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CA Prisons' Use Of Solitary Confinement Hurts Families

Lauren Madow |
July 22, 2013 | 5:21 a.m. PDT

Deputy Editor

Inmate Ian Whitson is serving an indefinite period in solitary confinement (courtesy Daletha Hayden)
Inmate Ian Whitson is serving an indefinite period in solitary confinement (courtesy Daletha Hayden)
Every other Sunday for the past 12 years, Daletha Hayden has travelled two hours from Victorville to visit her son, Ian Whitson, at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. Since July 8, Hayden’s visits have become more frequent. That was the date that her son, along with thousands of other inmates across the state, began a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. 30-year-old Whitson has been isolated in a Security Housing Unit, meaning solitary confinement, for over four years.

"I live in an 8 x12 concrete cell by myself," Whitson wrote in an open letter from Tehachapi. "I’m on 24/7 lock-down.  I come out of my cell every other day for 10 minutes to shave and shower.  I get 'yard' once a week which is a 10 x15 steel cage 'outside' all by myself for 2 hours."

Before Whitson was segregated from the general inmate population, he had incurred a single rules violation: he missed a head count because he was at his job. Daletha Hayden describes her son as having spent most of his spare time in the prison’s law library, researching in order to help fellow inmates with fewer reading and writing skills understand their own cases better. Whitson also was, and still is, totally committed to continuing his own education. But because someone named Whitson to prison officials as an alleged gang "associate," he will serve his life sentence in the SHU indefinitely. 

"I often go to bed at night asking God for the greatest gift he could give me, that I won’t wake up the next day," wrote Whitson. "We’ve been tossed into the societal refuse heap…This is the landfill of humanity."

Daletha Hayden, Whitson's mother, speaks out against SHU conditions (Denise Mewbourne for SF Bay View)
Daletha Hayden, Whitson's mother, speaks out against SHU conditions (Denise Mewbourne for SF Bay View)
These notes of despair are what disturb Daletha Hayden. "My son isn’t refuse," she said. "He’s a human being. And I’m proud of him that he’s standing up for his rights."

Of the hunger strike that crosses what the organization Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity called "prison-manufactured racial and geographical lines," Hayden is especially proud. "They came together over racial barriers, they said you know what? All this other stuff doesn’t mean a thing. All it does is allow the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to divide us and conquer us, well, we’re not having it. To me, our political leaders could learn something from this."

After CDCR officials failed to deliver on promised improvements in conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison’s notorious "Short Corridor" SHU, inmates warned that they would commence a hunger strike on July 8 unless their five core demands were met. The third demand, "Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement," refers to an independent commission of U.S. District judges, attorneys, corrections officials, and military and religious leaders’ finding that:

People who pose no real threat to anyone and also those who are mentally ill are languishing for months or years in high-security units and "supermax" prisons. In some places, the environment is so severe that people end up completely isolated, confined in constantly bright or constantly dim spaces without any meaningful human contact—torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration.

For Daletha Hayden and her son, his "indeterminate," or indefinite, sentence in the SHU is the twist of the knife that makes a painful situation agonizing. Only validated gang associates receive indeterminate SHU sentences, which are a blunt weapon used by the CDCR to reduce gang activity in prisons. "You can stab a guard, you can hurt another inmate, get into a fight, whatever, and you will have a definite SHU term," Hayden explains. "They will maybe put you in the SHU for 12 months, 24 months…Validated members, a minimum is 6 years and then they will reevaluate you."

Ian Whitson is a rare inmate who knows the two sources of his “validation”: the first was a drawing he made several years ago which authorities determined contained gang-related imagery. The second was a former SHU resident whose best chance at rejoining the general inmate population was to give the Tehachapi’s Institutional Gang Investigators unit the name of a gang member, a system known as the "debriefing" process ("Abolish the debriefing policy" is the Pelican Bay prisoners’ second core demand).

"In order to get out of the SHU, you have to parole, snitch or die," says UC Hastings College of Law professor Hadar Aviram, who writes the blog California Correctional Crisis. "If you admit to membership in a gang and you provide information about other members of a gang, that leads to a step-down program where gradually you earn points that get you out of the SHU. The thing is, because there’s a motivation to give information about other people you’re then dragging other people into this net of rumors and then they end up in the SHU."

A member of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement protests (courtesy CFASC)
A member of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement protests (courtesy CFASC)
Between the incentive for SHU inmates to offer investigators a name and the seemingly low bar for what constitutes proof of gang membership, inmates may receive an indeterminate sentence in the SHU based on questionable evidence. "A lot of times the justification for putting people in these conditions is very flimsy," says Aviram. "Marking you as a gang member for the purpose of isolation relies a lot on rumors, on tattoos, on information obtained from other inmates."

Amnesty International found that California segregates more prisoners for longer periods of time than any other state. In a 2012 report titled "The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units," AI reported that more than 500 prisoners had spent ten or more years in the Pelican Bay SHU. More than 200 had spent over 15 years. 78 had spent their lives in total isolation for over 20 years. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, has called for an absolute ban on indefinite periods of solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days. Ian Whitson has spent more than 100 times that period in solitary.  

His mother credits Whitson’s focus on continuing his education—a recent concession by the CDCR, who previously denied SHU inmates access to correspondence courses—with his ability to maintain some hope. Studying is "the only thing that keeps him centered," says Hayden. "He’s gone through bouts of depression when they weren’t letting him out at all and he was literally locked down 24-7."

In addition to the isolation and the extreme physical conditions in the SHU, segregated inmates in California face the frustration of having their plight glossed over by Governor Jerry Brown, who declared the state’s prison crisis "over" in January. The issue of the SHU "needs to be seen in the larger context of people who feel that they’ve been completely forgotten," says Hadar Aviram. "These are your and my fellow Californians. And they feel like they’ve not only been forgotten but they’ve been dehumanized. There’s no acknowledgement of the conditions that they’re in."

Like her son, Daletha Hayden has managed to avoid giving in to despair. She is actively involved with the reform group California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. And she is able to view the individuals charged with guarding her son with compassion.

"There are good officers that will speak to you kindly and will go the extra step to try and help you," Hayden says. "It’s just the way their system is designed, they have to be careful in being humane themselves, and that’s very sad because it goes against the grain of their own humanity…Each time any group of people is allowed to abuse people, or turn their eyes away from someone else being abusive, that hurts our society extended beyond the prison."

 

Reach Deputy Editor Lauren Madow here. Follow her here.



 

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