End Cruel and Unusual Punishment at Pelican Bay, CA

  • By: Susan V
  • Target: Pelican Bay State Prison, CA Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Journalist Shane Bauer spent 26 months in an Iran prison. The four in solitary were by far the worst -so bad he said he hoped for an interrogation, just to talk to someone.

He saw “men put in the hole for the company they kept, the books they read, the beliefs they held,” something he never thought he'd find back home in CA. But he did - at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit - the SHU.

Touring the SHU, Bauer found 11 X 8 foot concrete cells where prisoners suspected of the slightest association with gangs are sentenced. With “no immunity from being falsely accused,” most spend at least 6 years (many 20) with no sunlight, no visitors, no phone calls and not even a window - the one thing that kept Bauer sane in Iran.

Though this inhumane treatment has nothing to do with correction or rehabilitation, prison officials don’t even call it punishment. Whatever name they give it, it’s cruel and unusual. It’s torture. And it has to end.

We, the undersigned, find no excuse for prisoners to be treated humanely, particularly by a system that allows them no immunity from false accusations nor legal representation at closed meetings that sentence them to this solitary and cruel punishment.

This system, as Bauer reports in Mother Jones, has been set up so that it’s nearly impossible for inmates in the SHU to get out, unless they inform on others, yielding even more unreliable accusations.

California has continued this atrocious and inhumane policy, despite the fact that several other states are moving away from it, finding it ineffective in reducing prison violence. Bauer reports that “The rate of violent incidents in California prisons is nearly 20 percent higher than when Pelican Bay opened in 1989.” He also notes that since the 1990s “prison gang violence has escalated dramatically….”

The ACLU calls “long-term SHU confinement” torture, and “Physicians for Human Rights agree. Several groups, says Bauer, have filed a petition with the UN saying the same. At the very least, they say, it’s “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, which is prohibited by international law.”

Bauer explains that a strike last year resulted in CDCR making promises to amend its gang validation policy - the policy that lands inmates in the SHU. But this has amounted to little more than lip service or “on paper” reforms that are supposed to ease up on those who don‘t violate certain rules. In fact, says Bauer, “CDCR is vastly expanding what counts as rule violations,” planning to add the same criteria its been using to throw inmates into the SHU attempts -  things like reading the wrong books, keeping the wrong company and believing the wrong beliefs - to its list of current serious violations like assaults, drug use and escape attempts.

CDCR should not be allowed to get away with such dirty tricks. Despite its promises, this prison system has not rehabilitated itself. It seems clear, if not stopped, it will continue throwing inmates into the SHU indefinitely and for no good reason.

The SHU is torture, cruel and unusual punishment; it’s a violation of rights and it doesn’t work. And it costs taxpayers an additional $12,000 + per year per inmate.

We request that CDCR end this policy of solitary confinement in SHUs at once.

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