These numbers are stunning no matter how one looks at them. A recent European human rights court case condemned Russia for holding a prisoner in solitary confinement for three years, which, compared to the length of prisoners’ stays in the SHU, is a short stint. In the aggregate, prisoners held at the SHU spend thousands of years in their cells alone. It is a large-scale experiment in sensory deprivation and social isolation.
Communication as a Disciplinary Offense
The complaint paints a stark picture of daily life in the SHU. Prisoners in the SHU “normally spend between 22 and one-half and 24 hours a day in their cells. They are typically allowed to leave their cells only for ‘exercise’ and to shower.”
The cells are made entirely of concrete and measure approximately 80 square feet. They contain a concrete bed, a sink, and a toilet, as well as a concrete desk and stool. Prisoners’ personal belongings are extremely limited. The cell doors are made up of solid steel, not bars, and have small round perforations that allow a partial view into the hallway.
The only means prisoners have to communicate is to yell or speak loudly to their neighbors, which may be deemed to be a disciplinary offense.
“Exercise,” according to the complaint (which puts the word in quotes), takes place in “a barren, solid concrete exercise pen, known as the ‘dog run.’” Until last year, the exercise pen was empty. Following an organized hunger strike by prisoners, the authorities added a handball to the pen.
Phone calls are not allowed, except in exceptional circumstances like a death in the family, and even then permission to make a call is granted at the prison authorities’ discretion. The complaint describes how one of the plaintiffs, Gabriel Reyes, “was denied a telephone call home after his stepfather died, because he had been allowed a telephone call several months earlier when his biological father died.”
Family members are limited to non-contact visits, behind plexiglass, with communication taking place over a telephone handset. The prison gets few visitors, as it is located far from most prisoners’ home cities, near the state’s northern border with Oregon, and visiting hours are extremely limited. As the complaint explains, many prisoners have “been without face-to-face contact with people other than prison staff for decades.”
Prisoners have no access to recreational or vocational programming. Psychological counseling is minimal, despite the obvious mental health risks at issue. When one plaintiff requested mental health care, the complaint asserts, “he was referred to a ‘self-help’ library book.”
While most prisoners are held in solitary confinement, a few are double-celled. The complaint suggests that the only thing nearly as bad as solitary confinement is being locked in close quarters with one other person, with no possibility of leaving the room. “[D]ouble-celling,” the complaint says, “requires two strangers to live around-the-clock in intolerably cramped conditions, in a cell barely large enough for a single human being to stand or sit.”
No judge ever sentences a prisoner to serve time at the Pelican Bay SHU. Instead, it is the state prison bureaucracy that puts people there and keeps them there. California has a serious problem of gang violence, both in the prisons and beyond, and segregation in the SHU, where prisoners’ ability to act and communicate is extremely limited, is viewed as an effective control mechanism.
Prisoners end up at the SHU via a process called prison gang validation, which often relies on information provided by confidential informants. Prisoners who are believed to be associated with a gang—even without any indication of gang activity, or even actual gang membership—are “validated” as gang affiliates. They then can be placed in the SHU for an indefinite term.
The only real way to exit the SHU, short of being released from prison after serving one’s sentence(s), is to “debrief” to the prison authorities, i.e., to formally renounce any association with a gang and to report on other prisoners’ gang activity. This is an obviously dangerous option, and many prisoners refuse to try it.
After six years in the SHU, there is supposed to be another way out, but the complaint alleges that it does not operate as it should. Prisoners receive a six-year review to evaluate whether they are “active” with a gang or have gained “inactive” status. But, the complaint states, the review lacks seriousness, with the prison authorities pointing to reading material, artwork, and minor disciplinary offenses such as talking to other prisoners as grounds for denying inactive status.
The empty promise of the six-year review is especially damaging for prisoners who are eligible for parole. One such prisoner is George Ruiz, is a 69-year-old Latino man who has spent the last 28 years of his life in solitary confinement, 22 of those years at the SHU. Ruiz has been eligible for parole since 1993, but the parole board has reportedly told him that he will never obtain parole as long as he is held at the SHU.
A recent UN report, issued by the UN special rapporteur on torture, criticized this sort of indeterminate segregation. It explained that “[t]he feeling of uncertainty when not informed of the length of solitary confinement exacerbates the pain and suffering of the individuals who are subjected to it.” “Indefinite solitary confinement,” the report concluded, “should be abolished.”
The Outer Bounds of Psychological Tolerance
Conditions at the Pelican Bay SHU have been challenged in court before. In the early 1990s, a few years after the prison opened, a class action suit was brought on behalf of prisoners there. The resulting court decision found SHU conditions to be unconstitutional for mentally ill prisoners and prisoners who were at high risk of mental illness.
Although the court emphasized that the harsh conditions at the SHU “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate,” it did not find them to constitute cruel and unusual punishment for all prisoners held there. The court emphasized, however, that its ruling covered people who had been held at the SHU for a few years—mostly three years or less—and that it could “not even begin to speculate on the impact on inmates confined in the SHU for periods of 10 to 20 years or more.”
The present case poses exactly the situation that the previous court did not reach. It catalogues a range of psychological harms stemming from confinement at the SHU, including depression, nervousness, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, fears of an impending nervous breakdown, hallucinations, and multiple suicide attempts.
“I feel dead,” said Luis Esquivel, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, to his lawyers. “It’s been thirteen years since I have shaken someone’s hand and I fear I’ll forget the feel of human contact.”
*** Joanne Mariner, a Justia columnist, is the director of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program. She is an expert on human rights, counterterrorism, and international humanitarian law. She is the author of the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.