An End to Solitary is Long Overdue

California’s Savage System of Confinement

Less than two weeks ago the United Nations Committee against Torture issued a report strongly criticizing the U.S. record on a number of issues, among them the extensive use of solitary confinement. While the U.S. uses long-term solitary more than any other country in the world, California uses it more than any other state. It’s one of the few places in the world where someone can be held indefinitely in solitary. This practice is designed to break the human spirit and is condemned as a form of torture under international law.

Despite these repeated condemnations by the U.N., the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is harshening rather than easing its policies, currently with three new sets of regulations. The administration’s iron-fisted strategy is emerging: project the appearance of a reforming system while extending its reach, and restrict the ability of prisoners and their loved ones to organize for their rights.

First, the CDCR has instituted a “Step Down Program” ostensibly to create a pathway out of indefinite solitary. However, the program actually widens the net of who can be considered a threat and therefore eligible for placement in solitary. Recently adopted regulations replace the old language of “gang” with “Security Threat Group” (STG) and the previous list of a dozen identified gangs is now replaced with a dizzying list of over 1500 STGs. Under these new regulations, even family members and others outside the prisons can be designated as part of an STG. Given the fact that indefinite solitary is used disproportionately against people of color – in Pelican Bay, 85% of those in isolation are Latino – the language used to justify placement in solitary eerily mirrors the rhetoric of the federal government and its permanent state of war against its declared enemies, all of whom are people of color.

The CDCR promulgated a second set of rule changes last summer with sweeping new “obscenity” regulations governing mail going both in and out of prisons. The original proposal was to explicitly ban any “publications that indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society,” yet after coming under heavy criticism, CDCR decided to mask its Orwellian motives by hiding behind the above mentioned language of STGs. This ominous language violates First Amendment rights, and reveals a broader agenda: to censor writings that educate the public about what is actually occurring inside the prisons, and to stifle the intellectual and political education and organizing of prisoners themselves.

A third element of CDCR’s strategy of containment is the implementation of highly intimidating visiting procedures designed to keep family members away from their loved ones. Draconian new visiting regulations authorize the use of dogs and electronic drug detectors to indiscriminately search visitors for contraband, even though both methods are notoriously unreliable. These procedures effectively criminalize family members and deter them from visiting, especially in a period of a growing family-led movement against solitary.

The three new policies are also intended to extend CDCR’s reach beyond the prison walls. As an organizer and family member of a prisoner, I’m censored when sending letters to my brother, Sitawa N. Jamaa, subjected to gratuitous and intimidating searches during visits, and susceptible to being labeled an STG associate. These are all ways that CDCR is trying to keep me from knowing how my brother and others are doing, and to repress my organizing.

Taken individually, these regulations may seem to address unrelated issues. But given they are all coming down simultaneously – just a year after the last of a series of historic hunger strikes by people in California prisons has given rise to the highest level of self-organization and empowerment among imprisoned people since the 1970s – these regulations are nothing less than a systematic attempt to silence and retaliate against prisoners’ growing resistance. Over 30,000 prisoners participated in 2013’s strike, some for 60 days, risking their health and lives for an end to indefinite solitary. Prisoners’ family members and loved ones also took up leadership roles in political organizing in unprecedented ways. The movement to abolish solitary continues to gain momentum around the country.

The hunger strikes were a significant part of an ongoing national sea change regarding the use of solitary, as states are waking up to its dangers. Illinois, Maine and Mississippi have closed or drastically downsized their solitary units without any loss of institutional safety. New York and Arizona were recently forced to reduce their use of isolation, with Colorado and New Jersey following suit.

Yet California steadfastly remains an outlier seemingly impervious to change, led by an administration that relies on tired rhetoric about “the worst of the worst” to justify torture. People locked up in California have a decades-long history of fighting for the rights and dignity of prisoners, affirming their humanity in the face of inhumane conditions and demanding change. The U.N. report calls on this government to “ban prison regimes of solitary confinement such as those in super-maximum security detention facilities.” It’s time for California to listen.

Marie Levin is the sister of Sitawa N. Jamaa, a prisoner in solitary confinement at Tehachapi. She is a member of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS).

Mohamed Shehk is the Media and Communications Director of Critical Resistance, and also contributed to this piece.

Corcoran SHU staff told to ignore legal mandate to protect lives of hunger strikers

From: SF Bay View and NCTTCorSHU:

April 22nd 2013

On Monday, April 8, they ran no yard on the 4B Facility in the Corcoran SHU (Security Housing Unit). We of course investigated as to why we were, yet again, denied yard access without explanation and discovered staff had all gone to some sort of “training.”

By chance, or design, one of the NCTT-Cor-SHU coordinators was under escort by two officers who, by happenstance or design, began discussing the nature of this training that would take another two days of additional training to complete:

In preparation for the July 8 peaceful protest action (hunger strike, work stoppage etc.), Corcoran SHU administrators are directing staff to dispense with California law and state procedures and policy regarding mass hunger strikes and instead institute a policy designed to raise the potential for maximum casualties (deaths) amongst prisoner participants, while negating the existence of input data or any health care services monitoring information.

CDCR staff at Corcoran have been directed that there will be no weigh-ins, blood pressure checks or other medical monitoring of hunger strike participants for the duration of the July 8 peaceful protest. Instead, a single officer will be given a video camera to “monitor” participants every few days or so.

The facility will be locked down, a state of emergency enacted and all yard, visits and medical ducats will be suspended. No one will leave the cells. No medical intervention of any kind, including health care services, daily nursing observations and weekly primary care provider evaluations as mandated by California Correctional Health Care Services Policy Manual Inmate Medical Services Policies and Procedures (IMSP&P) Volume 4, Chapter 22.2, will be allowed. [That chapter, “Mass Organized Hunger Strike,” can be read at http://www.cphcs.ca.gov/docs/imspp/IMSPP-v04-ch22.2.pdf.]

In preparation for the July 8 peaceful protest action (hunger strike, work stoppage etc.), Corcoran SHU administrators are directing staff to dispense with California law and state procedures and policy regarding mass hunger strikes and instead institute a policy designed to raise the potential for maximum casualties (deaths) amongst prisoner participants, while negating the existence of input data or any health care services monitoring information.

Once a participant loses consciousness, if he is discovered by staff before he expires (dies), he will then receive medical intervention in the form of force feeding (physician’s order for life sustaining treatment). Once this occurs the participant will be considered no longer on “hunger strike.”

[Editor’s note: According to the IMSP&P hunger strike regulations cited above, health care staff “shall not force feed” a prisoner unless he refuses to say whether he wants to be force fed or is unable to give informed consent. In addition, forced feeding “shall not take place except in a licensed health care facility by licensed clinical staff.” The regulations contradict all the “training” the officers described.]

Our cause is a righteous cause, our peaceful protest to realize the Five Core Demands just and fair. We cannot allow the state to undermine the purpose and impact of these sacrifices.

Many of you may see the obvious contradiction in prison staff being trained by Warden Gipson to intentionally violate the law and health care policy, with the complicity of prison doctors, nurses and technicians, to intentionally jeopardize the lives of peaceful protestors.

But what’s not obvious, and in our opinion most insidious, by willfully preventing input data to even be collected, eliminating visits and confining any proof of the hunger strike to correctional officer videography, CDCR can control the narrative completely.

With plausible deniability pre-structured, this approach allows CDCR to under-report actual hunger strike participant numbers, claim those on hunger strike are actually eating by recording on video non-participants who are eating, releasing the videos to the press characterizing them as hunger strikers who are not actually striking, and do all of this while denying protestors access to mandated health care evaluation and clinical monitoring, ensuring serious injury or death befalls at least some protestors.

When it does, just like with Christian Gomez, they can claim the victim was only hunger striking a day or so and instead died of a “pre-existing medical condition unrelated to the hunger strike.”

That this premeditated violation of their own policy is both illegal and immoral is a given, and in fact of secondary concern. That they are doing so to maintain this domestic torture program, with all its inhumane and arbitrary components intact, at the expense of your tax dollars, our minds, bodies and very souls is what should outrage us all.

Our cause is a righteous cause, our peaceful protest to realize the Five Core Demands just and fair. We cannot allow the state to undermine the purpose and impact of these sacrifices.

We are prepared to die to end great injustice. Should we not be allowed the dignity of these sacrifices being accorded the state’s policy and our opposition acting within the guidelines of their own law?

Criminals are defined not by what they are called, but by what they do. Who are the criminals in this case? The answer is as obvious as the question. All that’s left to be decided is if you will stand idly by as this crime is committed.

A luta continua.

NCTT-Cor-SHU (NCTT stands for the New Afrikan Revolutionary Nation (NARN) Collective Think Tank) is a people’s think tank comprised of New Afrikan (Black) prisoners held in solitary confinement in California’s Corcoran State Prison Security Housing Unit. The mission of the NCTT is to create, develop, review and implement programs, initiatives and concepts with and for individuals, groups and community activists across the U.S. to realize 10 Core Objectives as articulated by the think tank. Learn more and contact the NCTT at ncttcorshu@gmail.com, @NCTTCorSHU, on Facebook and on their website, at ncttcorshu.org.