Amnesty International Denounces Torture in California
--An interview with Tessa Murphy
By Angola 3 News
“California Department of Corrections/PBSP-SHU policies and
practices, have violated our human rights and subjected us to torture – for the
purpose of coercing inmates into becoming informants against other inmates,
etc., for the state,” writes one prisoner held in solitary at California’s
infamous supermax Pelican Bay State Prison. This excerpt of his letter to the
internationally renowned human rights organization, Amnesty International, is
featured in Amnesty’s new report on the use of prolonged solitary confinement
inside California’s ‘Security Housing Units’ (SHUs), entitled The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.
The Amnesty report states that “no other US state is
believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite
isolation.” At least 3,000 California prisoners are being held today in an
extreme form of solitary confinement known as “super maximum” custody.
Furthermore, the CDCR reported in 2011 that over 500 prisoners had spent over
ten years in the Pelican Bay SHU, with 78 having spent over 20 years there. Explaining
the recent emergence of SHUs, Amnesty writes that “California was at the
forefront of moves to toughen penalties, and its prison population escalated
during the 1980s and 1990s following the introduction of some of the nation’s
harshest sentencing laws. Once a leader in the philosophy of rehabilitation,
California also passed legislation which expressly described punishment rather
than rehabilitation as the central aim of imprisonment. Pelican Bay SHU, which
opened in 1989, was one of the first super-maximum security facilities
specifically designed to be ‘non- programming,’ that is, constructed with no
communal space for recreation, education or any other group activity.”
In the Summer of 2011, prisoners held inside the Pelican Bay
SHU initiated a multi-racial hunger strike that began on July 1 and spread
throughout California’s prisons. While the Pelican Bay strikers declared victory on July 20, other prisoners around the states continued for
up to several weeks longer. The California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that at least 6,600 prisoners in at least one
third of California’s 33 prisons participated in the hunger strike. Ending the
use of prolonged solitary confinement was one of the strike’s five core demands.
“Following concern among prisoners about what they perceived
as a lack of progress in implementing changes, the hunger strike resumed briefly in
late September 2011, but was called off after meetings between prisoner representatives
and CDCR and further assurances that CDCR would institute changes. While no
disciplinary action had been taken against the first hunger strikers, the
second hunger strike was treated by CDCR as a major rule violation and some
prisoners were punished by having their property and canteen privileges
confiscated. Fifteen of the strike leaders were reportedly moved to harsh
conditions in administrative segregation cells for a short period,” writes
Amnesty International in their new report.
The CDCR has responded to the striking prisoners’ demands
with their own proposals. Amnesty critiques the CDCR’s proposed reforms,
arguing that “the reforms do not go far enough. There are continuing concerns
about both the fairness of the procedures for assigning prisoners to what could
still be indefinite SHU terms, and about the length of time in which prisoners
will remain in solitary confinement…. While measures to reduce the number of
prisoners held in security housing units are a positive step, in Amnesty
International’s view the proposals should ensure that only prisoners who
present a clear and present threat, who cannot be safely housed in a less
secure setting are assigned to the SHU. Given the serious consequences of SHU
confinement, the authorities should ensure that STG [Security Threat Group]
validations are based on a thorough and impartial investigation, and only with
concrete evidence of gang-related activity posing such a clear and present
threat; that prisoners have a fair opportunity to contest the evidence; and
that such decisions are subject to regular, meaningful review.”
When these concerns were raised “during Amnesty
International’s meetings with CDCR staff in November 2011, the department
stressed that there were inmates in the SHU with serious gang connections, but
acknowledged that they ‘over-validated’ and that there were prisoners in the
SHU who did not warrant such a restrictive level of housing. CDCR also
acknowledged that there were people assigned to the SHU as gang associates who
had no direct role in gang activity. CDCR stated that the reforms under
consideration were aimed at making the system fairer as well as targeting
resources more effectively, taking into account the high cost of SHU
confinement and the need to manage a tight budget. Amnesty International was
told that the process would ultimately reduce the SHU population to ensure that
only prisoners who could not be safely housed in a less secure setting would be
assigned to the SHU.”
The bottom line of this important new report: “Amnesty
International considers that the conditions of isolation and other deprivations
imposed on prisoners in California’s SHU units breach international standards
on humane treatment, and that prolonged or indefinite isolation, and the severe
social and environmental deprivation existing in Pelican Bay SHU in particular,
constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of
Unfortunately, getting the US to respect international law
is not as clear-cut as the act of documenting human rights violations. Notably,
The Edge of Endurance explains: “The USA
has sought to limit the application of international human rights law in its
conduct by entering reservations to article 7 of the ICCPR [International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and article 16 of the Convention
against Torture as a condition of ratifying the treaties. The reservations
state that the US considers itself bound by the articles only to the extent
that ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the ‘cruel and
unusual treatment or punishment’ prohibited under the US Constitution. Amnesty
International has repeatedly called on the USA to withdraw its reservations as
defeating the object and purpose of the treaties in question and therefore
incompatible with international law.”
Last week, on October 10, following a public call to end racial hostilities among California prisoners, another hunger strike was initiated at Pelican Bay, with 500 prisoners statewide participating, according to the CDCR.
Tessa Murphy is the campaigner for
the USA team at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. She has
provided the research for and worked on Amnesty's reports on supermax prisons
and solitary confinement through her visits to a number of prisons, including
the recent visit to California SHUs as part of the team that published the
report cited above, entitled The Edge of
Endurance. She also authored Amnesty's special report on the Angola 3,
entitled USA: 100 years in solitary: ‘The Angola 3’ and their fight for justice.
our introduction to this interview, we cite several key aspects of the recent
Amnesty International report about SHUs in California. As someone who visited
these prisons as part of the Amnesty delegation, what did you learn about them
first hand that perhaps can’t be conveyed in a written report? What did the SHUs
TM: It is hard to convey the sense of
desolation in the SHU's. From the moment you step foot in the SHU, the senses
are assailed by artificial lights, stale air and muted silence.
Off long drab corridors, prisoners are isolated from each
other in pods of eight cells; these pods are self-contained with a shower and
recreation yard, so that, with few exceptions, they rarely leave the pod.
This bleak environment of tiny windowless cells where little
natural light infiltrates, few personal possessions, no programming to offset
the boredom, out of cell time in ‘outdoor’ yard with a view of a patch of sky,
minimum human contact, and a view out of the cell of a dirty white wall is the
totality of the prisoners' world.
of the prisoners themselves are featured throughout your report. When it came
to deciding which topics to focus on in your report, to what extent were you
influenced by the striking Pelican Bay prisoners?
TM: AI's report on California is part of a
body of work on conditions in prison isolation units in the USA; including
Arizona, and Texas as being of particular concern. When we began our research into
conditions in California’s SHUs, a number of issues became apparent very
quickly; First that there were a large number of inmates who had been held in
the SHU for very long periods of time, secondly, that the majority of inmates
in the SHU were being placed there for alleged gang affiliation/membership,
thirdly, that there was no step-down system to allow these individuals to
transition out of the SHU, and fourthly that physical conditions, particularly
in Pelican Bay, were very harsh. Based on this initial research, the organization
requested access to California SHU units before the prisoners initiated the
When the strike began, we were contacted by members of the
mediation group who made us aware of the prisoners’ demands. During the course
of researching the report, we were in close contact with the mediation team, as
well as families and friends of inmates held in the SHUs, as well as with
lawyers, as well as state employees, including legislators as well as grass
roots groups. Of course, we also sought information from CDCR.
Amnesty report states that “the growth of super-maximum security facilities has
been linked to the huge rise in the numbers of people incarcerated in the USA
from the late 1970s onwards, together with a shift away from rehabilitation as
a goal of imprisonment to more emphasis on punishment and control.” Can you say more about how mass
incarceration and prolonged solitary confinement relate to each other? Why did
they rise together?
TM: The prison population in the USA has
quadrupled since 1980; this has come about due not to rising crime but to
harsher sentencing policies that emanated out of a "get tough on
crime" attitude pervasive in the 90's, such as three-strikes law, truth in
sentencing laws, as well as mandatory minimums.
Supermaximum prisons were borne out of this need by elected
officials need to be seen to be tough on crime, as well as to respond to the
needs of an increasingly overcrowded prison system. The first such prison to be
built, designed with social and environment deprivation inbuilt was SMU 1 in
Eyman State prison in Arizona, this was the prototype for Pelican Bay Prison,
built in 1989. Many states followed in building their own supermax prison, and
many retrofitted current prisons to supermax criteria of holding prisoners in
isolation with minimum social interaction for prolonged periods.
States rationalized the building of these prisons with the
argument that only by the large scale isolation of the "worst of the
worst" prisoners, could violence be controlled throughout the prison
system. However, studies have shown that predatory violent prisoners are but a
small proportion of those held in isolation, which is replete with individuals
with mental illness, persistent rule breakers and those alleged to be in a
over 2.4 million prisoners today, the US now has the most total prisoners and
the highest incarceration rate in the world. Much of the world has rightly
condemned the US for the well-documented torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and
Guantanamo, but what do you think the state of human rights inside prisons
within US borders says about the US?
TM: The US does have the highest incarceration
rate of any country in the world. It also is the only country that uses
prolonged isolation as a routine prison management tool in prisons built for
this purpose. This reliance on long term isolation has profound consequences;
first, it costs significantly more to house a prisoner in isolation than it
does to house them in general population; secondly, the focus on punishment,
rather than rehabilitation, that forms the backbone of this prison tool, has
severely negative consequences on the prisoner—from mental and physical health,
to their success in positively reintegrating back into society. So the costs on
society are huge in both financial and other terms.
The conditions and policies of supermax prisons that affect
over 30,000 prisoners across the country, falls short of international laws and
treaties governing the humane treatment of prisoners, to which the US is a
party. This casts a large shadow over any claim by the US administration that
it is a champion of human rights.
A3N: In two previous interviews (1,2) we covered the case before the European
Court of Human Rights, of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom. Recently
the Court ruled against the co-appellants, who are fighting extradition to the
US on grounds that the US tortures prisoners, which writer Chris Hedges has argued, “removes one of the last external checks on our emerging gulag
state.” What do you think is the significance of
this Court ruling for the US, Europe, and beyond?
TM: Although the ruling denied the appeal, it
conceded that there were circumstances in which prolonged incarceration in ADX
could amount to a breach of Article 3. It accepted that there were sufficient
safeguards in these particular cases on the basis of information provided the
US government while largely disregarding the submissions provided by the
lawyers for the applicants. We will be following the actual conditions under
which these prisoners are held post-extradition. See this link to the statement AI issued last week.
In terms of the ruling having broader consequences for other
cases, each new case that comes before the court will need to be examined on
its specific facts and evidence. When it comes to obligation of non refoulement
(no transfer to risk of human rights violations of different kinds) a large
part of the analysis in each case is highly specific to the evidence in the particular
to another campaign you’ve worked on, why is Amnesty International calling for
the release of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace of the Angola 3 from solitary
TM: Amnesty has been working on the case of the
A3 for over a decade; however it became a priority case in recent years when
the focus of our work shifted to the issue of long term isolation in US
prisons. Our support for the case rests on a number of issues: first that they
have been held for such a long period in conditions of deprivation; that the
process for reviewing their placement in these conditions is no more than a
rubber stamping exercise by prison authorities; that serious questions exist
about the legitimacy of the legal process - including the evidence used to
convict them, the lack of DNA evidence to link them to the crime; and that
their political beliefs may in part be responsible for their continued
placement in solitary, and even for the charges originally brought against
Both men are in their late sixties, the decades of
incarceration has debilitated them physically, they have no disciplinary
violations, they have never demonstrated that they are a threat to the safety
of the prison – or to others, or themselves (and this was confirmed by prison
mental health staff). Do they conform to the definition of the “worst of the
worst” predatory inmates for whom prolonged detention in solitary confinement
is the only administrative option? No, far from it, and yet there they remain
after 40 years.
did Amnesty’s choose the title for the video-interview with Robert King, Slavery Still Reigns in US Prisons?
TM: The title comes from a quote by Robert
that despite the abolition of slavery in the USA, the 13th Amendment legalizes
slavery in US prisons.
you surprised that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal refused to meet with the
Amnesty International delegation that hand-delivered a 67,000 signature
petition to his office on April 17, 2012?
TM: No, we weren’t surprised that he didn’t
meet with the delegation as he hasn’t engaged at all with AI on this case. In
July 2011, we wrote to him asking that we meet to discuss the case at the
soonest possible opportunity. He chose not to respond.
responded to Gov. Jindal by launching a newer petition targeting James M.
LeBlanc, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and
Corrections. What was your strategic thinking behind targeting the Dept of
TM: Over the years, a number of statements
have been made by authorities involved in this case that are not supported by
evidence. This includes statements by Attorney General James Caldwell that
Albert Woodfox is “the most dangerous man on the planet” as well as being a
violent rapist. Albert’s prison conduct does not support Caldwell’s first statement,
and Albert has never been charged with – let alone convicted of rape. And yet,
Caldwell is not held to account for such assertions.
We decided to target James le Blanc because he issued a
statement on the anniversary of Albert and Herman’s 40th year of incarceration,
that they were being held separately from other prisoners to protect prison
employees, other inmates and visitors. Yet neither man has had any serious
prison infraction for decades, and the prison’s own mental health records
indicate that neither man pose a threat to themselves or to others. So, we
decided to hold Secretary Le Blanc to account, and ask him for the evidence
behind this claim.
--To begin rectifying
these human rights abuses, Amnesty is urging California authorities to:
- Limit the use of isolation
units so that is it imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners
whose behaviour constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of
- Improve conditions for all
prisoners held in isolation units, including better exercise provision and
an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even at the most
restrictive custody levels.
- Allow prisoners in isolation
units to make regular phone calls to their families.
- Reduce the length of the Step
Down Program and providing meaningful access to programs where prisoners
have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at
an earlier stage.
- Immediate removal from
isolation of prisoners who have already spent years in those units.
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