues, most need reform. That reform could benefit us all, lowering the rate of how many prisoners get sent back in. I’m not saying reform would un-do the damaged lives of many of these individuals but the Dept of Corrections (corrections is in the title, no?) and the public would all benefit if prisoners could learn to contribute to society. Isolation has time and again been shown to do nothing but cause further mental damage. It’s time to stop such an antiquated punishment.

    • Sanfordia113

      what a waste of resources. Should we spend a billion to enable criminals to feel good about themselves, or to improve schools to prevent the next generation from becoming criminals? Execute all repeat murderers and cut all services for prisoners with >10 years of a sentence remaining.

      • MattCA12

        Or just make prison so unimaginably bad that no one in their right mind would ever want to go back there again. Hard labor, starvation rations, rudimentary medical care only. The new prison hospital in Stockton cost $1B, all to give convicts better medical care than ordinary Californians who are not in the penal system.

        • Sanfordia113

          Great ideas, but how do you get this past the knuckleheads on the California Supreme Court that believe prisoners deserve a better lifestyle and healthcare services than 50% of hard-working Americans? Granted, the judge that is the acting thorn in Governor Brown’s prison plans was actually appointed by he, himself, when the governor was better known as Moonbeam.

      • thucy

        Hey, Sanford, why not try something that is both more rational AND humane? Decriminalize drugs. That way we don’t have to throw every Tom, Dick and Harry in the lockup. No more overtime for cops.

        • Sanfordia113

          The two are ot mutually exclusive. Doubtful that anyone is in the SHU for smoking pot, but regardless, there are hundreds of muggings in SF every month. These criminals deserve 15 years in prison. Murderers and rapists deserve death. Smoking pot or crack should not in and of themselves be a crime. Selling without a license or without paying taxes should be. Harming someone while intoxicated should be double-penalty. But point remains, the true criminals are being pandered to.

  • Scott Johnson

    Just finished reading Clarence Darrow’s autobiography “The Story of My Life” and wish the world had listened to his wisdom as he put it down back in 1932 when he called the criminal justice system what it is. His observations about prison as a “deterrent” being a total failure. He was sure that criminal actions were most often the result of abuse of the “criminal” as a child and young adult. His many arguments against the death penalty are very persuasive.

  • just sayin

    FACT: corrupt CO’s wrongly categorizing inmates as associates and inmates doing their time in an indeterminate shu term!!

  • Sharon Gillis

    Then maybe they should have thought about that BEFORE they did what crimes they did that put them in PRISON NOT SUMMER CAMP.

  • dee kr.

    Well I think these inmates need to understand that they placed themselves there. Even though they require to be understood we are all ears but the reality is any inmate in our u.s. system has it easy isolated or not. Compared to middle east prisons or prisons in south east Asia. This is when our death penalty should be in forced. Just a note, what happened to the old west. We used to hang them high just for theft.. Now we pamper inmates and give them a red carpet with a TV and refrigerator in the cells. We owe so much money now as it is. If they go hungry and want to die then let them, then we could save money that way. oneless inmate to feed over 30 thousand dollars a year anyway, and that’s how much it cost the tax payer.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor