Working the room: Inmates in solitary confinement tell their stories and move people to action against torture and systemic oppression
by Destiny N. Thomas
Inmates trapped in segregated housing within prisons across the state of California are banding together, setting aside their differences, to expose the human toll of torturous living conditions inside state prisons. While undergoing abusive treatment and sensory deprivation, these organizers have managed to ignite calls for prison reform and self-sufficient communities in a way that transcends the very walls that house them – bringing a voice to a population whose silence is mandated by codes of conduct.a day in the life of a prisoner housed in SHU torture units is like. He maintains a daily exercise regimen from within his cell, as he is hardly ever allowed to leave his cell. While the small television in his cell shows the daily news of global oppression, the sharp pain Denham has experienced in his side as a result of a previous hunger strike is his constant reminder of the importance of surviving and resisting while housed in the Corcoran SHU.
The food selection never alternates and is designated by day; it is served at below room temperature, in small portions. In an attempt to maintain some degree of humanness, Denham greets guards with a “thank you” only to be met by laughter. Because bathing is not permitted on a daily basis, Denham takes a birdbath in his cell’s sink.
His day is filled with self-assigned research, caseloads, activism and journalism. The law library at Corcoran is indefinitely off limits. This adds to Denham’s frustrations. Where a person outside of a SHU torture unit would seek other inmates for education on legal and political matters, SHU confines enforce sensory deprivation, so communication is prohibited altogether. The only form of permitted communication, mail, often arrives an entire month after its postmark. To top it all off, Denham has grown accustomed to waking up with migraines, as he has been exposed to constant illumination for 12 years.
The effects of constant illumination
Constant illumination, an unvarying exposure to light around the clock, is a customary practice in prisons nationwide. The effects of continuous exposure to light are vast. Courts have yet to officially recognize this as cruel and unusual punishment as put forth by the Eighth Amendment. One court has cited the benefit to the safety of guards as outweighing the damaging effects of the conditions, although the brightness of the light could possibly be evidence of torture. It was found, constant illumination could only be deemed a violation of human rights if it “causes sleep deprivation or leads to other serious physical or mental health problems.”
However, studies show, constant illumination leads to dramatic decreases in dopamine levels, a biological chemical that affects a person’s ability to control body movement and other sensory-related bodily functions. This leaves people vulnerable to extreme anxiety, hallucinations, decreased motor skills, and likely to develop Parkinson’s Disease.
In 2008, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) launched a documentary titled “Total Isolation.” Six volunteers agreed to be confined to a cell, much like those of solitary confinement in prisons, and live alone in complete darkness for a total of 48 hours. Before being locked away, volunteers were tested for “visual memory, information processing, verbal fluency and suggestibility.”
By the end of the two-day study, volunteers were unable to maintain any meaningful sense of time, they experienced hallucinations, both visual and physiological, and one volunteer was certain his sheets had been soaked. In the two-day time period, volunteers lost the ability to perform basic tasks like thinking of words beginning with the letter “f.”
The participants in “Total Isolation” understood they would be released soon and they entered into the cells without the fear of being abused by staff or retaliated against for expressing discomfort. Prisoners trapped in solitary confinement in the United States have none of these assurances. One could only imagine the ways this would amplify the effects of sensory deprivation.
Solitary confinement a violation of human rights globally
Many have asked the question: Is solitary confinement torture? It is. The United States goes on record as being against inhumane treatment of international prisoners while contradicting itself right here in the United States. The United States – reluctantly – signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1988, three years after Afghanistan, a nation the United States has accused of inhumane practices. One of the main themes in this document is the emphasis on the definition of torture: “any state-sanctioned action by which severe pain or suffering, mental or physical, is intentionally inflicted for obtaining information, punishment, intimidation or discrimination.”
Yes, solitary confinement is torture; it is a violation of some of the most basic of human rights; and the agents of the state responsible for carrying out this abuse need to be exposed.
California’s Pelican Bay State Prison has 1,000 cells delegated to segregation and torture and many prisons nationally assign segregated housing for indeterminate periods of time. Heshima Denham, a prisoner in the torturous SHU at Corcoran State Prison, explains the conditions barred by the United Nations Convention Against Torture virtually “define the validation, indeterminate-SHU and debriefing processes” of state prisons.
Denham goes on to explain, “You’ll only get out of SHU if you parole, debrief or die.” Debriefing, here, is the state’s term for coercing a prisoner to give up information about another prisoner in exchange for being released from the SHU. Often times, the information an inmate is forced to confirm is imposed by prison officials. Whether the information gathered is true or not – this type of coercion leads to murder at the hands of general population inmates and is torture, as defined by the United Nations.
In 1890, the Supreme Court in James J. Medley’s request to be released from solitary confinement found it to be unconstitutional for a prisoner to be held to a sentence handed down by the courts only to then be subjected to more sentencing, in the form of indeterminate segregation, at the will of prison officials. While this same case did not result in a finding that solitary confinement is entirely unconstitutional, justices went on record noting the devastating blow to mental and physical health that these conditions cause.
A common challenge to solitary confinement is the Eighth Amendment – a claim of cruel and unusual punishment. No cases have successfully proven the conditions in solitary confinement are, in fact, cruel and unusual at the United States Supreme Court level.
Where courts have agreed constant darkness poses a hardship on physical and mental health, prisons now enact constant illumination. Where a prison administration finds segregated prisoners’ complaints may be valid, parallel conditions to those of solitary confinement are then imposed on those in general population, making it difficult for prisoners to prove their hardships are due to conditions unique to solitary confinement.
The Supreme Court requires, to prove an Eighth Amendment violation, prison officials must be shown as having been purposefully unresponsive to the harshness of conditions. In Sandin v. Conner (1995), the Supreme Court noted, if a move to segregated population led to an “atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life,” a prisoner would have a cause of action.
The vagueness of the Sandin v. Conner requirements for proving Eighth Amendment violations – the precondition of proving something is in fact harsh and then showing prison officials were aware of the harshness and took no action of improvement – has led to prison officials imposing policies and conditions that conceal the true harshness of conditions.
The courts do not require a significant improvement in conditions when harshness is demonstrated. So prisons make minor changes that satisfy the need for action but don’t necessarily improve conditions – barring inmates from claiming intentional harm was inflicted on them. For example, where courts have agreed constant darkness poses a hardship on physical and mental health, prisons now enact constant illumination. Where a prison administration finds segregated prisoners’ complaints may be valid, parallel conditions to those of solitary confinement are then imposed on those in general population, making it difficult for prisoners to prove their hardships are due to conditions unique to solitary confinement.
The state’s evasive tactics for avoiding bad publicity
Several inmate organized hunger strikes have brought attention to the harsh conditions of solitary confinement. Prisons now face pressure from the media and public who demand immediate changes to prison policies. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) claims to be in the midst of making changes to the SHU assignment and release procedures. However, there is no mention of changes being made to actual conditions within SHU, where significant degradation of health begins to set in within the first several hours of isolation and sensory deprivation.
Specifically, the CDCR claims to be making temporary changes to the “way [they] manage gangs.” Institutional Gang Investigators are establishing new gang profiling tactics, no longer singling people out as gang members by association or symbols. This policy change does not equate to the immediate release of inmates already confined to SHU for tattoos, artwork and writings as a result of the previous policy. In fact, a new “step-down” program has the potential to increase time spent in the SHU.
What the CDCR says will not change is the “option” to debrief – now formally called “cooperation.” The new policy grants more arbitrary power to prison officials when deciding to lock someone up in the SHU.
Self-sacrifice and the toll of resisting behind bars
Organizing against capitalism while behind bars poses a significant risk to the physical and mental health of politically organized prisoners. While participating in nation-wide hunger strikes in 2011, Heshima Denham lost approximately 45 pounds. Denham’s story is not unique. Many prisoners succumb to the stress on their bodies entirely.
Knowing inmates were experiencing health complications as a result of the hunger strikes, in addition to outright denying strike participants food, the CDCR “revised its medical evaluation policy for hunger strikers to minimize the amount of medical evaluation and data … They have ceased taking vital signs – blood pressure, heart rate, temperature – altogether and are weighing [inmates] only twice a week unless “it appears [they] need it.”
One wonders to what extent retaliatory SHU housing impacts a prisoner’s quality of life and will for freedom. Solitary Watch, a web-based collective with the aim of exposing the realities of solitary confinement, tells the story of Armando Morales (CDCR No. P-80673) who hanged himself to death in his solitary confinement cell at the California State Prison in Corcoran on Aug. 28, 2012. “He was found on his cell floor with a shoelace and a blue blanket wrapped around his neck.” Another inmate housed in Morales’ unit reported Morales was intimidated and threatened by IGI efforts to force him to debrief.
Inmate calls to action
The New Afrikan Revolutionary Nation (NARN) is a community of Black people who seek transformative discourse, nationwide networking and an end to systemic oppression. Their common interest in anti-oppression work unites them, even while behind bars. The NARN Collective Think Tank (NCTT) is active in the torturous SHUs of California’s prison system.
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movements across the country, Occupy NCTT works to develop and implement programs, policies and initiatives that align themselves with “Occupy” objectives and community activists globally. The NCTT is a collective that ultimately works toward the day when “freedom, justice, equality and human rights are extended to all mankind,” heavily aligning with the 10 Core Objectives of the global Occupy movement.
Heshima Denham, a very active coordinator of the NCTT, works daily with fellow members to develop “programs that improve the daily lives and material living conditions of the people and contribute to the end of oppression of man/woman by man/woman.” Denham likens systemic oppression to a wooden board, saying the likelihood of shattering that board is far greater when the hand – the fingers representing individual groups resisting oppression – is a clinched fist, as opposed to an open hand of stiff fingers.
Following this rationale, according to Denham, solidarity does not require a monolithic stance. With that, the NCTT seeks to rally solidarity through a central blog for the purposes of networking amongst interest groups, activists and those with the common goal of ending oppression – fortifying the proverbial fist.
NCTT Closed Circuit Economic Initiative
The NCTT Closed Circuit Economic Initiative was born out of the realization that lower income communities – not just Black ones – do not spend money in ways that enrich their own communities. The idea is that a neighborhood is more likely to thrive when that community is self-sufficient and invests close to home. The Closed Circuit Economic Initiative solicits the help of the broader Occupy movement in educating communities about the benefits of investing in one’s own neighborhood and about the program itself.
By surveying the community, organizers will be able to identify which goods and services are of greatest importance to that particular community. Once those goods and services have been identified, the most common good or service will become the basis for a cooperative economic venture in that community, thereby keeping funds circulating within the community for that particular commodity.
Essentially, with each member of the community committing to a minimal monthly financial contribution of even $1, a grocery store would be kept running on a monthly basis until it could sustain itself. The business would be jointly owned by all who contributed, with those who have technical expertise also owning a share and contributing their know-how to the maintenance of the business.
Sixty percent of profits would be paid to members of the community who contributed and 40 percent would be kept in an interest-bearing account. The money from this savings account would then be used to purchase and support additional businesses that support the initial venture.
NCTT Sustainable Community Agricultural Commune
The NCTT is very vocal about the need for accessible, quality food and resources in lower income communities. The Sustainable Community Agricultural Commune relies on alliances with Occupy the Hood and Occupy Wall Street. It calls for a joint effort in taking inventory of all land on a per-community basis – making note of who owns what – for the purpose of converting unused land into community-owned agricultural land. With the incorporation of innovative farming techniques and minimal contributions of community members in the form of labor and/or $1 per month, per resident, the commune would be able to distribute 60 percent of the revenue brought in by the agricultural space and farmers’ markets to community members and utilize the rest of the profits for expansion.
The belief here is that the availability of healthy, affordable food promotes healthy living, creates community-based jobs and lessens the likelihood of incriminating activities associated with the present lack of resources and income in underserved communities.
NCTT Block Vote Initiative
In response to tainted political representation and political corruption, the NCTT proposes a uniform platform centered on interests that generally improve the quality of life for those who seek to dismantle systemic oppression. The idea is that through surveys, public forums, community education and dialogue, the agreed upon will of the people participating in the initiative becomes the national platform for their public political voice.
A Voter Access Fund would work to ensure people are properly registered and prepared to vote. Where a policy or political action is either supported or challenged by the Block Vote Initiative collectively, related public actions would take place to insure sufficient public awareness. The pre-established initiatives would then become a national push for legislation. The proposed initial actions include:
- A total ban on corporate lobbying and “strategic analysts” during elections;
- An establishment of community-based parole boards so that the actual community the incarcerated person is returning to is able to make their own decisions about whether or not a prisoner is ready to return home, as opposed to probation decisions being left in the hands of law enforcement, the DA and members of traditional parole boards typically not as interested in community well-being and sustainability;
- Comprehensive, universal healthcare for those earning under $25,000 and families earning under $50,000.
Occupy the Beat
The three proposed NCTT initiatives are in need of publicity, funding and organizers. One mode for raising the necessary startup resources is Occupy the Beat, a benefit concert series designed to create awareness about oppression and raise funds for the development of these and future initiatives.
A Nationwide Call to Unity
Heshima Denham explains a ban against media interviewing prisoners has meant endless retaliation by prison authorities and a lack of transparency that leads to increased prisoner vulnerability, especially following the last two hunger strikes. This leaves mainstream media in a position to misrepresent and further “dehumanize” the prison population. Without the protection of direct media attention – and with newly incorporated prison medical procedures for those participating in hunger strikes – prisoners need to mobilize to protect one another from within.
With that, an “Agreement to End Hostilities” was issued to take effect on Oct. 10, 2012, by a group of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison. The significance of this document is in its call to end racial tensions within prisons for the sake of banding together to demand prison reforms and improved housing conditions. Specifically,
“beginning on Oct. 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups in SHU, ad-seg, general population and county jails will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end. And if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues!”
The agreement, signed by members of each racial group represented in the prison system, warns inmates of possible administrative retaliation and divisive tactics, but encourages inmates to remain vigilant and move in solidarity.
By taking to heart the experiences shared by Heshima Denham, housed in the Corcoran State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU), we learn that one of the greatest gestures of support and reassurance of the safety of prisoners who are vocal about their circumstances is constant visibility. The danger and risk associated with being in prison is magnified if at any point a prisoner becomes just another voiceless number.
This notion is not far from the realities underserved communities face daily. The reality is that all evidence points to capitalism. To put it succinctly, yes, solitary confinement is torture; it is a violation of some of the most basic of human rights; and the agents of the state responsible for carrying out this abuse need to be exposed.
Destiny Thomas, a graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies studying prison activism with Anthropology Department Chair Andrej Grubacic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers are encouraged to write to Heshima Denham, J-38283, Cor SHU 4B-1L-43, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran CA 93212.