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Reassessing the use of solitary confinement in America’s prisons

June 17, 2012

On Tuesday, June 19, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, will hold the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. Dolores Canales will be attending this historic hearing and submitted this testimony.

by Dolores Canales

Families with loved ones in solitary confinement turned out in force for a historic hearing Aug. 23, 2011, in Sacramento. That state legislative hearing, called by San Francisco Assembyman Tom Ammiano, was a precursor for the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement to convene June 19, called by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.
My name is Dolores Canales, I am a member of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC), I am on the advisory board of CURB (Californians United for a Responsible Budget) and I am also a member of LWSGI (Lives Worth Saving Gang Intervention), all California based organizations.

But above all I am a mother of a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner, and since the hunger strike it has been my goal and passion to bring an end to such inhumane and torturous conditions going on right here in America – land of the free and home of the brave!

When Americans are held in solitary confinement in other countries, it is considered barbaric and a form of torture, Sen. John McCain himself being one of those Americans. But yet, solitary confinement has been a common practice for years on end right here in our prisons.

And why has it been going on so long? Why have there been human beings held in captivity for 20 and 30 years with absolutely no human contact and, in some prisons, even sunlight has been denied for decades at a time? Because these are the people that no one cares about, that have already been judged and condemned because they are in prison.

But on July 1, 2011, in California, prisoners could no longer remain silent! They realized they have now grown old in solitary – some of these prisoners in their 60s and 70s. They knew if something was not done, the next generation would come in to take their place and endure and suffer their living hell.

On July 1, 2011, in California, prisoners could no longer remain silent! They realized they have now grown old in solitary – some in their 60s and 70s. They knew if something was not done, the next generation would come in to take their place and endure and suffer their living hell.

If only the walls could talk – the walls of the SHU cells that have closed in on minds, crushed men’s souls, driven men mad, driven men to suicide. The walls that cry out: “NO ONE HEARS YOU AND YOU ARE ALL MINE!” The walls that do not even have windows to allow in any ray of sunlight.

But for the men who have endured, their courage and their strength and their unity made the voices heard past the windowless, cement cells of Pelican Bay by risking their own lives and going on a hunger strike – a hunger strike that immediately spread across the state of California, where thousands upon thousands of prisoners came together, joining across 13 prisons!

And not because of the power of the men in Pelican Bay that CDCr (California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation) has attempted to blame, but the power of the message: the message that solitary confinement is a common practice and any one of those prisoners could be next! Right now there are thousands sitting in administrative segregation units – also solitary confinement – year after year, just waiting for a SHU cell to open up, just waiting for a transfer, in a purgatory type state, until the final destination, the very pit of hell.

Right now there are thousands sitting in administrative segregation units – also solitary confinement – year after year, just waiting for a SHU cell to open up, just waiting for a transfer, in a purgatory type state, until the final destination, the very pit of hell.

Every day that goes by I think of those held in solitary confinement; I think of my son! And I literally say the word “only”: My son has “only” been in solitary confinement without any human contact, not even a phone call, for 12 years! And the reason I say “only” is because I am now living the reality of many family members – of their pain and their suffering as their loved ones have been locked away for 20 and 30 years.

Irma Hedlin, mother of two hunger strikers at Pelican Bay who courageously advocated for them at every opportunity, speaks at a rally outside CDC headquarters in Sacramento on being denied visits with her sons. The rally was held Oct. 5, 2011, on the 10th day of the second round of last year’s mass hunger strike. Sadly, Irma passed away June 3. “Irma Hedlin was a tireless fighter against mass incarceration,” writes D’Andre Teeter of Revolution. “In spite of a number of physical problems and health issues, she was always leading, and challenging people to do more. May her dedication and determination be an example for us all to emulate.” - Photo: Bill Hackwell
And I think to myself “only” how much longer will this go on? I wonder if he will be there until he dies or, worse yet, goes insane. I wonder if I will die while he is still in solitary confinement, as one mother, passionate about bringing about and seeing change, has recently passed away. And I think of all the other mothers who went to their grave, praying with their last breath that someone would listen, that someone would care.

In California prisons 70 percent of suicides takes place while in solitary confinement, and still those in authority continue to justify this type of housing. Of course all the money that is being made off of these gulags has nothing to do with the reason we use solitary confinement at an ever increasing rate, or is this the only reason those in authority fight so hard to justify human mental and physical torture?

There are trade shows, marketing, warehousing and ROIs at the cost of human lives, so one can honestly say without prejudice or irrational judgment that this has become a very prosperous and lucrative business. And all the while, the reality of this type of confinement is horrific and sounds like something in a science fiction movie.

Many think this could not really be going on and ask, “What on earth have these prisoners done to be housed like this?” The answer, in California, the prisoner does NOT need to have actually done anything, and solitary confinement is literally considered as “non-disciplinary” and for “housing purposes” rather than actual punishment.

Many ask, “What on earth have these prisoners done to be housed like this?” The answer, in California, the prisoner does NOT need to have actually done anything.

Most mornings are hard for me as a mother. I fight back the tears when I see the morning sunlight, a new day, filled with new hope – the sunlight that I know my very own son cannot even see! And I feel the wind and think of those who have not felt something as simple as the wind in decades and how they would consider it an absolute miracle to feel the breeze of fresh air. I can almost feel as they would feel, as my son would feel.

And then there are the days when I can no longer hold back the tears and I cry and think, “God, please help me make it through today, because today I want to give up; today I can’t take it anymore. Today I feel like I myself am losing my mind.” And then I think, “Who am I to give up when the very ones held in these conditions have not given up and are holding on – for the ones who can no longer take it, for the ones who were taken over by suicide and insanity, for the ones who will come in to fill the tombs of solitary confinement.

I can only imagine as a mother how those who have lost someone because a crime was committed, how they must feel as they hear advocates speaking on behalf of the prisoners. Does this make them re-live and suffer their loss all the more?

I by no means am attempting to disregard anyone who has suffered a loss at the hands of another! I am living with a daily heartbreak that is unbearable at times, so I can only imagine a mother’s heart who has lost her child at the fault of another. In all sincerity, please know that my heart goes out to another’s loss and suffering, but I cannot stay silent and the world must know!

America must be held accountable because of the simple fact that we take pride in our human rights efforts in other countries, while we continue to justify the use of solitary confinement. Many of these prisoners have become translucent in skin color – not just light skinned but actually a ghostly see-through type of image. Many have lost their hearing because the only sounds they ever hear are those of the metal doors slamming shut. Many have poor eyesight because the only light they ever get is from the fluorescent lights that fill the SHU. And it is well known, many have been driven mad in a state of absolute nothingness!

Many prisoners have become translucent in skin color – not just light skinned but actually a ghostly see-through type of image. Many have lost their hearing because the only sounds they ever hear are those of the metal doors slamming shut. Many have poor eyesight because the only light they ever get is from the fluorescent lights that fill the SHU.

So today I write this and ask that you hear my voice, that you hear the voices of many of the family members who have now come out, no longer afraid of the retaliation at the hands of CDC and, above all, that you hear the voices of the prisoners being held in captivity, in solitary confinement in America’s prisons.

I will definitely be flying out to Washington for the hearing on June 19 and am asking for the opportunity to address the issue of solitary confinement before the Senate committee. Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.

Dolores Canales can be reached at dolorescanales@hotmail.com. For more information and to get involved in her organization, contact California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC), 8018 E. Santa Ana Canyon Rd., Suite 100 #213, Anaheim, CA 92808-1102, (714) 290-9077, cfasc12@yahoo.com.

 

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