Just imagine what it’s like to be entombed day and night in a 7 ½ by 12 foot cement box commonly known as solitary confinement. In spite of the fact that the California prison Hunger Strike has been in effect since July 8th and has been covered by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and NBC to name just a few national media outlets, the protest by these inmates is falling on deaf ears in Sacramento.
Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has aggressively fought several federal court orders in the last two years since the United States Supreme Court ruled that conditions and overcrowding in the California prison system amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment — cruel and unusual punishment. Since then, federal judges overseeing the case have repeatedly declared that the state was not making changes quickly enough, and that conditions in the prisons remained appalling — that the state had been “deliberately indifferent.”
Jeffry Beard, the State Corrections commissioner said that the hunger strike is simply a sign of how powerful the prison gangs are and dismissed the notion that it indicates deeper problems. Small wonder that Federal Judge Karlton wrote that the California state prison officials “have simply divorced themselves from reality.”
It’s easy to blame the victims for speaking out and then targeting them as gang members when most prisoners have no other recourse to protest cancelled rehabilitation programs, overcrowding, inadequate mental health care and poor food. I know two men who have served time in solitary (one is still serving), one for the humane act of standing up for his friend who he thought was being targeted by prison guards unfairly. Neither men are gang members.
Yet the hunger strike is being distorted by prison officials as a protest only by gang members. This is aimed at creating a powerful image in the public’s mind: scary, tattooed muscle-bound gang members. As you have probably read, the way for an inmate to get out of solitary is to “debrief” or snitch on another inmate. So the lesson is, it’s okay to turn on another inmate to buy your freedom but not okay if you stand up for what you think is right. What kind of insanity is that?
In today’s New York Times, Jesse Wegman writes: “States that have recently reduced or nearly eliminated the use of solitary—from Mississippi to Ohio to Maine—have found it is possible to maintain safety and control in prisons while respecting basic human dignity. There is a difference, after all, between punishment and torture. Prisoners shouldn’t have to starve themselves for us to see that.”
Maybe Mr. Beard and Governor Brown should spend some time in solitary themselves or at least in double bunks in one of the overcrowded dorms they claim do not exist.