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July 18, 2011

"Barbarous Confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this new op-ed in the New York Times. Here are excerpts:

More than 1,700 prisoners in California, many of whom are in maximum isolation units, have gone on a hunger strike.  The protest began with inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison.  How they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone’s guess — but their protest is everyone’s concern.  Many of these prisoners have been sent to virtually total isolation and enforced idleness for no crime, not even for alleged infractions of prison regulations.  Their isolation, which can last for decades, is often not explicitly disciplinary, and therefore not subject to court oversight.  Their treatment is simply a matter of administrative convenience.

Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention.  The Supreme Court, over the last two decades, has whittled steadily away at the rights of inmates, surrendering to prison administrators virtually all control over what is done to those held in “administrative segregation.”  Since it is not defined as punishment for a crime, it does not fall under “cruel and unusual punishment,” the reasoning goes....

Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, claim that those incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit are “the worst of the worst.”  Yet often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation. Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and, most of all, alleged gang members.  Often, the decisions are not based on evidence.  And before the inmates are released from the barbarity of 22-hour-a-day isolation into normal prison conditions (themselves shameful) they are often expected to “debrief,” or spill the beans on other gang members....

Hunger strikes are the only weapon these prisoners have left.  Legal avenues are closed. Communication with the outside world, even with family members, is so restricted as to be meaningless.  Possessions — paper and pencil, reading matter, photos of family members, even hand-drawn pictures — are removed.  (They could contain coded messages between gang members, we are told, or their loss may persuade the inmates to snitch when every other deprivation has failed.)...

Do we find our ethics by forcing prisoners to live in what Judge Henderson described as the setting of “senseless suffering” and “wretched misery”?  Maybe our reaction to hunger strikes should involve some self-reflection.  Not allowing inmates to choose death as an escape from a murderous fate or as a protest against continued degradation depends, as we will see when doctors come to make their judgment calls, on the skilled manipulation of techniques that are indistinguishable from torture.  Maybe one way to react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to death might be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings.

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What a load of crap.

The author states: "More than 1,700 prisoners in California, many of whom are in maximum isolation units, have gone on a hunger strike."

The author uses this as evidence that these inmates are being mistreated rather than simply angry because they are incarcerated against their will. I have seen "hunger strikes" because inmates did not want to work in what they called "slave labor" for 6 hours per day.

He states: "How they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone’s guess..."

No, no guess is needed by anyone who actually has a modicum of common sense or experience. It is called a "kite" and anyone without this basic knowledge should have the humility not to write such an article.

He states: "Many of these prisoners have been sent to virtually total isolation and enforced idleness for no crime, not even for alleged infractions of prison regulations. Their isolation, which can last for decades, is often not explicitly disciplinary, and therefore not subject to court oversight. Their treatment is simply a matter of administrative convenience."

Sure, convenience. They are just a bunch of good guys with no reason whatsoever for being placed in adseg. There are several reasons for being placed in adseg, here are a couple of main ones. 1) The inmate is in threat of injury. It is often used as a form of involuntary protective custody because some people would rather fight to the death in the yard than be protected. 2) To protect others. 3) He is a gang leader. Not only will he be a target but he will run the prison gang (and even outside criminal enterprise) if in general population.

I guarantee that these are some very bad people and great bloodshed would result from their release into the GP. Then, the same vulture attorneys would be suing because the state failed to protect the same inmates.

Author stated: "Maybe one way to react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to death might be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings."

Starve themselves to death? Please, none will starve to death. In fact, the previous articles were very careful to say that the inmates were refusing state issued food. In other words, an overwhelming majority are doing just fine eating the food they bought from commissary.

Perhaps he should get a couple of them released on parole in his own care and treat them like "human beings" at his house.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 18, 2011 12:21:16 PM

TarlsQtr:

---From here at a county pen in NY--- You are spot on! We could defend each-&-every-1 of our decisions to Ad Seg. Every single one is documented; each has a sound basis.

Clearly, such advocacy journalism means 'never having to say you're sorry for prostituting the truth.'

Posted by: adamakis | Jul 18, 2011 3:58:45 PM

What credibility should we ascribe to a Professor of English at Vanderbilt University who has likely never visited the prison in the first instance?

Posted by: mjs | Jul 18, 2011 5:29:41 PM

Unfortunately, this did not stop the increasingly infirm Gray Lady from lavishing him with a prime op-ed forum.

Posted by: mjs | Jul 18, 2011 5:31:54 PM

Solitary confinement is among the cruelest forms of torture in the world today. Sensory & social deprivation can quickly drive many normal people to the brink of insanity.

@TarIsQtr: I agree with the convicts that getting paid pennies per hour is slave labor. How are inmates expected to buy supplemental canteen food at those wages? I think you go too far when you say that lawyers who defend the untouchables are vultures. From what I've seen, correctional officers have almost no oversight and convicts have almost no means to protest cruelty.

@mjs Professor Dayan has been inside Arizona's version of the Special Management Units which are not notably different than the California units.

Posted by: Hidden | Jul 18, 2011 11:57:22 PM

Hidden stated: "Solitary confinement is among the cruelest forms of torture in the world today. Sensory & social deprivation can quickly drive many normal people to the brink of insanity."

It is no picnic, I'll grant you that. However, I noticed that you have provided no solutions for dealing with the most violent offenders, many of whom will spit, throw urine and feces on, or physically assault other inmates and staff at the drop of a hat. Perhaps we can hug it out of them?

My guess is (correct me if my Carnac hat fell off):

1) You are against the DP.
2) Are against (or at least have deep reservations about)LWOP.
3) Are against solitary confinement.

Please give me YOUR plan for dealing with the additional security concerns brought by the "worst of the worst."

Hidden stated: "I agree with the convicts that getting paid pennies per hour is slave labor. How are inmates expected to buy supplemental canteen food at those wages?"

No, having a job is a critical part of rehabilitation, thus it is as much "therapy" as sitting in front of counselors. In addition, their "pay" is the three hots and a cot they are absorbing from the state's taxpayers. If anything, taxpayers are THEIR "slaves."

And, those poor inmates that cannot "buy supplemental canteen food at those wages." Woe is them. They are provided, at the expense of the taxpayer, three meals a day that meet all nutritional requirements. If they want more, family is allowed to put money into their commissary account or send in care packages.

Hidden stated: "I think you go too far when you say that lawyers who defend the untouchables are vultures. From what I've seen, correctional officers have almost no oversight and convicts have almost no means to protest cruelty."

Not accurate at all. Most states, if not all, have an extensive and (for the most part) legitimate grievance procedure. And, no, I have no issue with legitimate lawsuits. However, my experience is that 95% + are frivolous. One such example is when we had a lockdown at a maximum security facility where I worked and civilian staff had to make the sandwiches for lunch. Due to previous litigation, we were informed that we could NOT give an inmate a sandwich that contained the end of the loaf (crust). Again, those poor, suffering souls.

And just a hunch, but what you have "seen" regarding CO oversight is likely a lot more from Oz and Prison Break than the real thing.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 19, 2011 12:02:43 PM

Thanks, adamakis.

People seem to believe that prison/jail administrations go out of their way to abuse inmates. My experience is that they make a good faith effort to do the right thing when placing an inmate in adseg. It would be nice to have the ability to judge their decisions in retrospect like we do here, but it is a luxury they do not have.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 19, 2011 12:06:12 PM

"What credibility should we ascribe to a Professor of English at Vanderbilt University who has likely never visited the prison in the first instance?"

Yes, the Professor of English at Vanderbilt can only aspire to the credibility of some anonymous dude on the internets.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Jul 19, 2011 12:50:58 PM

"We could defend each-&-every-1 of our decisions to Ad Seg."

Sure you could. Virtually anything can be rationalized...apparently including confinement practices all but certain to drive prisoners insane.

In 1993 I visited an Illinois prison noted for housing dangerous inmates. I spent the day touring cell blocks and visiting with employees and officials. One lasting impression from that day was the civility -- at times even cordiality -- between staff and inmates.

Apparently one thing that's changed since then is the erosion of restraints on officials inclined to adopt sadistic policies cloaked in euphemistic names such as Administrative Segregation.

Posted by: John K | Jul 19, 2011 1:19:28 PM

John K stated: "Sure you could. Virtually anything can be rationalized...apparently including confinement practices all but certain to drive prisoners insane."

Really? Any evidence to support your assertion that solitary confinement is "all but certain" to drive the prisoners insane? Now, if you are stating that these "confinement practices" are all but certain to drive ANY inmate insane, then you might be the one in need of a checkup. If you are claiming that confinement practices will drive SOME inmates insane, that is far more rational but doesn't make much of a point. Even the most gentle incarceration is certain to drive a certain number of prisoners insane.

You state: "In 1993 I visited an Illinois prison noted for housing dangerous inmates. I spent the day touring cell blocks and visiting with employees and officials. One lasting impression from that day was the civility -- at times even cordiality -- between staff and inmates."

What did you expect, Oz? Lockup? 99% of prisoner/staff encounters are just that, civil and cordial. Were then and are now.

You stated: "Apparently one thing that's changed since then is the erosion of restraints on officials inclined to adopt sadistic policies cloaked in euphemistic names such as Administrative Segregation."

AdSeg was not invented in 1994. Just out of curiosity, how would YOU incarcerate and control someone lime Lemuel Smith?

http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/not_guilty/lemuel_smith/index.html

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 19, 2011 2:21:46 PM

Michael Drake:

Predictable that you would attack my comment rather than attempt to defend the ramblings of English Professor who has no knowledge and no business in the minutiae of prison administration.

Posted by: mjs | Jul 19, 2011 7:49:14 PM

Yes, I am against the death penalty because it is very arbitrary in its implementation; some get executed and others don't for doing the same thing. I am against LWOP because it says that a person can make a single wrong choice and never have a chance to do a single useful thing again. I believe that LWOP is actually harsher than the death penalty.

By the way, Florida has the option of charging all of their prisoners $50/day which is roughly equivalent to the cost of their incarceration. So in that case the prisoners aren't costing taxpayers anything.

Posted by: Hidden | Jul 20, 2011 4:57:05 AM

mjs wrote: "...the ramblings of English Professor who has no knowledge and no business in the minutiae of prison administration..."

To paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, mankind -- charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence -- should be everybody's business.

Posted by: John K | Jul 20, 2011 9:25:10 AM

Hidden stated: "Yes, I am against the death penalty because it is very arbitrary in its implementation;..."

No more arbitrary than sentencing to incarceration. Are you for determinate sentencing?

Hidden stated: "...some get executed and others don't for doing the same thing."

No two crimes are alike. And its funny that this argument is only used to weaken sentences. It is always "Felon A cannot get 20 years because Felon B got 15" and is NEVER "Felon A cannot get 15 years because Felon B got 20." This gets to the heart of the REAL issue. It is not about "fairness", it is about watering down punishment to a tepid pablum. When you (you=liberals) cannot even be honest about your true goals, it is a pretty good indicator that they are not commendable.

Hidden stated: "I am against LWOP because it says that a person can make a single wrong choice and never have a chance to do a single useful thing again."

Yep. I should have invested in gold 5 years ago instead of stocks. I should have ordered steak for dinner instead of fish. I should have bought a Ford instead of a Chevy. And, I should have gone to church last night instead of stabbing a 6 year old to death. http://www.uticaod.com/features/x1009559972/Stabbing-reported-in-Sherrill

Sure, there is no difference between these "single wrong choice[s]." (BTW, a "single wrong choice" may be the most vile euphemism for murder I have ever heard.)

And there are a few problems with your weeping about an individual not being able to do "a single useful thing again."

1) They can be useful in prison and I have seen it.
2) Another opportunity to be useful also gives the individual the opportunity to make another "wrong choice."
3) Someone else is likely to be the victim of these additional opportunities to make "wrong choices", not you.

Hidden stated: "I believe that LWOP is actually harsher than the death penalty."

It is nice that you "believe" it to be so. However, I do not hear of too many cases where a convicted killer drops all appeals and asks to expedite the DP. That people in the position to make such a choice are actually choosing to fight the DP is a much better indicator of what is harsher than what you "believe" based on sensationalized TV/movie depictions of prison.

Hidden stated: "By the way, Florida has the option of charging all of their prisoners $50/day which is roughly equivalent to the cost of their incarceration. So in that case the prisoners aren't costing taxpayers anything."

LOL Seriously? You really want to claim that prisoners are not costing the state of Florida anything and that this should be an option in all 50 states? Why not charge $10,000 per day? You have the same chance of collecting that from the average inmate as you do $50.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 20, 2011 9:28:38 AM

TarlsQtr --

I also noticed the "single wrong choice." You really have to wonder why anyone is so completely into excuse-making as to employ a phrase like that for ANYTHING that has a potential LWOP sentence. Like blowing the clerk's head off because she can't open the cash register fast enough is a "single wrong choice"??? Hello!!!

One sure way to spot the winner of a debate is to go with the person who uses normal language and talks in specifics.

Looks like you won.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 20, 2011 12:40:15 PM

Hi Bill.

I would add another point to your thoughts. In the planning, preparation, and execution of a murder that qualifies for LWOP, I would expect that the perpetrator made a lot more "wrong choices" than just one.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 21, 2011 9:09:53 AM

TarIsQtr, only liberals oppose LWOP and the death penalty?

By arbitrary, I mean the vast majority of murderers in this country will not be executed. In some states, it is impossible to be executed. What makes a murder in Texas worse than one in Iowa? In 2009, there were 105 executions but about 15,000 murders in the US. Comparing the death penalty rate and the murder rate does not indicate that the death penalty deters murder, especially as the murder rate in the US is high but the vast majority of other countries don't use the death penalty.

"Single wrong choice" is an accurate label. Substitute "evil" or "heinous" for "wrong" if you like. By single I was meaning during a very small amount of time, especially as compared to LWOP.

I object to being called a lying liberal. Cut out the personal attacks that have nothing to do with what is actually being said.

Posted by: Hidden | Jul 21, 2011 10:43:12 PM

Hidden stated: "TarIsQtr, only liberals oppose LWOP and the death penalty?"

No, but generally speaking, the soft on crime and abolitionist positions are far more frequently taken by liberals rather than conservatives. This can be backed up by polling.

Hidden stated: "By arbitrary, I mean the vast majority of murderers in this country will not be executed. In some states, it is impossible to be executed. What makes a murder in Texas worse than one in Iowa?"

And this is EXACTLY the point I made in the previous post. With all due respect, you are not concerned about the "arbitrary" nature of the DP because it could just as easily be solved by adding the DP to Iowa rather than removing it from Texas. Of course you will not go for that, thus, your TRUE issue is not that the DP is arbitrary. You STILL have not told us what it is.

Hidden stated: "In 2009, there were 105 executions but about 15,000 murders in the US. Comparing the death penalty rate and the murder rate does not indicate that the death penalty deters murder, especially as the murder rate in the US is high but the vast majority of other countries don't use the death penalty."

Simply comparing murder rates between DP countries and non-DP countries (or DP rate and murder rate) is simplistic and a pretty useless endeavor. And there are multiple peer-reviewed studies that do indicate a deterrence component to the DP.

Hidden stated: "Single wrong choice" is an accurate label."

Properly constructed euphemisms, even vile ones, are always accurate.

Hidden stated: "Substitute "evil" or "heinous" for "wrong" if you like. By single I was meaning during a very small amount of time, especially as compared to LWOP."

Personally, I think the impact of a "single wrong decision" is far more important than the time it took to make the decision in relation to LWOP. For the life of me, I cannot think of a single rational reason for using the time it took to make the decision to determine a LWOP sentence.

Hidden stated: "I object to being called a lying liberal. Cut out the personal attacks that have nothing to do with what is actually being said."

You gave a "liberal" position, that the DP was arbitrary, and I demonstrated why that was not an honest position. It is possible that you are merely parroting others and it is not a lie, but then I never explicitly said it was. Other positions most likely taken by liberals that you stated are, making inmates work is "slavery", solitary confinement is "torture", and inmates are abandoned "untouchables." If you are not a liberal, my apologies. However, know that when bird poo falls on my head, I have a tendency to assume a bird did it.

And, BTW, I am STILL waiting for an answer to this ON TOPIC question: "However, I noticed that you have provided no solutions for dealing with the most violent offenders, many of whom will spit, throw urine and feces on, or physically assault other inmates and staff at the drop of a hat. Perhaps we can hug it out of them?...Please give me YOUR plan for dealing with the additional security concerns brought by the "worst of the worst."

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jul 22, 2011 12:27:08 PM

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