Anthony Arteaga, a prisoner being held in the Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison, sent us an essay he wrote about the history of solitary confinement in California. In his words:
“Having been slammed down in the SHU since 2001, for an indeterminate period, I’ve constructed this writing based on personal experience and studies. I’ve also utilized PHSS, the Rock, The Abolitionist, MIM and PLN as resources for factual assertions… Thank you for the support.”
Anthony also asked us to publish his name and address, which is at the bottom of this page. The article is typed as written. Please take time for a thorough read through!
Solitary Confinement In California
In the 1970s there was a general tendency to regard the basic aim of imprisonment as rehabilitation of the criminal rather than as punishment. In addition, federal courts – often as a result of prisoners acting as their own lawyers – began to recognize for the first time that prisoners had constitutional rights: Most notably, the right to due process prior to discipline, any sanctions, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment in the form of deplorable prison conditions.
This of course didn’t last. Before long the emphasis on prisoners’ rights and prison reform, distinguishably trail blazed by the events at Attica State Prison in New York, followed by several other less publicized prison uprisings and riots of the same agenda, began to evaporate in the face of the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” crusades.
By the mid-1970’s, a series of decisions by the US Supreme Court, gutted the protections earlier envisioned as guarantees of prisoners’ well-being and dignity. Rather than to continue implementing programs of rehabilitation, prisoncrats throughout the country began to develop special solitary confinement units (control/Security Housing Units/etc).
One of the very first of these units to be built was at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois. Here, men were being confined to tiny cells the size of a parking space for 23 to 24 hours a day. Solitary confinement units have always been part of the prison environment. In some cases it has been used to place prisoners in protective custody, when either the prisoner or prison staff believed that a life threatening situation existed. And of course, solitary confinement has traditionally been used as a disciplinary measure to punish infractions of prison rules.
However, the idea of these control/SHU’s was very different; namely, that certain prisoners had to be permanently separated from the general population due to their supposed influence over other prisoners. In essence, they were now being subjugated to prolonged isolation for indefinite periods; whereby being relegated to the status of incorrigible specimens who can only be governed, controlled, conditioned and suppressed to dehumanizing submission. In simple terms, to break a man’s spirit.
This idea soon caught on and isolation units were being established everywhere, and not long before they were being specially constructed into new prisons.
For over 25 years here in California, the Department of Corrections (CDCR) has had a policy of removing prisoners from the general population, validating them as either prison gang members or associates, and indefinitely confining them to said types of isolation units. And just like other political figures, prison officials used propaganda about the supposed menace of these prison gangs, and the difficulties and dangers of dealing with them, to encourage and maintain public indifference to what prisoners were actually going through on the inside.
In the 1980’s, under the above guise, most of these men were placed at either, Duel Vocational Institute (Tracy), [old] Folsom, San Quentin and Soledad Correctional Training Facility, where over one fifth of the general population at these institutions were housed in each of its segregated lockup units.
Ultimately falling in line with the trends of the time, California opened up three maximum-Security Housing Units of its own at Tehachapi, Corcoran and Pelican Bay. Most recently, a fourth SHU opened up at [old] Folsom, where approximately 4,000 men, combined, have now been housed for up to 5, 10, 20 and even over 30 years.
These SHU’s are literally human warehouses saturated by recycled air and blight monotony. Both days and nights are cloaked with the eerie sense of history slowly repeating itself. Specifically that of the 16th – 19th centuries, where the indigenous populations of the Americas were gradually being eradicated by its oppressors. Only difference here is committing the actual deed itself, and the name it’s being done under: “safety and security” – both of which resemble “Liberty” in that many crimes are committed in its name.
By 1997, 45 states and the District of Columbia, as well as the federal system, were operating these types of units, with California holding the most prisoners within them than any other US state or nation. This fact continues to grow at an alarming rate.
The majority of California prisoners serving indeterminate SHU terms are the result of these pseudo-prison gang validations. Gang policies to which civil rights lawyers have long been critical of. The procedures used to identify gang affiliates are severely flawed and lacking in meaningful due process protections. Evidence used in these proceedings would never satisfy the “preponderance of the evidence” requirement of a normal legal proceeding. But because of the US Supreme Court decision in Superintendent v. Hill (1985) holding that the due process clause requires only the existence of “some evidence” in support of a decision to segregate an inmate, the court gave prison administrators more arbitrary powers and discretion over prisoners’ daily lives. This naturally leading to shrinking further and further the process of any accountability for, or recourse from, the many perverse ways they’ve come to abuse that power.
Under current policy, validated prisoners are not allowed to confront their accusers (or even to know who they are), nor are they allowed to cross-examine witnesses, present their own evidence or prove their case before a panel of neutral decision-makers. You’re basically guilty, and there’s no “until proven innocent”.
In 1999, after many individual petitions and class action suits brought before both state and federal courts challenging these policies, and inhumane SHU conditions, the six year “active/inactive gang status review” was implemented. A policy requiring a validated inmate to remain free of any and all gang related activity and association for no period less than six years, in order to be considered (and rarely granted) general population release.
A policy and process just as flawed as ones initial gang validation, because the crux of it is, gang activity is whatever these alleged gang intelligence experts choose to deem as gang related, without being afforded a meaningful opportunity of contesting them.
The procedural due process currently in place consists of being reviewed every 180 days and annually. However, these reviews are largely meaningless gestures and shams of proceedings in light of the fact that, one first has to complete the minimal six year requisite.
Since the late 1990’s to present, it’s evident that inmates are not being validated to restore order or to maintain security, but maliciously for the purpose of causing pain and inflicting punishment in an attempt to break a man’s spirit. Equally evident is the fact that, despite the creation of California SHU’s, prison violence in the general population setting is far more violent now than it was over 25 years ago.
Said California prison gang validations have become a pretext to indefinitely confine its inmates to these SHUs at the expense of their well-being, and its only real escape coming in one of three ways… An individual can either choose to “debrief” – that is, to tell gang investigators everything they know about who’s involved in gang activity both inside and outside of the prison system, including crimes in which they’ve committed themselves; “parole” or “die”. “Snitch, parole or die”, as the policy is more commonly known by.
Mental deterioration runs rampant and silent within the confines of these SHU’s. In fact, social science and clinical literature has consistently reported that, men are social animals, and when human beings are subjected to social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation, their lives both internally and externally is disrupted, inevitably leading to the development of a predictable group of symptoms, e.g. anxiety, frustration, dejections, boredom, abandonment, paranoia, rumination and severe depression. Facts supported by an ample and growing body of evidence that this phenomenon especially occurs among prisoners in solitary confinement… persons who are by definition subjected to a significant degree of social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation.
In 2011, after endless years of withstanding such psychological torture, a collective group of men confined to Pelican Bay SHU initiated two separate state-wide hunger strikes, during the months of July and September. These protests were aimed towards contesting the inhumane conditions indefinite SHU confinement inmates have been subjugated to. This collective group compiled a list of five demands for CDCR officials. Those demands were:
1. End group punishment and administrative abuse;
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify the active/inactive gang status review criteria;
3. Comply with the commission of safety and abuse in America’s prisons 2006 recommendations regarding ending long-term solitary confinement;
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food; and
5. Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for prisoners held in indeterminate SHU status.
In October of 2011, in response to said hunger strikes, CDCR officials outlined changes that would be made in the SHU program. And in March of 2012, released new proposed gang management policies. Under the new policies however, accused gang members can still be segregated indefinitely, SHU conditions remain largely the same, and other changes are mere window-dressing. Overall, CDCR’s proposal shows that they will continue to resist both change and accountability.
The month of March was also significant with Juan Mendez, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (followed by California prisoner and their advocates), petitioning the UN to end lengthy solitary confinement in prisons. Expressing that it would inevitably result in serious mental and physical damage amounting to torture.
So what lies ahead… A united group of human beings determined to bring about actual SHU reform, and regaining the right to being treated humanely. This comes with the knowledge that, the oppressing power in opposition to such changes, will concede to nothing absent a committed struggle and demand… A struggle and demand that will come at a cost, but a cost to which strength to live and reasons for acting should continue to be drawn from.
Anthony Arteaga #K48159
Csp. Corcoran SHU 4B3R #48
PO Box 3481
Corcoran, CA 93212