On Memorial Day weekend, close to a hundred visitors traveled by plane, train, bus, and car to Pelican Bay State Prison. The long weekend, with the prospect of not having to rush back to work on Monday morning, meant that relatives could make the expensive, lengthy trip to the Northern-most tip of California, where a cluster of boxy-beige nondescript buildings warehouse the 1,500 men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), in the most extreme conditions of solitary confinement in the state.
Crescent City is 736 miles from Los Angeles, where many of the men held at Pelican Bay Prison are originally from. That can easily amount to a fifteen-hour drive, the last four of which are on a dark, sinuous road flanked by ancient redwoods. For families with limited money and resources, making this trip can be akin to the obstacle-laden course navigated by Odysseus on his ten-year journey home from Troy.
“At least three family members made it up this weekend that have never come before and would never have been able to make it on their own,” said Dolores Canales, co-founder of the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC), “people have health problems, the trip is too expensive—some are scared to come up.”
By pairing families together to share hotel rooms and carpooling through the night, CFASC has been able to winnow the cost of the trip down to one hundred and fifty dollars per person. For some of the families this literally opens up the opportunity to see their loved ones for the first time in ten years—the same eternity it took Odysseus to get home.
The Intake Room
A nervous carload of mothers, wives, and a lone brother are greeted at the gate by an overly cheerful Correctional Officer (CO). He chuckles as he sorts through their IDs, “SHU or Main?” he asks.
“SHU” several people say in unison, piercing the last ten minutes of silence. That means their loved ones live in cramped, windowless cells 23 hours a day; that their only opportunity to glimpse the world outside their cells is an hour a day in a slightly larger, open-air cell; and that visits with their friends and family will be through thick glass, with no physical contact allowed.
Inside the waiting room, about 25 women and 2 men wait impatiently for the CO to call their names and make sure their clothing complies with Pelican Bay’s regulations. No bras with underwire, no tight or revealing clothing, no skirts above the knee. A pregnant young woman gets sent back to her car to change her pants, deemed inappropriately tight. Others have to change their shirts if the fabric is too thin, take off earrings and leave behind letters and pictures they’ve brought—there is a limit of ten pictures and only stud-earrings are allowed.
On the wall in the waiting room is a mounted glass case filled with sweatshirts for sale. “Pelican Bay State Prison,” one reads, “Hard Luck Café.” “Security Housing Units,” reads another, “Like Two Peas in a Pod.”
“I probably would have laughed at that years ago,” says one woman,“assuming all these guys deserve what they get.” She says she’s made the trip to Pelican Bay four times a year since her son was sent here in 1997. “Now that it’s my son,” she adds, “I know better.”
This room of mostly women makes one think of the gaping holes left in communities during times of war, when traditionally it’s the women who step up to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of brothers and husbands in their absence.
“I’m goin’ crazy just sitting here waiting,” says one older woman, “I’ve been sick,” she continues, “I can’t fly. I can’t drive anymore. Here I am to see my son after thirteen years.”
As if on cue a frustrated young woman begins shaking the vending machine when her chips don’t drop down. One-by-one, family members are asked to creep sideways through a hypersensitive metal detector, the alarm constantly going off.
“When we first started coming up in 2011,” said Canales, “the visiting room would sometimes be empty—now we worry if we’re even gonna get in. This is a good thing.”
In 2011 the second major hunger strike began in California’s prisons, one of the core demands being the end of long-term solitary confinement. Canales and a few other mothers were at the center of outside support, “After that hunger strike ended we realized we needed to form a group and keep organizing. After all, our husbands and kids were still in solitary.”
Since then Dolores and CFASC have been at the center of it all. In 2013 another hunger strike erupted; this time 29,000 prisoners refused meals and a devoted core lasted over 60 days. CFASC was involved at every level: organizing demonstrations, sitting on the Mediation Team to negotiate the terms of ending the strike with prison officials and finding ways for families on the outside to constantly stay involved. “A lot if times it was the guys inside Pelican Bay that told their family members to call us,” said Canales, “they urged them to get involved in the political process.”
Groups of 15 are shuttled in a van to the SHU visiting room. Each person has received a number, and they make their way to the small booths where they will spend the next three hours talking to their loved ones through thick glass, their mouths pressed to a plastic phone receiver mounted to the wall beside them. Visitors are allowed access to a vending machine where they can buy soda and snacks, but they can’t share them. No contact is allowed, nothing but words can be passed between them.
Most these men are validated gang members or associates which means that “evidence” such as a letter, an address, drawing or possession of the wrong book is enough to place them in solitary confinement for year, decades or indefinitely. Many have never committed a violent act in prison, they are deemed guilty by association and the only chance they have to get back to the mainline is to debrief, which mean giving information, often false, on other prisoners.
Every once in a while, a young woman overcome with emotion will rush towards the public bathroom, her child in tow. Others press their hands to the glass to “touch” their husband, brother or son on the other side. The men are pale and smiling, wearing blaring white jumpsuits tied in the front like a backward hospital gown.
“Since the hunger strike,” Canales said, “The men inside have been allowed to order additional items from the canteen. They’ve been given shorts and bowls; a pull-up bar and access to a handball—you have to remember that for decades they’ve had nothing to work out with. More recently, the visits have been expanded to three hours instead if what used to be more like an hour and a half.”
Though these improvements have been largely well received by prisoners and their families, Canales points out that they do nothing to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement. “We definitely oppose the new legislation presented by Loni Hancock,” Canales continues, referring to the recently proposed California Senate Bill 892, “unless it’s amended. There are a few good aspects to it, but others are problematic. Ultimately, it still allows for the use of indefinite solitary confinement, no end in sight, that’s completely unacceptable.”
Leaving The Razor Wire Behind
Cars line up behind the security booth in the afternoon heat, eager to speed off and leave the razor wire and boxy-beige buildings behind, where they’re husbands, sons and fathers remain, many with no end in sight. Some will make their way to local restaurants to try and fill the nagging emptiness with warm food, while others will need to immediately start the long drive back to Los Angeles.
“Visits mean everything to these guys,” Canales says while sitting down to eat with a small group of CFASC members, “It can often put their routines back on a positive course. You hear stories of guys that have been doing nothing but watching TV months, they don’t even want to go out to yard. The guys call this ‘checking out’ and it can be dangerous, the worst cases ending in suicide. After a visit some of these guys turn their lives around and start being productive again.”
A small group of CFASC members stop for a walk in the redwoods. One mother in her 70s pierces the silence by telling scandalous jokes in Spanish and soon no one can stop laughing. “That’s why my visits keep my son going,” she exclaims, “I can always make him laugh.”
These women seem heartened by the simple joy of being together and the success of this weekend’s journey. “So many of the men don’t get visits,” comments one woman, thinking of the hundreds of men who went without, “I feel terrible for them.”
The post The Odyssey to Pelican Bay: Families Journey to California’s Notorious Supermax Prison appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• California Senator Loni Hanock’s prison reform bill has passed through the Senate and now goes to the State Assembly. Both prisoners and prisoners’ rights advocates have voiced their opposition to the legislation, since it writes into law the state’s policy of placing individuals in solitary merely for suspected gang membership.
• Lawyers for a man who recently pled guilty to killing a prison guard are now fighting to keep him out of the federal supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. Attorneys for James Ninete Leon Guerrero explained that he “is not challenging the fact of his confinement, but rather the conditions of confinement.” Guerrero has a documented intellectual disability and has also been diagnosed as bipolar.
• Solitary confinement survivor and Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd published a piece in The Daily Beast entitled, “How solitary confinement destroys women.”
• A trial date has been set for a New Jersey Superior Court case brought by a prisoner who claims he was placed in solitary confinement without sufficient due process. Lester Alford also hopes to prove that his time in solitary confinement – eight years and counting – amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In a letter last month to a local outlet, Alford described the conditions he has endured: “I eat every meal that is served in my cell. If I am allowed to use the unit phone, I have to use it in my cell. I am not allowed to go to the law library, gym, or anywhere else inmates congregate. The conditions on the MCU unit (Management Control Unit) is one that can only be described as bleak, hopeless, and explosive.”
• The Colorado Independent published an in-depth analysis of last week’s federal ruling in Thomas Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons. Silverstein, 62, has been held in complete isolation for 31 years – longer than any other federal prisoner. The journalist quotes from an article posted last week on Solitary Watch by the site’s editors, Jean Casella and James Ridgeway. Artwork made by Silverstein and his accounts of his conditions in solitary are also incorporated into the piece.
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our second suggested theme, “Analyzing Isolation,” calls for writers to provide their analyses of solitary, discussing ways in which the practice is harmful and counterproductive.
The following comes from Leon Benson, who spent 10 consecutive years in a 7 by 12-foot cell on 23-hour-a-day lockdown in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. In this powerful piece, excerpted from an essay entitled”Moral Lobotomy: Abolish Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Mental Disorders it Causes,” Benson, 38, calls for a ban on prolonged isolation, asserting that the practice causes mental breakdowns in those subjected to it. He can be reached by writing: Leon Benson #995256, Pendleton Correctional Facility, 4490 W. Reformatory Rd., Pendleton, IN, 46064. –Lisa Dawson
If I ever have known hell, it occurred during my years in solitary. I still can hear the unrelenting screams from other prisoners and the metal clanks of cell doors opening and closing. I still can smell the stench of fear. Existential purgatory is another way to describe it: You have no clue of when you will be released back to general population–it could be in 30 days or in 30 years.
Allow my words to be the catalyst for the much larger debate: Does prolonged segregation in Indiana cause mental breakdowns in prisoners? The answer is yes. The U.N. has long declared that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. (Articles 1 and 16 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture). This type of prolonged confinement is especially harmful to mentally ill prisoners. After class action litigation, Indiana federal courts, in December 2012, finally ruled to ban all mentally ill prisoners from being housed in any of Indiana’s segregation units; deeming the units toxic to prisoners with mental illness.
But what about segregation, especially if extremely prolonged, being harmful to any prisoner? [...] These individuals are practically buried alive. Mainly due to administrative and not disciplinary reasons: A vindictive warden can lock a prisoner in solitary for years on mere speculation of wrongdoing.
Some of these men break down mentally and become zombies full of psyche medication. But most will be left with functional psychological damage. More than 80% of these prisoners will be released back into society someday. Dr. Terence T. Gorski proposed that these prisoners will suffer from what he calls Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS). There is mounting evidence that PICS is a major contributing factor to the high recidivism rate.
Dr. Gorski’s concept of PICS in emerged from his clinical consultation work and rehabilitation programs with incarcerated and newly released prisoners. And he established that PICS is a set of symptoms that are present in many prisoners that are caused by prolonged incarceration in general population settings. However, the symptoms are most severe and prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary confinement.
PICS is a mixed mental and personality disorder with five clusters of symptoms:
• Institutionalized personality traits resulting from the common deprivations of incarceration–a chronic state of “learned helplessness” in the face of prison authority and antisocial defense in dealing with a predatory prison environment.
• Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by traumatic experiences before and during incarceration with symptoms such as flashbacks, intense distress, irritability, hyper-vigilance, and paranoia.
• Antisocial personality traits, the direct result of internalize coping behavior required to survive in a harsh environment that has two sets of survival rules–passive aggression with guards and active aggression with predatory prisoners.
• Social sensory deprivation syndrome caused by the effects of prolonged solitary confinement that imposes both isolation and sensory deprivation. Symptoms include chronic headaches, inability to concentrate, we pressed rage, and obsessive thinking.
• Reactive substance use disorder which often occurs with prisoners who use addiction and drugs to cope with PICS.
Releasing these prisoners back into society with such severe symptoms will only create devastation and chaos. They will be less likely to get and maintain jobs and more likely to commit crimes, disrupt families, and to need healthcare. All of which will bring a heavier toll on community stability and tax payer money better spent in other areas…
This epidemic of systematically destroying prisoners’ lives beyond repair can be prevented. All that needs to be done is to change the ineffective policies that promote high incarceration rates for nonviolent crimes, the use of extreme prolonged solitary confinement, and the restrictions on educational, vocational, and rehabilitation for people while in prison. To promote alternative laws and policies would reap huge benefits, not only for the many prisoners currently suffering the trauma of prolonged solitary confinement, but for the greater good of all society.
The post Voices from Solitary, Analyzing Isolation, Part III appeared first on Solitary Watch.