Societies are best judged by how they treat children, the elderly, the infirm, their most disadvantaged and prisoners. America fails on all counts.
Human and civil rights don't matter. US prisons are notoriously harsh. California's Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is a Supermax facility.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) National Institute of Corrections calls them "special housing unit(s), maxi-maxi, maximum control facilit(ies), secured housing unit(s), intensive management unit(s), and administrative maximum penitentiar(ies.)."
They're "highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit(s) within a secure facility."
They "isolate inmates from the general prison population and from each other due to grievous crimes, repetitive assaultive or violent institutional behavior, the threat of escape or actual escape from high-custody facilit(ies), or inciting or threatening to incite disturbances in a correctional institution."
They're maximum security prisons. Authorities say they're for society's most incorrigible. They're for "the worst of the worst." Hyperbole substitutes for reality.
Inmates endure horrific conditions. Punishment substitutes for justice. They're isolated longterm. They monitored round-the-clock. It's done visually and by closed-circuit TV.
High-tech security features are prioritized. Walls, floors, ceilings and doors are built out of reinforced materials.
Electronic systems minimize guard-inmate contacts. They're confined in windowless single cells. They're about 8 x 10 feet.
They're confined up to 23 hours a day. Fluorescent lights stay on round-the-clock. Prisoners lack constructive activity. Visits are rare. Direct contact's denied.
Food's delivered twice daily through cell door slots. Central control booth guards control things. One prisoner at a time's permitted to shower.
California's Pelican Bay permits exercise outside cells up to five hours weekly. It's in a cement yard. It's called the "dog run." It's about 30 feet long. It's roof is partially open.
Armed guards watch. They do so from the control booth. They monitor six pods. Each contains eight cells.
Pelican Bay's a 275 acre facility. It opened in 1989. It's in Crescent City, Ca. It's several miles north of its main urban area.
It's far north of San Francisco. It's close to Oregon's border. It's distant from prisoner families. It was planned that way.
Prison authorities consider it a plus. They call Pelican a Dungeness Dungeon or Slammer by the Sea. Prisoners call it hell.
In the early 1990s, legal complaints were lodged. Draconian conditions were cited. So were guard abuses. At issue are constitutional violations.
Madrid v. Gomez charged excessive force. US District Court for the Northern District of California federal Judge Thelton Henderson addressed numerous staff abuses.
His injunction prohibited excessive force. He mandated improved health conditions. He ordered mentally ill prisoners removed from SHU isolation. He stopped short of ruling longterm isolation unconstitutional.
Business as usual continues. Earlier abuses like Vaughn Dortch's torture continue. He's African-American. He's mentally ill. Guards forced him to bathe in scalding water.
They held him down. One said, "Looks like we're going to have a white boy before this is through."
Dortch sustained third-degree burns. They were over half his body. Guards delayed hospitalization to treat him. His case isn't isolated. Gross abuses are standard practice.
A so-called Special Master monitors Pelican Bay. In 2004, he issued a stinging summary judgment. It involved high-level prison officials. He accused them of whitewashing gross guard misconduct.
Inmates are interned longterm. Most have life sentences. Hopelessness prevails. Horrific conditions bear responsibility. They crush the human spirit, mind and body. Doing so reflects cruel and unusual punishment.
Physical abuse is commonplace. So is extreme deprivation. Prisoners feel caged and helpless. Many experience irreversible trauma.
They spend multiple years in SHU isolation. Some stay up to 20 years. So-called "SHU Syndrome" trauma is commonplace.
Prisoners become zombies. Others become sociopaths. PTSD symptoms include paranoia, hallucinations, depression, anxiety, anger and suicide.
Pelican's SHU confinement disproportionately affects Latinos. Blacks are also targeted. Justice is systematically denied.
In spring 2011, dozens of Pelican Bay prisoners said they'd begin rolling hunger strikes on July 1. Larger numbers joined them.
At issue is longterm isolation. Pelican Bay's Secure Housing Unit (SHU) imposes extreme sensory deprivation. Suspected gang members are targeted. Indiscriminate finger pointing affects many others.
Administrative Segregation Units (Ad-Segs) hold inmates accused of rule violations. In 2012, nearly 12,000 prisoners statewide endured SHU isolation.
In early July 2013, around 30,000 prisoners in two-thirds of state prisons refused food. Inmates in all four out-of-state private facilities joined them. More on that below.
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) is a San Francisco Bay Area coalition. It includes grassroots organizations and community activists.
They support prisoner rights. They want cruel and unusual punishment stopped. They want inmates treated humanely. They want fundamental rule of principles obeyed.
Prisoners have five core demands:
(1) End group punishment, administrative abuse, and unjustifiable longterm isolation.
Address individual rule violations. Prohibit systematic punishments. They're wrongfully imposed. They're for alleged "safety and concern" reasons. SHU isolation follows.
(2) Abolish debriefings. Modify active/inactive gang status criteria. Wrongfully perceived gang status targets prisoners for SHU confinement.
Debriefings demand snitching on other prisoners. Doing so compromises their safety. Better treatment's promised. Recrimination follows failure to cooperate.
(3) Comply with 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons recommendations regarding longterm isolation.
They urged ending it and administrative segregation. Make both practices a last resort. Administer self-help treatment. Institute quality healthcare, work, education, other productive activities, and religious freedom.
(4) Provide adequate nutritious food. Let prisoners buy items to supplement it. Stop denying food to punish.
(5) Provide SHU inmates with constructive programming and privileges.
Include more visitations, weekly phone calls, canteen privileges, packages from family and friends, television, radio, newspapers, other publications, books, hobby crafts, sweat suits, wall calendars, correspondence courses, and more.
On July 8, 30,000 California prisoners began hunger striking for justice. It's the largest mass action in state history. Almost one-fourth of California's 150,000 inmates are involved.
They demand ending state-sanctioned torture. Another 2,300 prisoners abstained from work. They refused or claimed illness.
Statewide, around 10,000 prisoners face SHU confinement. About 3,000 are there for life. Imposing it longer than short-term is cruel and usual treatment. Doing so violates core human rights laws.
It's unconstitutional. Eighth Amendment rights prohibit "(e)xcessive bail," "excessive fines," and "cruel and unusual punishments."
The UN calls isolation over 15 days torture. Longterm it's slow death. In 2011, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Mendez called for its "absolute prohibition."
More recently, he said nothing "justif(ies) a very long-term measure that is inflicting pain and suffering that is prohibited by the Convention Against Torture."
On July 12, prison authorities began retaliating. They imposed extreme harshness. The London Guardian headlined "California prison guards retaliating against hunger-strikers, lawyers say."
They're "blasting cells with cold air, confiscating legal documents and, in one case, bann(ed) lawyers, according to legal representatives and relatives."
"Lawyers say the health of the men is being put at risk." According to civil rights attorney Anne Weills:
"They are the upping the ante in terms of cold. It's clearly a tactic to make everything uncomfortable and in essence retaliate for the hunger strike."
"They are freezing, these men. I could see them shivering in front of me. I had two sweaters on and I was freezing."
Thinner prisoners suffer most. Fasting weakened them. "They are suffering. This puts them at risk of hypothermia." They endure diabolical treatment.
Governor Jerry Brown's able to intervene. He's done nothing. He spurns prisoner rights. He went on vacation.
Inmates are out of sight and mind. They're treated like non-persons. It's longstanding policy. It's commonplace across America. Gulag conditions exist. Isolated hard time's worst of all.
A Final Comment
J. Baridi Williamson spent 20 years in SHU isolation. He headlined a Truthout op-ed "Why We Strike - Pelican Bay Prison Hunger-Strikers: J. Baridi Williamson," saying:
"We strike for freedom, justice and human rights against prolonged isolation and torture in US/California solitary confinement prisons/facilities/units/cell dungeons across this nation's mass imprisonment complex."
"We strike for freedom of mind-spirit and human social being, to be able to think naturally without being subject to thought crime repression, political persecution and communication suppression, thought control."
"Freedom to feel natural without being subjected to sensory deprivation/disorientation; to taste natural, wholesome and sufficient foods; to feel natural sunlight; to listen to diverse multicultural music - jazz, R&B, soul, hip hop, Native, etcetera, and to be able to speak-express our natural human selves with our families, communities and the outside world at large, as the late/great New Afrikan civil rights attorney and Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall so eloquently articulated:"
" 'When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end, nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.' "
" 'If anything, the need for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.' "
"(Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974))."
"We strike for the freedom of being physically able to get out of the cramped SHU cell, walk around in a large space and to naturally move our bodies' arms, legs, heads, etcetera, in daily exercise activities, equipment."
"Freedom from being unjustly kept buried alive inside these modern-day solitary confinement dungeons."
"We strike in solidarity with and for other oppressed and poor people's struggles and against manmade backward laws-systems-policies-institutions of rule, social population control and repression, mis-education, corruption, exploitation, mass imprisonment, etcetera."
"We strike against torture!"
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