California hearings on prison torture

From the new March-April 2013 issue of News & Letters:

California hearings on prison torture

Sacramento, Calif.–On Feb. 25, around 100 people, mostly family members of prisoners organized as California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), gathered on the state capitol steps. They shared their stories before a historic second legislative hearing on California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDC) policies regarding prisoners held in the Security Housing Units (SHUs). An estimated 5,000 prisoners are tortured in California by being subjected to extended solitary confinement, 2,400 of them for indeterminate time.

Following the prisoners’ hunger strikes in July and Sept.-Oct. 2011, CDC proposed revisions to its policies. The proposed revisions do not address any of the prisoners’ demands and in fact codify practices that are totally unacceptable. The prisoners, who have been promised that their demands will be met, have rejected CDC’s proposal and are planning another hunger strike for July 8.

For many people the rally was their first action. They spoke from the heart. Dolores Canales said, “My life changed on July 1, 2011, when the SHU prisoners went on hunger strike. I knew my son had spent a decade in solitary confinement. I knew my son was unjustly held in isolation. I knew this, and I didn’t give it a second thought. Now, I cannot stop thinking about it.

“The National Institutes of Health and federal law prohibit research chimpanzees to be held in solitary confinement. It is seen as detrimental to their mental and physical health as they are social animals. Chimpanzees must be able to see and hear other chimps, they must be able to touch each other as well.

“Chimpanzees are seen as social beings. What are human beings? Human beings that are being deprived of human contact, human beings that are being deprived of natural sunlight. Why is there no law to protect my son, your husband, your father, your brother, your sister and your loved one? We are demanding that they enact such a law in the United States of America!”

Another family member read a letter from a loved one in the SHU: “CDC refuses to change. How many others will be destroyed by this failed system? For human beings to decide to starve themselves to death speaks volumes to the conditions here in the SHU.”

Another mother said: “When I go visit my son, I see others who have been in there for 10, 20, 30, some over 40 years. It breaks my heart. What does that say about the future of my son, who has been there for ‘only’ four years? What do I have to look forward to? What does his son have to look forward to? He has not been able to touch his son since he was three years old! It devastates everybody. We have to stand up and make changes so that families can be reunited, so we can touch them, so they can be treated as human beings.

“I lay awake at night thinking of how my child is suffering. None of us should have to worry about the mental condition of our loved ones. None of us should have to worry about their physical condition. They have not harmed anyone, have not stabbed anyone. A prisoner who actually assaults a guard gets 18 months to two years in the SHU and then he is out.

“We’re not here to make CDC lose face. We just want you to do the basic human, moral thing.”

Hugo Pinell, 42 years in solitary, sent a statement written in February: “In 1967, when I joined the liberation movement in San Quentin, one of the goals was to build a new man, the way Brother Malcolm X showed we could…We don’t know how long it will take to create that new, beautiful world. It might take generations. But if we continually work at it and try to create the new man in ourselves, we can achieve a personal freedom. I go through different changes to stay human for I will never get used to isolation and deprivation.”

After the rally, we filed into the hearing room, refuting CDC’s lies about their new program. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano opened the hearing by saying he was humbled that CFASC members held bake sales to raise money to make the trip. He ended the hearing by acknowledging that this is a “populist” issue larger than any hearing.

The following day, CFASC lobbied for ending solitary confinement. It was surprising how many legislators watched the televised hearing. One senator said “they have never” seen a hearing like this one and “it was the talk of the offices,” “a lot of light was shed.”

–Urszula Wislanka

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