SHUs Have to Go
This week Amnesty International issued a stark, damaging assessment of California’s isolation units. It concluded that California “must make substantial changes” and reduce the number inside SHUs and the amount of time any prisoner remains in isolation.
That’s just common sense, so it takes outsiders to make the point. How can we ignore the 78 prisoners who have been in these cement coffins for over two decades each? For 22 1/2 hours each day? Often with no sunlight at all? Shame on all of us.
As you can imagine, many of these isolated souls are inside SHUs because they are mentally ill; they have been taken out of the prisons’ general populations because their behavior doesn’t fit into the “security” mantra of the officials. So .. they’re nuts, and we coffin them up and make them more nuts? Surely we don’t need Amnesty to explain that keeping people in coffins will make them sicker than they were when they entered.
Here’s something to mull over when you try to sleep tonight: Over 2,000 prisoners are being held in isolation after being “validated” as members or associates of prison gangs. What are the proofs or signs of gang activity? One inmate was areading a book that happened to have been owned by someone who was a gang member, and signed the corner of the book. The guard udnerstood that book to be concerted gang activity, and away wne the reader. Perhaps forever. Many inmates have tattoos, most for protection from other ethnic gangs. So if the prisoner gets one tattoo to separate himself from another gang, presto! Into the SHU. No one has to prove that the inmate took part in gang activity.
Once inside an SHU, prisoners are, in theory, reviewed annually to see if they can rejoin the general population. But hey, the qualifications for getting out include not being in a gang. Circular? Yep. Prisoners can’t get out for being model citizens while in the SHU. They can’t get out because they have taken educational classes. The only way to have officials take the “gang” label off is to confess to gang activities and–get this–list others in the gang. How many ways is that wrong? Plenty.
Here are Amnesty’s suggestions. Someone out there, please help get California’s legislature to listen:
Careful What You Ask For
First, recognize that the prison system administrators follow the mandates that the California legislature produces. In theory, that congress is responding to the will of the California taxpayers. If you don’t like SHUs or the policies that govern them, maybe you’d better ask yourself what you, yourseelf, have done to create this mess. Then you might ask your congressman/woman who mandated the procedures here.
Second, until you’ve been inside California general-population prisons and seen the anger and hatred and violence, maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to suggest we just open those SHU doors and bring the worst of the bunch back into the general population. Although all inmates were indeed once citizens walking the streets and living in your cities, today they have had many rights taken away, and they aren’t all that happy about it. California law requires we keep them until their time is served; then they again return to your cities. Letting the SHU population return to general population is going to heat up the atmosphere real fast; those heated prisoners then leave. Think about that.
Third, the state of California has an epidemic of gangs. California prisons have a mega-epidemic. Some say the worst gangs even started behind these walls. Apparently these gang members are going to continue hating each other until they are deep in their graves. (Recent optimism is a new stop-the-gangs movement–sure hope it catches on!) When a gang member kills another inmate, we have little option but to separate him from both the rival gang (who are going to be a tad pissed) and his own gang (who will knight him and try to top his performance.) You think there are too many SHUs? Apparently, there aren’t enough.
Last, put yourself into our shoes a moment: we are as imprisoned as our guests. We hear the same horrid noises day in and day out. We smell the same locked-up, sweaty-toes air that they do. Our food is not catered by the Four Seasons. When we walk into a room, we never know if we’ll be able to walk out. The tension and depression add up. Yet we weren’t sentenced for a crime against humanity. We’re doing a necessary job. Don’t make it harder on us by flooding our cells with someone so crazy-angry he bites us. Don’t return the gang murderer. Please.
If you want to change prison policy so that the SHU inmates get sunshine, go for it! It’ll require extra guards, so be ready for a tax increase. If you want to provide them healthier food, go for it. (see above, tax increase) If you want them to have group activities, you’ll need extra guards and educators. Good luck funding that.