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Hunger Strike Against Solitary Confinement
July 10, 2013 7:47 AM   Subscribe

30,000 prisoners in California have launched a hunger strike to protest the conditions under which "segregated" prisoners are being detained.

The Five Core Demands:
1. Eliminate group punishments and administrative abuse.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons (pdf) recommendations and end long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5. Create and expand constructive programming.

During the 2011 hunger strike (which ended when prisoners were promised that their demands would be addressed) prisoner officials threatened force-feeding, which like solitary confinement is torture. (via Jonathan Simon of Governing Through Crime)
posted by anotherpanacea (87 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
So who is gonna pay for all the nose-feeding tubes?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:53 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


A related and eye-opening video from Mother Jones: former hostage Shane Bauer visits Pelican Bay State Prison to tour the facilities.
posted by averageamateur at 7:54 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Good luck to them, and god forgive us for not doing everything in our power to destroy the system of oppression and torture that calls itself "justice".
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:55 AM on July 10, 2013 [25 favorites]


'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
(Matthew 25.35-40 ESV)
posted by cell divide at 7:59 AM on July 10, 2013 [31 favorites]


I was contemplating a post on this as I drove to work. Thanks for this.
posted by rtha at 8:11 AM on July 10, 2013


Wow. I wasn't aware that the UN considers more than 15 days in solitary cruel and unusual punishment. According to that video, Pelican Bay has 89 prisoners who have been in solitary more than 20 years!
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:14 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


20 years.
posted by goethean at 8:19 AM on July 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'm sure the rights of prisoners and the poor and children matter deeply to the lobbyists and legislators and CEOs who run this country. Hard to be optimistic that this will end well for these prisoners.
posted by mattbucher at 8:24 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is hope and precedent--Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois succeeded in closing Illinois' version of Pelican Bay, Tamms Supermax.
posted by goatdog at 8:28 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Every fucking time I read about Solitary I choke up an cry. What sort of sick fucking society does this to millions and millions of people. One that proudly calls itself the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave" (if by 'Free' you mean 'not locked up yet', and 'Brave' you mean 'bullies who abuse the repressed classes as less than human).
posted by symbioid at 8:37 AM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Turns out that if you expand the definition of "criminal," increase sentences across the board, and limit sentences to incarceration, you wind up with a huge honking prison system. That, as it turns out, is expensive, particularly if you're doing it in that mecca or organized government labor, California.

So let's assume two things: (1) Things cannot continue as they are, and (2) California cannot afford to provide adequate incarceration conditions for the number of inmate-days that its legal system generates. The first is definitely true because federal judges can and will simply order the release of large numbers of prisoners, which they've done before and will likely continue to do until something changes. The second is arguably true simply given California's various financial and budget trajectories, but let's just assume it for the purposes of argument.

Given those two assumptions, California faces a variety of options, all of which are problematic.

Option 1: scale back the pattern of increased criminalization and/or decrease sentences. That would reduce the number of inmate-days, and could potentially go a long way towards fixing this. Some people suggest ending the War on Drugs as a possible solution. But the problem here is that California is already ahead of most other states in ending the War on Drugs, and even if we legalized drugs completely, there are probably enough inmate-days related to non-drug offenses that the numbers wouldn't go down nearly enough.For all the talk about the CFAA and laws like it, which make criminal things which no one would expect to be such, very few people are in jail solely for offenses of that sort. Most inmates are in for things like assault, theft, fraud, robbery, homicide, DUI, etc. Many inmates in for these things are also in for drug offenses, but the smart money says that even if you eliminated the drug offenses entirely, they'd still be getting in trouble. We don't want to decriminalize any of those things, so there's only so much that can reasonably be done there. The other problem is that, the issue of drugs aside, the voting population likes expansive criminal codes and likes harsh prison sentences. So you'd have to convince politicians to go against a pretty strong voter preference. And there's nothing to say that the voters couldn't simply undo any of these changes with a referendum, this being California. So option 1 is problematic at best, and might be very difficult to accomplish politically.

Option 2: Introduce sentences other than incarceration. This is going to be politically difficult for the same reason as option 1, i.e., the voters like harsh sentences. But it's also going to be difficult because incarceration is basically the only sentencing option left to the US legal system, as the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has ruled out a lot of sentences used in the past, and the voters' tastes wouldn't permit most of them even if they were constitutional. So sentences like, say, the stocks, or flogging, which are orders of magnitude cheaper than incarceration and produce practically no inmate-days, are completely off the table. Whether or not they should be is irrelevant: no one is really suggesting that as a solution. Though I think it's only a matter of time before a state And truly alternative sentences like intensive, institutional rehabilitation/counseling/re-entry programs, in addition to being politically unpopular, are at least as expensive as incarceration. The inmate/staff ratio at California prisons us usually between 3:1 and 4:1. Changing the format from a prison to an inpatient psych facility wouldn't do anything to change that. So even if it may be preferable for policy reasons, it doesn't fix the basic problem, which is that California cannot afford to pay for the sentences it hands out.

Option 3: Let the federal courts do their thing. Now we're talking constitutional crisis on the order of President Eisenhower sending in the 101st Airborne. What'd likely happen is that a federal judge orders the release of a large number of prisoners. The governor refuses. At which point the President, whoever that is, has to decide whether to let California defy federal judicial authority. This is not a choice the President will be happy to make, but every President before him has always made the same one: federal law must be enforced. We're not talking civil war here, as the President would presumably nationalize California's National Guard units, depriving the state government of any effective means of resistance. But we're definitely talking the news item of the decade. It might even involve the forcible closure of prison facilities. (If any producers/screenwriters are reading this: call me?). The net result is what option 1 was supposed to accomplish legislatively, i.e., generating fewer inmate-days. But until the California legislature steps in to fix things, that's going to happen by simply not sending people to prison, or at least only a tiny fraction of those sentenced would end up there. That's not really how we want that to happen. Any permanent solution needs to involve some political decision about who goes to jail and who doesn't. Ad hoc enforcement of the law won't fly.

So yeah. This is not a fun problem. I think California is ahead of the curve here--for a variety of reasons, labor costs among them--but I think all that's really happening is that the weakness of mass incarceration as a tool of the criminal justice system are finally becoming to great to ignore. What happens next is anyone's guess, but given the options on the table, I doubt it'll be pretty.
posted by valkyryn at 8:43 AM on July 10, 2013 [29 favorites]


How do you even organize a protest like this? It's impressive.
posted by the jam at 8:48 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The War on Drugs doesn't only generate drug offenses, valkyryn, it's also the single cause of a lot of violent and property crime. Make drugs legal and a) the prices collapse, removing the criminal profit motive, causing b) millions of drug users to be less likely to need to steal and piss away their life savings on the drugs, which latter means fewer people having a need to become criminals in the first place.

Drug use has its externalities, but we simply cannot keep pretending that the War on Drugs is anything other than one of the major contributors to violent and property crime in our culture.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:53 AM on July 10, 2013 [12 favorites]


Pelican Bay has 89 prisoners who have been in solitary more than 20 years!

I found this episode of 99% Invisible really interesting: it's about a proposed code of ethics for architects that would prevent these sorts of things. Even if you don't see solitary as torture (in spite of the permanent mental damage* it can do in even a short period of time), the lengths they went to to make the place inhospitable (for lack of a harsher word) are unreal.

* And physical too: "reports of eye damage due to the restriction on distance viewing[.]"
posted by yerfatma at 9:02 AM on July 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


It occurred to me when I saw the literature that they could be put in for as being "members of a gang" such as "black literature" and "left-wing literature" (and I imagine "right-wing" and such - but since it's mojo, they aren't going to emphasize that aspect). But it hit me...

Left-wing is socialism (the examples they showed included Karl Marx as one obvious example). The whole point of socialism is the community, the collective, the group, the social body. It is the fundamental understanding of the human being as a social animal.

To exact revenge upon this mindset, to break this ideology, to deter any sass back against the power of the ideology of INDIVIDUALISM, the social, the collective, the group, the "gang" must go to die. We must needs breed the One-vs-All Ayn Rand indoctrination. We must break the concept of the social order from above and impose our capitalist vision of the INDIVIDUAL.

Of course, don't you dare speak up for your individual rights, lest you be considered a threat in a different way. But it is ultimately the form of social organization that is an attempt at being broken. A mindset that deals with the collective as a defense mechanism. What are prison gangs? How do you protect yourself in prison? Especially in a tougher prison? If you're not in a gang beforehand, how do you expect to survive without learning the ropes? What about protection? You become a victim allowing someone to abuse you for payment of their protection... And is this person a "gang member"? Then what? You're in trouble.

This is the opposite of rehab it's designed to breed psychopaths and animal mentality. It's not designed to make a stronger, social, community-connected individual.

Because they know that those who've been there, know the oppression and suffering, and if they dare to learn how to connect with others, they pose a threat to the system. It's why "black literature" poses a threat. You see the history of the Black Panthers, for example, and how they were a threat to the power structure in this country... You learn the downfall of spreading beyond your legitimate goals, you see the dangers of drug use that tripped up too many of the old Panthers. You decide to work on fixing the dangers and move to a stronger movement among the youth.

They cannot allow this. You must be broken. You are not allowed to be politically conscious. You are not allowed to have any political thought. You are most assuredly not allowed to vote or have representation, you are subhuman, you are not a citizen. You're one of the dumb ones who got caught, not the well to do who walk off with billions from greedy policies, laughing all the way to the bank, while thousands more suffer from that greed than the few who suffered from your blundered bank robbery attempt.

But because that's a "socialist"/collectivist way of thinking, we can't have that. We have to perpetuate the myth of a classless society, all the while instituting structures of hierarchy and oppression from the very top to the very bottom, and justice is inverted.
posted by symbioid at 9:04 AM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


it's also the single cause of a lot of violent and property crime

It is and it isn't. I've seen this argument before, I'm just not sure the inmate population bears that out. Two reasons.

First, even if legalizing drugs does make them cheaper than they are now, (1) I don't think they'll ever be cheap, and (2) if you're broke, everything is expensive. Legal pharmaceuticals aren't cheap. If we legalize drugs, the FDA will start regulating them, and bringing legal drugs to market has the potential to be a very expensive process. But even if the prices fell by 80%, an unemployed heroin addict isn't any more likely to be able to come up with $20 as he is $100. And I'd say he's just as likely to be unemployed even if employers don't use drug screenings. Addicts of all sorts have trouble holding down jobs, and once you get on that pattern, it's hard to get hired, let alone keep a job.

Second, you're ignoring a correlation/causation issue. Do people commit crimes because they need drugs or because they're on drugs? Alcohol is legal after all, and I'd venture to guess that it's involved in at least as many criminal charges as drugs are. People get shitfaced on whatever and go out and get in trouble. Drugs, booze, doesn't really matter. One needn't even inquire into the relationship between a predisposition to use these substances and criminality. The mere fact that people do dumb things when they're drunk/high/whatever is enough to make your suggestion problematic. And DWI/OWI offenses are agnostic as to the legality of whatever substance you're on, so those would be just as prevalent as they are now. If not higher, due to more people using drugs once they're legalized.

Don't get me wrong: I think that we need to change the way we treat drugs. Believe it or not, we're probably of very similar minds in our preferred drug policies. But I'm under no illusions that changing that policy will be any kind of panacea, and I certainly don't think it'll fix this problem in particular. People aren't going to stop doing stupid shit just because their drug of choice is legal.
posted by valkyryn at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Just saw something related pop up in my Twitter feed about conditions at a young offender's institution in London. According to Jake Davis (who I believe spent time there), fights were often food-related, and prison management prevented forms of association, (which also leads to fights).
posted by antonymous at 9:13 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Don't get me wrong: I think that we need to change the way we treat drugs. Believe it or not, we're probably of very similar minds in our preferred drug policies. But I'm under no illusions that changing that policy will be any kind of panacea, and I certainly don't think it'll fix this problem in particular. People aren't going to stop doing stupid shit just because their drug of choice is legal.

Agreed. But people need to punished (for lack of a better term) for their anti-social behavior, not for their chemistry. Getting as messed-up as you want should be no one's business. Operate a motor vehicle or punch someone while messed-up, on the other hand, and it becomes everyone's business. Simple and just, no?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:15 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


valkyryn, it's very difficult to argue convincingly about such an extremely complex problem, but you should also note that drug arrests, convictions, sentences, and other punishments have serious negative economic, social, and practical consequences that then produce the "broke", unemployable, and disconnected people. These consequences are the most serious and difficult to escape for people who are already in tenuous situations: they can't afford bail, so they have to plead guilty to get back to their homes and families and then next time they're arrested, they're a repeat offender--even if they were innocent of the first crime that they pled to. They can't afford a fine or a diversion program so they end up in jail and they get fired, or evicted.

If you read the recent articles in the NY Times about the Bronx Defenders' bail bond program and/or watch the documentary Gideon's Army you will vivid examples of the way that people are driven to financial desperation by drug laws.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm sure the rights of prisoners and the poor and children matter deeply to the lobbyists and legislators and CEOs who run this country

The flagrantly abusive prison system in the US is the product of a genuinely broad and deep popular enthusiasm for an increasingly "punitive" criminal justice system. Any politician who attempts to argue for a saner approach knows that they are dicing with their political career. Yes, there is now a "prison industrial complex" that is lobbying hard to maintain and extend the insanity of the current system, but that system was built by "we the people," not by some sinister cabal of "CEOs."

This is an argument that needs to be won in the broader populace (and, I think, can be won--the pendulum will eventually begin to swing on this issue). And if voters stop mindlessly falling into line on law and order issues you'll find that the politicians will be only too happy to reap the huge budgetary benefits of bringing the US prison system more into line with the first world norm than its current quasi-gulag nature.
posted by yoink at 9:21 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The leaders of the hunger strike are said to be high ranking members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, Mexican Mafia, and Nuestra Familia. I'd be a lot more sympathetic except I think these groups are using this situation to profit themselves. Never underestimate their craftiness and cunning. It's naive to think that any of these "leaders" are concerned about the suffering of anyone who isn't beholden or can be of use to them.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:23 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


America doesn't do Justice; it does Vengence.
posted by adamvasco at 9:35 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ideefixe, "said to be" by whom? That is a serious claim to make and a citation would be helpful. It is also important to try to separate your sympathy (or lack thereof) for the protest's putative leaders from your sympathy for the people who are suffering in prisons right now, including but not limited to the people who have lived through decades of torture at the hands of the state.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:35 AM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yerfatma, I think the podcast and article about ethics and architecture that you linked in your comment would make a great FPP.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:36 AM on July 10, 2013


Ideefixe: "except I think these groups are using this situation to profit themselves. Never underestimate their craftiness and cunning. It's naive to think that any of these "leaders" are concerned about the suffering of anyone who isn't beholden or can be of use to them."

Why does this matter?

This is about how we as a society through our justice system treat our prisoners no matter who they are or what they did. What they did presumably is the cause of their incarceration but should never affect how they're treated in prison. Being incarcerated is the punishment, not being abused while being incarcerated.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:37 AM on July 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


The outrage expressed here seems so generic. Aren't these prisoners isolated because of the threat they pose to other inmates and to guards? Aren't they being punished for anti-social acts committed in the prison?
posted by feste at 9:39 AM on July 10, 2013


I don't think it is relevant who is leading the hunger strike to protest these conditions. Extended periods of solitary confinement is cruel. Someday the Supreme Court may catch up with me. I hope.
posted by ambrosia at 9:40 AM on July 10, 2013


The majority of inmates housed within the SHU are validated prison gang members/associates. A validated prison gang member/associate will spend an average of six years in the SHU. However, inmates are afforded the opportunity to "debrief" and give a written account of their gang participation. If they are proven to be truthful and forthcoming they will be transferred to a different prison and allowed to "do their time" in protective custody. However, most inmates choose not to participate in the debrief process.
-W
posted by Ogre Lawless at 9:40 AM on July 10, 2013


The outrage expressed here seems so generic. Aren't these prisoners isolated because of the threat they pose to other inmates and to guards? Aren't they being punished for anti-social acts committed in the prison?

Why they're being isolated and punished has no bearing on whether or not the isolation and punishment is effective and humane. And it assumes that the reasons given for why they're isolated and punished are strictly scrutinized and not abused.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:42 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Any politician who attempts to argue for a saner approach knows that they are dicing with their political career.
Prison Reform
War on Terror
War on Drugs
Gun Control
Immigration
Healthcare
Whistle blowing.
Banking Fraud
Etc et fucking cetra

Gosh there seems to be a problem with your politicians.
posted by adamvasco at 9:42 AM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


"We the people" are influenced by propaganda. We have had generations and generations of propaganda pointed at the White, Christian, Post-WWII, Post-Integration, Post-Revolutionaries/Black-Panthers/60s Suburbanites.

The drug war is/was a continuation of racist policies (witness the crack disparity in sentencing issue for example). We no longer let the racist assholes lynch people, and so we've politely been more "civilized" by locking them away to be guarded by bullies with a fascist power-trip.

Yes, there are also plenty of white people. And guess what, those folks ain't no fucking Wall Street bankers.

There's a clear class component to this issue, not just race. The beautiful thing here, then, is that in some ways, the social order is just what they want. They want individuality enforced by isolation. But they want tribal allegiance to a splintered tribe based certain historical prejudices. It makes it easier to create an excuse to crack down. It makes it easier to prevent a large social unity.

OK, to get back to the point...

This "deep enthusiasm for get tough" can be traced to a lot of racist white people pushing propaganda over the airwaves, spreading fear for 40+ years about drugs and gangs and young "superpredators" (a la this asshole who "regrets" his stance on these "superpredators" The damage is done, asshole.)

This is the same sort of bullshit argument that "news" networks spew when they push inane, trite, stupid, and downright fascist propaganda... "It's what the people want! We're just giving the market what it wants!"

Information is not a commodity. Truth is not a product to be bought or sold. But they'll sell you it anyway, and you'll buy it because it bolsters your budding prejudices.

People hated Gay people. People still hate Gay people. But we are now in the process of legalizing Gay marriage after long and hard battles to counteract reactionary media propaganda. "But but, people just are that way" is a lazy way to not deal with the problems at hand.

It's a way to place blame on the populace without recognizing that with proper leadership things can change. But as long as you blame the "democratic choices of 'the people'" you will never get change done (and it conveniently works out for the powerbrokers who peddle and benefit from this shit). One of the first things we need to do, is recognize not just our own culpability in the situation (and yes, we are culpable, I, as a Communist who is not active in trying to change these injustices... others who are right-wing and enable this way of thinking and elect politicians who enact policies that fail and who spread propaganda via corporate networks)), but also the role of media and politics and money.

This is a system issue. It's a whole toxic environment, the populace, the media, politics, gangs, police, drugs. There is no one simple fix. But there are clearly key elements that need to be chiseled away at.

It is only through combating ignorance that we move forward.

If we do not, we are like people who say "well, lynching black people is just right, they better know their station, they're stealing our white women".
posted by symbioid at 9:44 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Any politician who attempts to argue for a saner approach knows that they are dicing with their political career.
Prison Reform
War on Terror
War on Drugs
Gun Control
Immigration
Healthcare
Whistle blowing.
Banking Fraud
Etc et fucking cetra

Gosh there seems to be a problem with your politicians.


Problem with our culture, really. The politicians do what they do because it's what's expected.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:44 AM on July 10, 2013


Valkyryn: "...an unemployed heroin addict isn't any more likely to be able to come up with $20 as he is $100."

I don't think you're right on that.
posted by notsnot at 9:44 AM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


feste: "The outrage expressed here seems so generic. Aren't these prisoners isolated because of the threat they pose to other inmates and to guards? Aren't they being punished for anti-social acts committed in the prison?"

No. If you read the article, you can see they lock you up in solitary for a claim by another prisoner that you are a "gang member" regardless of your actual membership in a gang (not that I think that would be right, but merely pointing out that your belief of how it works is wrong)... If they have a single photo of you talking to a "gang member" (whether you actually know this or not), you can be locked away for being "gang-affiliated". There is no proper appeals process, and then they use the fact that there aren't (m)any successful appeals to "prove" that they all have legitimate gang members and thus their process "works". The game is rigged.

And most importantly, it is not what you think it is.
posted by symbioid at 9:48 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The majority of inmates housed within the SHU are validated prison gang members/associates.

Wasn't there an FPP on how the 'validation' process is completely insane? I know I've read an article which went through validation rules and basically anything that hints at political opinion, including things like mainstream books, can be used to accuse a prisoner of being in a gang.
posted by zug at 9:48 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The outrage expressed here seems so generic. Aren't these prisoners isolated because of the threat they pose to other inmates and to guards?

I know! Like, in the constitution, when those dudes talk about cruel and unusual punishment, they have a parenthetical that says: (This doesn't apply to EVERYONE!)
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:48 AM on July 10, 2013


Why they're being isolated and punished has no bearing on whether or not the isolation and punishment is effective and humane. And it assumes that the reasons given for why they're isolated and punished are strictly scrutinized and not abused.

I agree about the second point, and I would like to see more information about the prison officials' decisions to isolate prisoners, but if the point is to protect inmates from other inmates, then isolation is useful, yes? So it probably is effective.
posted by feste at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2013


I know! Like, in the constitution, when those dudes talk about cruel and unusual punishment, they have a parenthetical that says: (This doesn't apply to EVERYONE!)

But how would you deal with prisoners who attack other prisoners and guards? Your protest seems to ignore prisoner on prisoner violence. Don't you think that's a real thing?
posted by feste at 9:50 AM on July 10, 2013


I agree about the second point, and I would like to see more information about the prison officials' decisions to isolate prisoners, but if the point is to protect inmates from other inmates, then isolation is useful, yes? So it probably is effective.

Right, but there are ways of accomplishing the isolation of a dangerous prisoner from the rest of the prison population that don't involve the awful torture of long stretches in our current form of solitary confinement.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:51 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did you notice that one set of the inmates being set into solitary are not necessarily the perps, but the victims? (Despite the fact I hate to defend a child-rapist...) People like a child rapist. or people who are depressed and thus at risk of hanging themselves, etc... Protective custody. If you're depressed, something tells me that tightening the screws around your neck aren't going to help with that.
posted by symbioid at 9:53 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not ignoring anything, I'm now explicitly saying that constitutional rights are inviolable, and that these prisoner's rights are being violated when they are put in solitary for this length of time.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:54 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yerfatma, I think the podcast and article about ethics and architecture that you linked in your comment would make a great FPP.

Thanks, feel free to run with it: I'm far too lazy and hard-pressed to make a post that isn't snarky in tone. I'll keep a close eye on the favorites count and resent you for every single last one.

posted by yerfatma at 9:56 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


you should also note that drug arrests, convictions, sentences, and other punishments have serious negative economic, social, and practical consequences that then produce the "broke", unemployable, and disconnected people.

Don't I know it. I'm an attorney getting involved in criminal defense.

But even if I think that line of argument is compelling, I think it has more to do with the fact that it sucks to be poor than it does with injustice related to drug laws in particular. If you have few enough resources such that your first drug offense is going to send your life in a downward spiral, you were poor before you started doing drugs. As such, any offense, even an arrest/suspension for driving without insurance--which happens pretty much exclusively to poor people--is going to be hugely problematic. I've worked with people in exactly that situation. Trying to keep things together, working two jobs, short on money, misses an insurance payment, and has the bad luck to speed by a cop on the way home from work. Boom, license suspended, jobs lost, the works. If, on the other hand, you're upper middle class, not only are you less likely to be arrested in the first place, but you'll probably be able to get a decent outcome.

So yes, I think we ought to legalize drugs for a variety of reasons, but I really don't think that we can justify that move by saying how much better it's going to make everything. Will there be fewer inmate-dates if drugs are legalized? Almost certainly. Will the reduction be enough to solve problems like this one? To my lights, almost certainly not.

Regardless, this constitutes a derail, and I'm going to leave it at that.
posted by valkyryn at 9:56 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Did you notice that one set of the inmates being set into solitary are not necessarily the perps, but the victims? (Despite the fact I hate to defend a child-rapist...) People like a child rapist. or people who are depressed and thus at risk of hanging themselves, etc... Protective custody. If you're depressed, something tells me that tightening the screws around your neck aren't going to help with that.

But do you advocate putting them back in general population? Probably not. The solutions, all the way around, involve more money, and that's seems completely unlikely to be forthcoming.
posted by feste at 9:57 AM on July 10, 2013


There is no proper appeals process, and then they use the fact that there aren't (m)any successful appeals to "prove" that they all have legitimate gang members and thus their process "works". The game is rigged.

And, just so this is clear, you can't get OUT of solitary without "debriefing," which means giving up other members of the gang you were validated for. Then those people take your place. Prisoners call the policy "parole, snitch, or die." Obviously, this keeps the SHU full.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:57 AM on July 10, 2013


Long term solitary confinement is definitely torture. And it's absolutely appalling. For those who haven't seen it, this New Yorker article from a few years back is eye-opening and heartbreaking.

Somewhat related, I just glimpsed a headline somewhere that said something like there are more African American men on parole or in prison today than there were slaves in 1850.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:00 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Starting out by framing the issue as how to react to endemic prison violence doesn't touch on ideas of how to be proactive and create an environment that doesn't lead to such widespread violence in the first place. There's a root problem where our society as a whole is fine going for vengeance over rehabilitation, fine with criminals being treated as subhuman because it's easy.

The solutions, all the way around, involve more money, and that's seems completely unlikely to be forthcoming.

The expense of these solutions doesn't make our current solutions right. It's not even really a question of the expense, it's a question of whether or not we as a society feel inmates deserve the expense.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:05 AM on July 10, 2013


Lots of people need a bigger cut of California's budget. That's all.
posted by feste at 10:09 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The expense of these solutions doesn't make our current solutions right. It's not even really a question of the expense

Except that it kind of is. Like in any political issue, the fact that it would be awesome if we could do X, indeed, even if X were the moral thing to do, budgets are real, and every dollar we spend on X is a dollar we don't spend on Y. As Y might be something like, say, K-12 education, or health care, or infrastructure improvements, or whatever, saying that expense isn't the question is not a helpful rhetorical move.

In this particular case, that's the problem California is dealing with. The CDCR spends in excess of $10 billion a year, and it could easily take twice that to make the prison system humane. Only California has been running budget deficits in the double-digit billions for years. Looks like they might be in the black this year, but that's after some pretty significant tax increases and cuts (remember the protests at UC campuses?), and no one really seems to think that it'll last. Even if things to start to get better, no one is going to want to boost CDCR spending until cuts to other programs are restored. Like it or not, the money just isn't there.
posted by valkyryn at 10:15 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just glimpsed a headline somewhere that said something like there are more African American men on parole or in prison today than there were slaves in 1850.

That statement, if true--and I have a sneaking suspicion that it is--shouldn't be terribly surprising. As to slaves, the number was "only" something like 3.2 million in 1850. As there are almost 39 million African-Americans today, 3.2 million is only 8% of the current population. Indeed, there are more African-Americans alive today than there were Americans of any race/ethnicity in 1850. As such, making statistical comparisons based on absolute numbers is almost inherently misleading.

That 3.2 million figure is still far, far too high, but simply stating it in the way that the headline does fails to do justice to the overwhelming impact of population growth on demographic numbers. It's more sensationalist than informative.

posted by valkyryn at 10:21 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


And, just so this is clear, you can't get OUT of solitary without "debriefing," which means giving up other members of the gang you were validated for. Then those people take your place. Prisoners call the policy "parole, snitch, or die." Obviously, this keeps the SHU full.

I dropped this in this thread from last fall (emphasis mine):

"However, not all the inmates housed in the SHU are alleged gang leaders. For example, Ernesto Lira was a petty thief serving time for minor drug possession. He was sent to Pelican Bay for an indefinite term, after authorities determined he was associated with a violent Latino prison gang.

But Lira was not accused of actually doing anything tangible for the group. The key piece of evidence against him: a drawing found in his locker that allegedly contained gang symbols.

"My first two months it was hard to get used to the fact that I'm going to be here," Lira said. "I looked and thought?maybe in a month or two they'll realize that this is all a mistake and kick me out of here."

There was a way out of isolation, officials told Lira. He could debrief, or snitch, on other gang members. But as a judge later determined, Lira couldn't do that because he wasn't a member of any gang. He wasn't released from the SHU until his release from prison eight years later.

Lira eventually won a judgment in US District Court against the Department of Corrections, in part for psychological damage he suffered while locked in isolation. Prisoner right's attorney Charles Carbone has represented dozens of inmates locked in Pelican Bay's SHU."
posted by rtha at 10:22 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wasn't there an FPP on how the 'validation' process is completely insane? I know I've read an article which went through validation rules and basically anything that hints at political opinion, including things like mainstream books, can be used to accuse a prisoner of being in a gang.

The video that averageamateur links to above (second comment), goes into this. At Pelican Bay, ONE PERSON makes the determination. He's the judge, jury and prosecutor. And the "evidence" is often very tenuous.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:25 AM on July 10, 2013


When jurisdictions draw their district lines, they build this distortion into the distribution of democracy. Districts with prisons are constructed on the backs of “ghost voters,” packing in prisoners who count toward the district size but who, with few exceptions, are not permitted to vote, and who, with few exceptions, have no connection whatsoever to the other residents of the district. This artificially inflates the political power of residents in prison districts, and artificially deflates the power of residents everywhere else.
posted by zerobyproxy at 10:26 AM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


And if voters stop mindlessly falling into line on law and order issues

Yeah, how does that work?
posted by mattbucher at 10:26 AM on July 10, 2013


The leaders of the hunger strike are said to be high ranking members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, Mexican Mafia, and Nuestra Familia

Well, that had to be a fun strategy session.
posted by spaltavian at 10:28 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The CDCR spends in excess of $10 billion a year, and it could easily take twice that to make the prison system humane

One way to cut the associated costs is to end the Drug War, which means a lot fewer people go to jail. If every non-violent offender was released, that alone would help with over-crowding, and free up more dollars per inmate even if we cut overall costs.
posted by spaltavian at 10:31 AM on July 10, 2013


Except that it kind of is. Like in any political issue, the fact that it would be awesome if we could do X, indeed, even if X were the moral thing to do, budgets are real, and every dollar we spend on X is a dollar we don't spend on Y. As Y might be something like, say, K-12 education, or health care, or infrastructure improvements, or whatever, saying that expense isn't the question is not a helpful rhetorical move.

I absolutely get that the cost is a critical, central question in this. I'm just talking in terms of society's willingness to spend the money even if we had it without a huge uncertain uphill fight against people saying, yeah, we've got the cash, but not for them. The vengeance vs. rehabilitation question at the root of it. I just think that's the bigger, more important question than money, but the lack of money makes it easy to gloss over the issue. The idea that "We couldn't even if we wanted to." is a complete avoidance of "Do we actually want to, though?"
posted by jason_steakums at 10:31 AM on July 10, 2013


I mean, we find the money for real priorities. Those priorities are often pretty fucked, though.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:33 AM on July 10, 2013


One way to cut the associated costs is to end the Drug War

I think you'll find that that issue has been dealt with, or at least touched upon, upthread.
posted by valkyryn at 10:53 AM on July 10, 2013


That 3.2 million figure is still far, far too high, but simply stating it in the way that the headline does fails to do justice to the overwhelming impact of population growth on demographic numbers. It's more sensationalist than informative.

I agree. But I found the article, and after reading it I think it's trying to make the point of the prison system being modern-day slavery:

The Fight For Black Men

Beneath these sterile facts lay a grisly reality. Blacks were systemically dehumanized for hundreds of years, a practice that had unique social and psychological effects on men. They were worked and whipped in fields like cattle. Any semblance of pride, any cry for justice, any measure of genuine manhood was tortured, beaten, or sold out of them. Marriage was strictly prohibited. Most were forbidden from learning to read and write. The wealth derived from their labor—the massive wealth derived from cotton, our chief export throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries—was channeled elsewhere. [emphasis mine]

But, because slavery ended 150 years ago, we often assume that this dehumanization is ancient history. It is not. As Douglas Blackmon of The Wall Street Journal meticulously documents in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Slavery by Another Name, blacks were kept in virtual bondage through Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and, quite often, a form of quasi-slavery called peonage, which endured well into the middle of the 20th century.

Here’s how it worked: black men (it was usually men) were arrested for petty crimes or no crimes at all; “selling cotton after sunset” was a favorite charge. They were then assessed a steep fine. If they could not pay, they were imprisoned for long sentences and forced to work for free. This allowed savvy industrialists to replace thousands of slaves with thousands of convicts...


The rest of the article is good, but the key sentence (to me) is the one I bolded:

The wealth derived from their labor...was channeled elsewhere

That, I think, is the link between black men, slavery and the modern day prison system.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:09 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ideefixe:

Never underestimate their craftiness and cunning. It's naive to think that any of these "leaders" are concerned about the suffering of anyone who isn't beholden or can be of use to them.

Um. I represented a couple of guys on California's death row back in the early 90s. There are, of course, tremendously awful folks there, some in prison gangs and some not. There are also some pretty amazing leaders, deep thinkers, and also hundreds of losers who didn't luck into the right race, or family, or economic class.

Prison gangs serve numerous functions, including running some nasty shit both inside and outside the prisons, but I think it's dangerous to suggest that inmates, even their 'leaders' come from some particularly crafty and cunning subset of the human species.

Although, I guess you weren't suggesting that? because your final sentence pretty much describes 93% of our elected representatives in most states and the federal government.

Finally, Feste: no one should be tortured. No one. Whatever they've done. And those that have been at Pelican Bay and other supermaxes for upwards of twenty years, and then get out? We haven't even started paying the costs of what we've done.
posted by allthinky at 11:10 AM on July 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


The outrage expressed here seems so generic. Aren't these prisoners isolated because of the threat they pose to other inmates and to guards? Aren't they being punished for anti-social acts committed in the prison?

No. You should read this article (previously). The "offenses" and "gang affiliations" are often bullshit and there's no real oversight or ability to appeal them.

A few choice quotes:
California officials frequently cite possession of black literature, left-wing materials, and writing about prisoner rights as evidence of gang affiliation. In the dozens of cases I reviewed, gang investigators have used the term "[BGF] training material" to refer to publications by California Prison Focus, a group that advocates the abolition of the SHUs; Jackson's once best-selling Soledad Brother; a pamphlet said to reference "Revolutionary Black Nationalism, The Black Internationalist Party, Marx, and Lenin"; and a pamphlet titled "The Black People's Prison Survival Guide." This last one advises inmates to read books, keep a dictionary handy, practice yoga, avoid watching too much television, and stay away from "leaders of gangs."

The list goes on....
And this:
None of the gang validation proceedings, from the initial investigation to the final sentencing, have any judicial oversight. They are all internal. Other than the inmate, there is only one person present—the gang investigator—and he serves as judge, jury, and prosecutor. After the hearing, the investigator will send his validation package to Sacramento for approval. The chances of it being refused are vanishingly small: The department's own data shows that of the 6,300 validations submitted since 2009, only 25 have been rejected—0.4 percent. "It's pretty much a rubber stamping," Vasquez says.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:23 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Finally, Feste: no one should be tortured. No one. Whatever they've done. And those that have been at Pelican Bay and other supermaxes for upwards of twenty years, and then get out? We haven't even started paying the costs of what we've done.

It's this ringing statement of absolutism that's easy to make, but short on practical use. Should these guys in isolation be released? Should they go back to general population? They may be amazing or doomed by circumstance, but are they dangerous to other prisoners? Is that *why* they are there, in isolation?
posted by feste at 11:27 AM on July 10, 2013


For a practical example, look at what Maine did.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:35 AM on July 10, 2013


It's this ringing statement of absolutism that's easy to make, but short on practical use.

Absolutism on constitutionally protected rights is of immense practical use.

Should these guys in isolation be released? Should they go back to general population?

You're not asking honestly asking these questions. These are clearly loaded and poor attempts at erecting a strawman.

Is that *why* they are there, in isolation?

No. cosmic.osmo's comments right above yours spells this out.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:39 AM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


These guys in isolation will be released, when their terms are up, or we need the space, or whatever. We don't (yet) detain garden variety, non-sex offender felons indefinitely. Only those sentenced to Life Without Parole are sentenced to stay until they die, and that's not everyone at Pelican Bay, or any other SHU, so far as I know.

Whether or not various of these guys are dangerous to other prisoners is not something we should trust corrections officials to figure out. They have zero incentive to be smart about that, and every incentive to identify guys as dangerous, gang members, whatevs, so as to max them out. Guaranteed employment, and who wouldn't feel great about protecting society from "the worst of the worst"?
posted by allthinky at 11:45 AM on July 10, 2013


We don't (yet) detain garden variety, non-sex offender felons indefinitely

Yes we do. We even imprison non-violent, non-sex offender drug traffickers indefinitely.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:54 AM on July 10, 2013


[...] and who wouldn't feel great about protecting society from "the worst of the worst"?

I think there's something to be said for changing the definition of "protecting society" in the penal system. If a prisoner is abused or has their rights violated they can be released, just like foul play on the part of the prosecution can overturn a court decision and lead to release. That puts people in a position where they have to be humane in order to protect society.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:54 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Back when I was working as a grant writer briefly, I did a bunch of research on California's prison system. Basically, California has one of the country's highest recidivism rate, in part due to the early release that almost all prisoners qualify for. They're returned to society, often far away from where they have any social support, and given next to no job training or help getting back on their feet. I know that it's often politically untenable to help former inmates, but at least in theory, they've served their time and their debt to society is wiped clean.

Despite an ostensible shift to "best practices" incarcerations, there's still so little support put into programs to teach convicts skills that will let them recover without returning to crime on the outside, so it's not a huge surprise that so many do.

Really, that's the number one thing that California can do to reduce its prison population: Job training and conflict resolution training while in prison. With the size of the population and the recidivism numbers, California should shift their prisons into being explicitly about rehabilitation over punishment, just as a practical, fiscal policy decision.
posted by klangklangston at 12:03 PM on July 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


The strikers have put together a petition for members of the public, in case people are interested in signing or just want a loose barometer for how public awareness is going.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:51 PM on July 10, 2013


Basically, California has one of the country's highest recidivism rate, in part due to the early release that almost all prisoners qualify for.

It's partly that, and it's partly that nearly all prisoners are released on parole (I believe this is still the case, although I'm hearing a faint bell that's telling me that might have changed in the last couple of years, or at least the change was discussed), and a lot of the recidivism is because of parole violations, not new crimes committed. Revolving door indeed.
posted by rtha at 1:04 PM on July 10, 2013


With the size of the population and the recidivism numbers, California should shift their prisons into being explicitly about rehabilitation over punishment, just as a practical, fiscal policy decision.

Right, except one of the main reasons they have early release is that they simply can't afford to keep the inmates they've already got for their full term. This is why a 45 day sentence for a DUI in Los Angeles can result in less than 24 hours in jail. A system that is that burdened by overpopulation doesn't have the resources to spend on programs like that.

Of course, the counter-argument is that such a system can't afford not to invest in such programs, but hey. There's a catch-22 if there ever was one.
posted by valkyryn at 1:45 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


my mom used to work with ex-offenders on how to handle having been in prison not just on a job app or resume, but in interviews as well as in the workplace if a coworker finds out. in fact, she had been working at a state job center and saw the need for such a program and got it implemented.

my mom is pretty damn conservative and we don't agree on much political, but even she could see that you can't expect people to just deal with all of that baggage without help.

she also worked with several employers in the area to get them to interview these folks.

I was out with her a few years before she moved and this guy came up and said hello to her and thanked her for her help and he was doing just fine now, still over at that company. he was obviously so happy to tell her he was still doing good. when her clients (the ex offenders) would call in the office to tell her they had gotten their GED or a job paying $10/hr, she would praise them to all get out. one of her coworkers used to make fun of her for doing that. my mom wanted to know who else was gonna tell them they were doing a good job.

sure they made bad choices or had all kinds of things happen that led to prison. but when they got out, they wanted to make a change. all they needed was someone to help them get on the right path, be genuinely proud of them, and then they were proud of themselves. I really wish I could get some numbers on recidivism for people that worked w my mom.

I still cannot believe it wasn't a thing in this very prison-y area until she made it a thing. I mean, duh.
posted by sio42 at 2:00 PM on July 10, 2013 [14 favorites]


"Of course, the counter-argument is that such a system can't afford not to invest in such programs, but hey. There's a catch-22 if there ever was one."

Yeah, I'm of the opinion that we just can't keep going without putting those resources there, but I recognize that we're in a crisis, and that means short-term solutions, and reducing recidivism and giving greater support to ex-cons is a long term, expensive thing.
posted by klangklangston at 3:13 PM on July 10, 2013


tl;dr but I have a friend who is a doctor at Pelican Bay, so I'd like to make a few points based on what I've learned from my friend:

1. The prisoners at Pelican Bay, especially those in the SHU, are not there because of what they did on the outside but what they've done on the inside. One guy has been there 20 years having been originally convicted of petty theft. They've all earned their way into supermax custody by bad behavior in prison.

2. For the most part, these prisoners have no conscience and perhaps experience little emotion, i.e. they are psychopaths. (This doesn't justify abusing them, of course.)

3. For the most part, these guys have nothing to lose.
posted by neuron at 11:04 PM on July 10, 2013


I have a friend who says you don't understand the problem with "gang validation."
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:47 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


What I've learned from a friend who works at San Quentin (she's a nurse practitioner) is that she and the rest of the medical staff are doing increasing amounts of geriatric care.

Something else we haven't much thought about or planned for regarding our prison population.
posted by rtha at 5:48 AM on July 11, 2013


The Horrible Psychology of Solitary Confinement
posted by homunculus at 1:20 PM on July 11, 2013


> I recognize that we're in a crisis

We're in a crisis because we have had two decades of massive tax cuts for rich people, and because we have a hugely expanding military during at time when we're not actually at war. The USA is extremely rich, the richest country in the entire world, and if it wanted to it could easily find the money - Americans simply don't want to do so.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:02 PM on July 11, 2013


The prisoners at Pelican Bay, especially those in the SHU, are not there because of what they did on the outside but what they've done on the inside. One guy has been there 20 years having been originally convicted of petty theft. They've all earned their way into supermax custody by bad behavior in prison.

This kind of thing has been mentioned a couple times in this thread. As allthinky mentioned, there are without a doubt genuinely scary, violent and bad people in prison. There are people who need to be behind bars. But my feeling is that with our high rate of incarceration for petty crimes, they are probably the minority. The guy imprisoned for petty theft who has now been in for 20 years and is in a supermax? The way our current prison system is and our cultural obsession with revenge.....do you really think these petty criminals went in there as thoroughly broken men, with no hope of redemption? Do you really think these small-time guys are really psychopaths? Or is our penal system and almost total lack of support in society for any kind of meaningful rehabilitation or support following a reintroduction to society making them that way?

If we have success stories, I'm guessing it's almost totally down to people like sio42's saint of a mother, who are hard at work on the front lines, making a difference despite a bad and broken system. We shouldn't have to rely on that, but I think that's probably how things are working right now.

If we have a problem with violence in prisons and high rates of recidivism, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have totally failed our society, our prisoners and ourselves with our huge and sick penal system.
posted by triggerfinger at 3:19 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


A Hunger Strike Against Solitary Confinement: Shane Bauer on Inhuman Prisons from California to Iran
posted by homunculus at 9:24 AM on July 12, 2013


California prison guards retaliating against hunger-strikers, lawyers say: Inmates' lawyers say health of men is at risk amid allegations prisons are using cold temperatures to snuff out protest
posted by homunculus at 2:08 PM on July 19, 2013


Gang members say hunger strike aim is to 'sell drugs, make money'

The narrative of heroic hunger strikers felt incomplete from the beginning. Feste and IdeeFixe I think are on the right track to express some skepticism here. The problem with arguing on purely ideological terms against the harsh punishment is the possibility that these prisoners have little to lose for their sacrifices. How does the state further punish/neutralize someone in the predicament of creating problems when that person is already at the top tier of punishment? This is a serious question that has yet to be addressed.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:21 AM on July 22, 2013


"The two inmates, both convicted murderers, have agreed to provide information against the gangs in return for being moved out of isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border."

The two inmates signed the confession that their motives were poor in order to prevent further torture. Also, they can't possibly know the true motives because they've been in solitary confinement.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:44 AM on July 22, 2013


Which illustrates one big problem with the way the story has been framed so far: the unreliable people involved. I'm frankly not inclined to give anyone that far down the tubes any benefit of the doubt. It's the word of psychopaths versus an abhorrent punishment to which few people seem to actually provide alternatives.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:10 AM on July 22, 2013


The alternative to torture is not torturing. The alternative to solitary confinement is not solitary confinement.

Please read about gang validation. These aren't psychopaths, mostly, they're people who had the wrong books, or people who the psychopaths named in order to escape the torture of long term solitary confinement.

Calling them "psychopaths" is just a way to discount their arguments, which are all based on ordinary moral norms ("don't drive people insane using punishments techniques we know drive people insane") and verifiable evidence from independent sources.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:07 PM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


In other prison news: FBI hair analysis may have falsely convicted thousands, including some on death row: Over 2,000 cases up for review in 'unprecedented' internal investigation
posted by homunculus at 5:38 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


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