When Did We Lose Our Humanity?

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System7 Comments

Prisoner in solitary confinement

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.

7 Comments on “When Did We Lose Our Humanity?”

  1. Hi Maureen-
    I did read the NY Times article–I do not know what to add at this point–it is all so awful and I do not understand why more isn’t being done–being kind to humanity does seem as if it has disappeared–I am sad about all of this.


  2. I think this is very important information to get out to the general public. An on-line petition might work as well as letters to our senators. People don’t realize that a lot of the prisoners are just regular people that have made a mistake, they are not all “bad” people that committed horrible crimes. We know a very nice, generous prisoner that is currently in solitary confinement for a stupid reason, nothing violent, nothing gang-related. Unfortunately he was almost ready to be released from prison, and now who knows when he will be released, they’ve had him “in the hole” for the past 6 months. I hope this issue gets more media attention in the future so that there is some change in our prison system. I also hear stories that the guards are committing crimes (for example stealing from the prisoners) and yet they don’t ever get punished for their actions. The whole system needs a big overhaul and Jerry Brown needs to spend a few days talking to actual prisoners to see what it’s like in there.

  3. I am just starting to read your story, I would love to recommend a book if you haven’t read it called Dual Diagnosis by Dr. Dennis Ortman, out of Michigan. He is a practicing psychologist who has written this book to help people who have or know someone with dual diagnosis’ like your son. I found your blog through Amy Friedman, I am board president of ACWIP,net. It is a prison reform group for women who have been in prison and now outside. I am so aorry for all your struggles and hope your son and you find some peace.

    1. This cruelty makes my blood boil. How do we get the general public involved so that Brown and company will pay attention? It seems that the inmates do not carry enough clout after such a widespread hunger strike. The voters need to let Brown know how he is being perceived by people who believe wholeheartedly in the 8th amendment. Shame on those who wield such meanspirited power over the incarcerated.
      Thank you, Maureen, for writing about this important issue.

      1. One way of getting the general public involved is to write your CA Assemblywoman and CA State senator. I don’t think either Senator Diane Feinstein or Senator Barbara Boxer have weighed in on the issue of overcrowding in the CA prisons or about solitary confinement.There have been psychological studies demonstrating the severe damage caused by long-term solitary confinement. In fact, a 2011 UN report said the practice can amount to torture and called for a ban on terms longer than 15 days. In the US there are an estimated 25,000 prisoners in long term solitary in supermax prisons; in California, the average stay is nearly 7 years.

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