The horrifying existence of solitary confinement

by James Simmons

Imagine being locked in a cage alone for 22 ½ hours a day, sometimes for decades on end, with no normal human contact ever and no exposure to direct sunlight ever. Now imagine that during this terrible experience you were subjected to being shot with an assault rifle and dumped in a cell covered with fecal matter until you had an aneurysm – or held down in a scalding hot bath until you received third degree burns all over your body. This isn’t Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib … it’s California.

Todd-Ashkers-cell-PBSP-SHU-1-outside-front-0707-web, The horrifying existence of solitary confinement, Abolition Now! The state of California calls them Security Housing Units (SHUs), and over 3,000 prisoners are warehoused in facilities like this ((Amnesty International. “USA, the Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.” London: Amnesty International Publications, 2012.)) (up to 80,000 in the U.S. total ((Naday, A.; Freilich, J.; & Mellow, Jeff. “The Elusive Data on Supermax Confinement,” The Prison Journal Vol. 88; 2008.))). The majority of these prisons have no windows, computers or telephone calls. Showers are typically once a week, mail is withheld regularly, meals are pushed through a slot in the front of their cell, and there is no work or rehabilitation of any kind provided.

A major reason this type of inhumane treatment continues to exist is the common misconception that the average citizen has about who is being housed in these facilities. This is most likely because of the government’s propaganda campaign that consists of claims that these solitary confinement units are only for the “worst of the worst.”

The truth of the matter is that there are many prisoners with no record of violence in the outside world in these facilities and that these same solitary confinement techniques are being used on adolescents in juvenile facilities as well. Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit in Crescent City, California, is widely considered by prisoners as the worst facility for solitary confinement in the state, and experts have called it the worst prison in the United States.

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Over a thousand prisoners are warehoused in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) and are never given access to direct sunlight, let alone the right to go outside. The rare occasions that they get visitors – as the prison’s location is extremely isolated as well – it is limited to an hour and a half and there is a glass screen separating them.

In fact, prisoners are not only separated from the outside world but within the prison itself, as barriers are put in place for medical visits and to protect all other correctional staff. This kind of isolation that consists of always being inside under artificial light and being alone in a small cage 22 ½ hours a day – for multiple decades in some cases – has severe psychological implications.

Stuart Grassian, a Harvard psychiatrist specializing in solitary confinement, found that the effects of this type of confinement included trouble with thinking, perception, impulse control, memory, hallucinations and stimuli. ((Grassian, Stuart. “Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement,” American Journal of Psychiatry Online; 1983.)) It was considered after only a couple of weeks of solitary confinement to be “psychological torture.” The culmination of this treatment of prisoners and their conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison led to Amnesty International concluding that the facility was in violation of international law. ((Amnesty International. “USA, the Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.” London: Amnesty International Publications, 2012.))

If the intention of the prison system is rehabilitation so when prisoners are released they do not return, then we surely must object to solitary confinement.

This extremist version of solitary confinement employed by PBSP will therefore inevitably effect our greater society within the United States, as these inmates develop a gamut of mental illnesses that go untreated before being released back into the general population of the outside world. The “supposed” purpose of the prison system in this nation is to rehabilitate, but these SHU facilities do nothing of the sort and instead just inflict severe psychological damage on prisoners who will most likely be released at some point.

Prison officials at PBSP claim that the SHU facility is intended to keep their other prisons safer from gang violence, yet this kind of violence is still on the rise in California’s prison system, and the SHU is also filled with political prisoners with no gang affiliation who are only guilty of organizing within their respective prisons. This has led to the Center for Constitutional Rights filing a lawsuit against the entire California prison system for their use of long term solitary confinement, claiming it is a form of torture and therefore illegal. To put this all in perspective, solitary confinement was utilized in the 19th century as a form of self-reproach but was abandoned after concerns about the psychological effects of such treatment. ((Amnesty International. “USA, the Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.” London: Amnesty International Publications, 2012.))

Vaughn Dortch was convicted of petty thievery, got into fights in prison, and was then sent to Pelican Bay State Prison SHU unit. Upon several months of extreme solitary confinement, he began to deteriorate psychologically and covered himself in feces. He was then forced to take a bath in scalding hot water and held down against his will by guards until receiving third degree burns all over his body. Medics refused to give him any pain medication for thirty minutes and the head doctor even went as far as saying that he was not burned. Only one individual was found culpable and fired, while no mechanisms were put in place to prevent an incident like this from occurring again. ((60 Minutes (2012). “Pelican Bay.” Retrieved Dec. 24, 2012, from

Todd-Ashkers-cell-PBSP-SHU-2-inside-back-bunk-area-0707-web, The horrifying existence of solitary confinement, Abolition Now! Todd Ashker was convicted of burglary and sentenced to six years in prison. Upon entering the prison system, he got into an altercation with another prisoner over a debt and murdered him. According to Ashker, it was self-defense.

When an individual commits murder in prison when serving only a six year sentence, it can be argued that the defensive nature one must maintain within this type of system might be at least partially culpable. An anonymous informant told prison officials that Todd Ashker’s murder was connected to the Aryan Brotherhood and as a result of this he was also sent to Pelican Bay State Prison SHU unit, where those who commit violent acts in prison or have gang affiliations are sent.

While serving time there, Ashker got into another altercation; there are two versions of what happened, the state’s version and Ashker’s. According to Ashker, prison guards set him up for a “gladiator style” fight and when things escalated out of control, he was shot with an assault rifle by a guard in the wrist. His wound nearly severed his hand from his arm and he was immediately dumped into a urine and feces covered cell without medical treatment. Lack of sufficient medical treatment then and afterward resulted in Ashker getting an aneurysm in his wound.

The state of California’s official story was that they broke up a fight between Ashker and another inmate and that he was warned multiple times before being shot. The Department of Corrections also denies dumping him in a filthy cell and that lack of decent medical treatment resulted in his aneurysm. A couple of questions come to mind when evaluating the state’s official story.

How was Ashker allowed so close to another inmate, when he is supposedly in severe solitary confinement with little to no contact with anyone but prison officials? If the state’s story is so accurate, then why was Ashker awarded $225,000 in a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections in a state notoriously tough on criminals? “In this tough-on-crime attitude here in California, it’s always the case that jurors don’t want to give a criminal one red cent, so there must have been something that went on there at Pelican Bay,” said San Francisco attorney Herman Franck. ((Shioya, Tara (Oct. 5, 1995). “Jury awards $225,000 to Pelican Bay inmate shot by guards.” Retrieved Dec. 24, 2012, from These are the kinds of horrendous altercations that occur at Pelican Bay State Prison on top of the psychological torture endured by inmates for years and sometimes decades on end.

 If we believe in basic human rights and dignity for all human beings, then we surely must object to solitary confinement.

The only way to get out of the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison is to “debrief” – or tell prison officials everything you know about the prison gang you have been “validated” to belong to. The only problem is that “debriefing” results in the prisoner putting himself in tremendous danger of being killed once he is back in the general prison population. Because of this California leads the nation in long-term solitary confinement.

Another problematic aspect of these procedures is the process of “validating” gang members. The gang “validation” process has been criticized because it can occur without evidence of any specific illegal activity and heavily rely on anonymous informants, which is circumstantial and almost impossible to repudiate. In Ashker’s case, he has denied ties to the Aryan Brotherhood and has never been convicted of committing an illegal gang-related crime. If he is telling the truth, then how on earth is he supposed to “debrief” – even if he wanted to?

As a result of this quagmire and the horrendous conditions that Todd Ashker has had to endure for 26 years – 26 years of no direct sunlight or normal contact with human beings – he has decided to organize to end solitary confinement. Todd has filed lawsuits, organized hunger strikes and, most impressively, a call for a mutually agreed upon ending to hostilities between races and ethnicities in the California prison system.

According to this agreement, California prisoners will end group racial violence against one another and will force the prison system to provide rehabilitation programs and end solitary confinement – as they will have no other excuse left not to. It is these incredible circumstances and tortuous conditions that can lead groups that compete, hate and kill each other to find solidarity in a mutual struggle. For these incredible efforts, Todd says he has been refused proper medical care and given a plexiglas cellfront cover that makes his tiny cell incredibly hot, restricts air flow and makes it almost impossible to communicate.

What it all seems to come down to is whether or not the citizens of California feel it is worth psychologically torturing people for years – and in some cases decades – in order to keep the prison system safer, a claim debunked by the increase in prison violence since SHUs’ inception. If we object to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, we surely must object to solitary confinement in the U.S.

If the intention of the prison system is rehabilitation so when prisoners are released they do not return, then we surely must object to solitary confinement. If we believe in basic human rights and dignity for all human beings, then we surely must object to solitary confinement. We must also ask ourselves, would I want a friend or family member to be broken down psychologically and tortured for decades by the state?

If we object to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, we surely must object to solitary confinement in the U.S.

A society will be remembered by how it treats the most vulnerable and least advantaged individuals within it. Do we want to be remembered for slowly driving people insane for no reason?

James Simmons, a graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies studying prison activism with Anthropology Department Chair Andrej Grubacic, can be reached at