The suit—filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, California Prison Focus, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and other groups—seeks to represent all 500 prisoners held for 10 years or more in the solitary unit.
The suit notes that in face of the inhumane conditions in solitary “prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU, as well as thousands of others incarcerated in facilities across the country, have engaged in two recent sustained hunger strikes.”
The prisoners listed in the suit include some who served as negotiators for the hunger strikers with state officials.
Confinement to SHU units is carried out at the arbitrary whim of prison officials and most commonly based on allegations of gang association. Allegations that land you in the SHU can be reviewed every six years. In the meantime, being designated for solitary confinement disqualifies prisoners who would otherwise be eligible for parole.
On March 20 the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and other groups, including some who joined the lawsuit, filed a petition with the United Nations asking it “to intervene by conducting on-site investigations, permitting Red Cross visits, and ultimately ruling that California’s policy on isolated segregation amounts to torture and violates well-established international human rights norms.”
“California holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other state in the United States or any other nation on earth,” Peter Schey, who heads the center and filed the petition, told the Militant.
The expanded use of solitary confinement—estimates go as high as 100,000 people in solitary today—rose simultaneously with the explosion over the past three decades in the number of working people, disproportionately African-American, incarcerated in the U.S. There are some 2.3 million in prison today.
“The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population,” Atul Gawande wrote in the New Yorker magazine in 2009, “twenty-five percent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.
“By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country,” Gawande adds.
Prison authorities use gangs and corruption to turn prisoners against each other, to reinforce the worst dog-eat-dog values of bourgeois society, to segregate and pit workers against each other, to debase and demoralize them.
Part and parcel of these anti-working-class prison methods in a growing number of facilities like Pelican Bay is the frame-up and snitch system where a combination of accusations from prisoner finks and prison officials’ arbitrary and subjective whims put inmates in solitary confinement—especially if they are political and stand for workers’ dignity inside or outside prison walls. Often the only way out of the torturous solitary condition is to debase yourself and “snitch” on others, accusing them of “gang affiliation” or some other official offense.
Over the past year there have been rolling prisoner protests over solitary conditions, from thousands in the SHU units in California in 2011 to recent hunger strikes at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia and the Communication Management Unit in Marion, Ill. And most recently, according to a letter printed in this week’s issue of the Militant, in Pontiac, Ill.
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