8 September 2015
Reflecting on Solitary Confinement and the Prison Industrial Complex
On September 1st, 2015, the class action case of Ashker v. Governor of California was settled in US District Court, upholding the claims of ten inmates who alleged cruel and unusual punishment for the more than twenty years they spent in solitary confinement while at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California. Under international law, more than fifteen days in solitary confinement constitutes torture.
The nearly twenty-four hour a day isolation of men in the Solitary Housing Unity (SHU) can feel conceptually abstract for people who haven’t been inside. As a volunteer “Buddhist Chaplain” at Pelican Bay from 2003-2005, I did one-on-one visits with inmates in the SHU, and also helped run a meditation group in the general population. These were guys who missed their moms and wives and sisters, guys who had grown up on the short end of the stick in the hood, guys who had done terrible violent things to other people, guys looking for redemption.
Sometimes they were brought to a holding pen the size of an airplane bathroom at the side of the control tower that overlooked the rows of cells. Handcuffed, they would ask about how to meditate, what to do when they felt hopeless, and if I could get them a book on yoga. I tried to make eye contact as we spoke through a metal door with tiny circular openings that gave me vertigo from staring through it. They looked at me hard – sometimes they told me I was the only non-guard they’d seen in months or years. Even when they are brought to a concrete yard for ninety minutes a day of “recreation,” they are alone.
Other times I was escorted down the hall of cells itself to stand in front of their doors where we would talk through the peep hole of solid metal doors. I could see their mattresses on the floor, but nothing else in the room but white walls and metal on which the mind could fixate. They asked what to think about when all they could do was think. They asked how to cultivate loving kindness for their guards, for rival gang members. They asked what the weather was like outside.
The plaintiffs said of the court’s ruling yesterday that it was a victory in the campaign to end solitary confinement in US prisons, and I agree. The settlement lays out new rules that can significantly reform the parameters of how solitary confinement happens in California. But like any administrative solution, the problem will be in implementation and enforcement. So let our ebullition over this victory be matched by our vigilance to make sure the settlement conditions are carried out. While no more “indefinite containment” is a “victory,” California prison reform still has a ways to go.