By Samuel K. Roberts, PhD
The hunger strike at Pelican Bay is the third such action in the past two years and only the most recent in a 20-year history of protests against conditions there going back to the 1995 Madrid v. Gomez case. Now the strike has spread to roughly two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons, currently involving at least 12,000 prisoners and perhaps as many as 30,000. Strikers’ demands vary, but in total include an increase in hourly wages (currently 13 cents); more humane treatment; and the restoration of educational, rehabilitative, vocational and mental and physical health services recently excised from prison budgets. One of the main demands is an address of the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, or extreme isolation, in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) and supermax prisons, in which prisoners are locked in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, and denied contact with anyone except prison staff.
What the strike highlights — missed by most of the public — is the deeply troubling nature of extreme isolation in U.S. penology. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons, SHUs, where most prison solitary confinement takes place, are housing units in which “inmates are securely separated from the general inmate population … [to] help ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation of correctional facilities.” In reality, SHUs often are the sites of extreme and indefinite punishment for often trivial infractions. Many prisoners have spent months and even years in SHUs, deprived of the basic human interactions necessary for mental health; and of the forms of education, mental health treatments, and vocational training necessary for the rehabilitation which carceral institutions are ostensibly there to provide. Entire institutions — supermax prisons — are based solely on the philosophy of extreme isolation.
The number of individuals in solitary confinement/administrative segregation at any given time is not easily ascertained, largely because of the variance in record keeping and reporting among the U.S.’s city, state, and federal prisons, detention facilities, and jails.