Wed, 11 June 2014
A Class Action Against the Torture of Solitary Confinement
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by executive editor Glen Ford
“The ruling will force the state to defend its draconian policies.”
Prisoners held for ten years and more in solitary confinement at California’s infamous Pelican Bay supermax have won the right to challenge – as a class – the constitutionality of their treatment. A federal judge in Oakland has allowed five of the inmates to also represent 500 others who have spent a decade in isolation, as well as 1,100 additional prisoners who are confined in solitary for supposed gang membership. Lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights are handling the class action suit. The question they are posing is simple: Does ten years in solitary – and even longer, for dozens of inmates at Pelican Bay – amount to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment?
Nowhere else in the world is solitary confinement practiced on anything like the scale of the United States, where 80,000 men and women are held in isolation on any given day. That’s significantly more than the total prison populations of France or Germany or Japan – a Solitary Confinement Prison Nation within the vast American Gulag.
Any sane and moral person would agree that solitary confinement for weeks and months, much less years and decades, is a uniquely ghastly form of torture that rips at the essence of what makes us human. It is the ultimate sentence of social death. The Pelican Bay inmates’ lawyers believe the recent ruling will, for the first time, force the State of California to defend its draconian policy on its merits. If 12 years a slave is a horror, how should one describe 12 or 20 years of solitary suffering? And, what do you call the people who enforce and defend such sadistic savagery – men with such hatred for their own species that they would torment fellow humans, endlessly?
“The jailers’ roles are identical to those of the Nazi Gestapo.”
According to the lawsuit, solitary confinement, as practiced at Pelican Bay, is such a barbarity, it “renders California an outlier in this country and in the civilized world.” If it were not for the two hunger strikes staged by inmates over the last three years, the so-called civilized world would remain blissfully ignorant of the crimes routinely perpetrated against captive human beings by U.S. civil servants and dues-paying members of the guards union.
Under the California criminal justice system, solitary confinement is much more than just a punishment, or a security measure: it is a process. For the 1,100 inmates in solitary at Pelican Bay because of alleged gang associations, the process is designed to turn them into snitches or liars who finger innocent men. Release from solitary is possible only if one admits to gang affiliation and implicates other inmates – who will then be put through the same process. The jailers’ roles are identical to those of the Nazi Gestapo who tortured suspected members of the Resistance until they provided the names of their comrades, or of people they hardly knew, who would then become part of the same torture process.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl says he was tortured by his captors in Afghanistan, locked alone in a cage for weeks, maybe a month. In Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the prisoners exchanged for Bergdahl spent the last 12 years, the maximum isolation time allowed at a stretch is 30 days. So, it seems that by both the standards of the Taliban and Guantanamo, Pelican Bay, California, is the deepest level of Hell.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to BlackAgendaReport.com.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.