USA: Locked away for decades – the plight of California’s isolation prisoners

During the 16 years Joe Simpson (not his real name) was held in an isolation unit in Pelican Bay prison, California, the only living creature he had meaningful contact with was a frog.

Joe had found the animal in the small exercise yard he was allowed to use sporadically and spent months collecting worms and bugs to feed it.

But when he decided to go on hunger strike in July 2011 to protest against his detention conditions, the guards took the frog away.

Joe is one of the estimated 25,000 prisoners who are being held in “supermaximum” isolation facilities in at least 44 states across the USA and in the federal system.

Of those, more than 3,000 are held in high-security isolation units known as Security Housing Units (SHUs) in California, in what Amnesty International recently described as “shocking conditions of detention”.

No other state in the country holds as many prisoners in isolation for such long periods of time. In fact, it is believed that as many as 78 men have been held in isolation for more than 20 years each.

Amnesty International’s experts who visited Pelican Bay and other SHU units in late 2011 said inmates are held for upwards of 22 and a half hours a day in cells measuring fewer than eight square metres with no windows and with poor access to natural light or fresh air.

The 1,000 men held with Joe in Pelican Bay are only allowed to leave their cells for one and a half hours each day to exercise in a bare, concrete yard with 20-foot-high walls with only a patch of sky visible through a partially meshed plastic roof.

Rehabilitation programmes are almost non-existent, there are no group activities, and human contact with anyone is severely restricted.

Pelican Bay is in a remote part of the state and many prisoners receive few, if any, visits. The only contact most prisoners have with the outside world is through letters. Even consultations with medical staff routinely take place behind barriers and a glass screen separates prisoners from family or lawyers when they visit. Phone contact with relatives is also extremely limited.

Some prisoners have spent more than a decade without family visits.

Isolation is so severe that one inmate told Amnesty International delegates touring Pelican Bay that they were “the only outsiders they had seen in years”.

Built for purposePrisons such as Pelican Bay were built in the 1980’s – during a steep rise in prison population in the USA and with California at the forefront of moves to toughen penalties.

Pelican Bay was designed specifically as a “non-programming” prison facility, constructed with no communal space for recreation, education or any other group activity.

The rationale given by the US authorities for building super-maximum facilities was that isolating the most dangerous or disruptive prisoners would make the rest of the prison population safer – although many prisoners who end up in such units have mental illness or behavioural problems and have sometimes been confined for repeated, relatively minor rule infractions and disruptive behaviour.

What authorities seem to have underestimated is the long-term health impact of this kind of incarceration.

Prisoners in Pelican Bay SHU have reported serious medical and psychological problems as a result of their detention in isolation, including: deteriorating eyesight as a result of years of deprivation of natural light and confinement in spaces which obstruct vision; problems due to lack of natural light (causing vitamin D deficiency) and exercise; chronic asthma exacerbated by the enclosed conditions; severe insomnia and memory loss.   

As one inmate who has been held in isolation for 16 years told Amnesty International: “Being housed in the SHU has left me looking like a ghost as my colour has faded to a very pale shade as many inmates here do without any sunlight to beat down upon our faces. How I long to feel warmth steadily beating on me.”

A blow to mental healthThe severe negative psychological consequences of long-term isolation are reflected in data showing that inmate suicides occur disproportionately in isolation units (compared to the general prison population). 

According to the reports of a court-appointed monitor, 42 per cent of suicides that took place in California’s prisons between 2006 and 2010 – an average of 34 a year – took place in administrative segregation or SHU units.

One of them was Alex Machado, who took his own life on 24 October 2011.

Details of his case were published in an article by Sal Rodriguez on the website Solitary Watch. Alex had been transferred to Pelican Bay in February 2010 after he was classified as a member of a gang and told he would serve an indeterminate term in isolation.

According to his family, he had shown no significant psychological problems during his prior 11 years of incarceration and he had been literate and articulate, assisting other prisoners with their legal appeals. 

His mental state started to deteriorate significantly after a year of isolation in Pelican Bay. From January to June 2011, prison mental health records show he exhibited increasing anxiety and paranoia – the reports note that he suffered from anxiety, sleeplessness and panic attacks. He also felt he was being watched, suffered from visual hallucinations and thought he heard voices and knocking on his cell walls.

When he threatened to kill himself on 12 June 2011, he was placed in a crisis cell. However, he remained in the unit, despite continuing to have “active psychotic symptoms”.

According to the autopsy report, Alex was last seen alive at approximately 12.15 am on the day of his death “as he was examined and then cleared by medical staff for a complaint of heart palpitations”. Thirty minutes later, an officer found him “hanging inside his cell”. 

The day afterFor many prisoners, the problems follow them after their release from prison.

On average each year, 900 inmates are released on parole directly from isolation units in California, with little more than a few dollars and an ID card.

Transitional programmes are rare.

As a former prisoner from Pelican Bay told Amnesty International: “There are no rehabilitation programmes, no church, no education, no supplies for artists. They say we can’t have cell mates because it would be too dangerous but that is not true. Many of the inmates have been held in solitary confinement for more than 15 years, some for more than 20. Even for me after being in solitary confinement for almost seven years…that rush of loneliness still vibrates through me…so try to imagine the effect on their minds.”

Earlier this year, the California Department of Corrections proposed changes which would allow prisoners some opportunity to work their way out of isolation through a “step-down” program. 

However, under the proposals, prisoners serving indeterminate SHU terms would remain in isolation for at least two years and there would be no change to the physical conditions in Pelican Bay SHU. 

Amnesty International is calling on the authorities to use isolation only as a last resort; to remove from isolation prisoners who have already spent years in the SHU; and to improve conditions for all prisoners who remain in segregation.