The Pains of Solitary Confinement and Beyond

August 21, 2013

Last week, we ran a post on the California hunger strike by our blogger Juan Haines, currently an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. This week, we share a wider view of the strike’s implications and context by legal scholars Benjamin Fleury-Steiner and Jamie G. Longazel. 

Despite an imposing body of jurisprudence, including the Supreme Court’s powerful condemnation of California’s entire penal system in its recent Brown decision, the law continues to turn a blind eye to those prisoner rights attorneys who doggedly fight to put the system on trial as their clients experience penal conditions that in the legal parlance of the Eighth Amendment are, frankly, cruel and unusual on a good day.  We thus need to understand the hunger strikes currently underway in California as more than a reaction to the inhumanity of solitary confinement as a particular mode of punishment.

The courageous acts of striking prisoners can and should be understood, more profoundly, as a reaction to what is by this point a disturbingly familiar pattern: Courts order prisons to make conditions more humane and prison officials stubbornly refuse to alter their policies and often retaliate against prisoners for making such charges public in the first place.  Prisoner rights and jailhouse attorneys continue to relentlessly file additional complaints and sometimes even succeed in convincing judges to hold entire state prison systems in contempt of court.  Yet despite these Herculean efforts, prisoners needlessly suffer, sometimes to the point of absolute desperation.  They must engage in a hunger strike, a spectacle of horrifying self-harm in already harmful conditions in order for the public to know of the magnitude of their plight.  And so it goes.

We should first acknowledge, as many reporting on the hunger strike have, that solitary confinement is grotesquely inhumane. In Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Units (SHU), prisoners are warehoused, stripped of their humanity, and subject to retaliation as guards reassert often excessive control.  Many in the SHU are confined to a tiny 8 x 10 foot concrete cell for 23 hours a day in many cases, for several decades. Visitation policies are strict, and many prisoners go long periods without any physical contact with another human.  Extreme sensory deprivation has also been linked to a laundry list of psychological disorders that almost all prisoners in solitary experience.  What is more, many prisoners find themselves trapped in “the hole” for decades because of arbitrary gang membership designations.  Many in Pelican Bay are doing time in these “prisons within prisons” without any record of violence.  One’s name allegedly appearing on lists of gang-involved prisoners is often sufficient evidence to warrant extreme confinement, casting into doubt assertions that these prisoners are the “worst of the worst.”

Yet as we argue in our forthcoming book, The Pains of Mass Imprisonment, the intensified use of solitary confinement is but one of many manifestations of a humanitarian crisis on the grandest of scales.  The title of our book comes from the late sociologist Gresham Sykes’ “pains of imprisonment” chapter from his classic book The Society of Captives, a field study of the New Jersey State Prison in the 1950s.  Using his original inventory of “pains” as a jumping off point, we considered some of the most disturbing changes the system has undergone in this era of mass imprisonment.  We quickly realized that Sykes’s original conception remains relevant, but the experiences of prisoners today increasingly involve needless physical pain and suffering.

Indeed, warehousing, dehumanization and retaliation are readily apparent beyond the SHU.  One of the most striking examples we discovered was the normalization of brutality under mass incarceration.  Threatened by prisoner-on-prisoner violence, Sykes had observed that prisoners experienced the “deprivation of security.”  Yet he was writing during the Cold War in the 1950s where prison populations were comparatively very low and in the wake of the holocaust where people all over the world were second-guessing totalitarian institutions.  The backdrop for today’s custodial regime, in contrast, is a post-9-11 U.S. characterized by the implementation of total control at all costs. In these circumstances, the threat of violence is more far-reaching.

A chapter in the recent The Violence of Incarceration by sociologist Avery F. Gordon, co-edited by the great prison activist and scholar Phil Scraton, documents how the brutalization of prisoners at Abu Ghraib has direct connections to punishment regimes in U.S. prisons. Gordon illuminates the role of U.S. military organizations such as the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) in enlisting high-level civilian prison personnel—including the former directors of supermax prisons in Connecticut, Virginia, and Utah—to create military prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. That is to say, the crisis of mass imprisonment catalyzed by the domestic war on crime has become a model for brutal, post-911 U.S. military prisons abroad.

At the operational level, Gordon shows how the National Guardsmen at Abu Ghraib—many of whom were also employed as prison guards in notoriously brutal U.S. prisons—described their actions to the FBI as chillingly normal.  Drawing extensively on documents detailing the FBI interrogations that were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act, Gordon observes:

[N]o one interviewed reported observing any “misconduct” or “mistreatment” of those     detained at Abu Ghraib.  The guards described what they saw and often what they did:             Prisoners handcuffed to the wall with nylon bags over their heads being deprived of sleep;            prisoners spread-eagled on the floor yelling and flailing; men ordered to strip, placed in          isolation and then subjected to deafening music and/or extreme temperatures; the punitive use of electric shock  and stun guns; ritual humiliation and sexual assault; police guards      repetitively kicking prisoners in the stomach; intimidation and threats to harm or kill family members; burning and branding. None of it “rose to the level of mistreatment” in the minds of their observers because they were, to quote the respondents  “no different from     . . .       procedures we observed by guards in U.S. jails.”

Evidencing this shocking testimony is the  use of paramilitary teams of guards trained to suppress disorder by any means necessary . These Special Emergency Response Teams (SERTs) or some variation thereof (e.g., Correctional Emergency Response Teams (CERTS)) are used throughout federal and state institutions.  SERT raids typically involve dozens and sometimes hundreds of prisoners who are not gang members. This “goon squad” methodology is invariably a one-size-fits-all approach in which all prisoners in a particular cellblock or institution are stripped naked and subjected to various forms of brutality, including the use of vicious dogs, painful restraint techniques, and weapons such as stun guns and Tasers to gain intelligence or confessions. Such brutality is not anomalous, nor is it restricted to prisons in particular regions of the country. Consider the multitude of brutality that has been documented across the United States:

Georgia: Sweeping class action lawsuits have been filed in cases involving Correctional Emergency Response Teams (CERTS). In addition to widespread beatings, particular forms of torture used against prisoners include the “Georgia G-String”—where chains are run between a prisoners backside, squeezes his testicles, and then the chain is locked to his waist to induce agonizing pain–and the equally horrifying and Abu Ghraib-like emasculating “Georgia Motorcycle.”  Here, prisoners are stripped naked, subjected to vicious beatings, have a football helmet strapped on their heads to obscure visible wounds, and then left to writhe in pain for hours unattended.

Arizona: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has openly described his desert tent city prison as a “concentration camp.” In addition to being fed rancid baloney three times a day and other inhumane conditions of confinement, prisoners are subjected by Arpaio’s goon squads to excessive and even fatal beatings often involving painful Tasers, stun guns, and vicious attacks by prison dogs.

Florida: Officers excessively utilize dangerous chemical agents (e.g., pepper ball guns, pepper spray, and CS gas) on prisoners throughout the system. A class-action lawsuit filed by the Florida Justice Institute in February 2006 revealed that, among other serious injuries, prisoners suffered brutal flesh burns. Such burns were found to leave large blisters and open wounds all over the body and permanent scarring.

Pennsylvania: Prisoners are routinely subjected to unprovoked beatings and other forms of brutality by groups of prison guards. Four years of prisoner abuse logs (2007–2011) documenting the experiences of 900 prisoners from prisons across the state obtained by the Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh chapters of the Human Rights Coalition reveal horrifying beatings, aggressive use of pepper spray, unprovoked use of Tasers, and the deliberate starvation of prisoners.

New Jersey, Colorado, Oklahoma:  These and many other state systems have aggressively turned to using restraining or “devil” chairs in which prisoners are tightly bound. Class-action lawsuits show how prisoners are strapped down for many hours at a time. These cases reveal that prisoners are often beaten or pepper-sprayed while in restraints. The use of restraining chairs by multiple prison guards against prisoners has thus resulted in numerous serious injuries and at least 20 deaths.

Horrifying practices similar to those employed at Abu Ghraib—indeed, a prison whose guards first honed their tactics as guards in civilian prisons—lives on in America’s brutal penal institutions today.  And, disturbingly, one of the most insidious catalysts is grievances that prisoners file against their captors.  Much like those currently being tortured in solitary confinement in California, we can see how the harsh conditions in this era of mass imprisonment are nearly always tied to brutal acts of junta-like retaliation and cover-ups.

While there may be a slow dismantling of decades of so-called crime and drug “wars” that have drove our current crisis of mass imprisonment, it is important to remember that actions of legal officials are unlikely to produce much change, at least in the foreseeable future.  Attorney General Eric Holder may have announced an end to strict reliance on mandatory minimum sentences, and a judge ruled New York City’s controversial stop and frisk policy unconstitutional,  but we have a very long and, indeed, painful way to go.  The humanitarian crisis of mass imprisonment occurs beyond our view, inside prison walls.  Prisoner rights attorneys continue to fight the good fight.  But we know all too well the limits of the law behind bars.

So as citizens we must – as many selfless activists have for decades – continue to amplify the message of the courageous prisoners who have much to lose by drawing attention not just to the pains of solitary but to a system of mass imprisonment that is both unsustainable and inhumane.  It may be idealistic, but we believe the sheer moral weight of these ongoing atrocities can bring prison systems all across the country finally to their knees.  In order for this to happen, we must continue this struggle to litigate, educate, and expose, as we know those barely surviving on the inside deserve nothing less.


Benjamin Fleury-Steiner is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware and a member of Life of the Law’s advisory panel.

Jamie Longazel is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Dayton.