ACLU/SC Executive Director Hector Villagra delivered the following remarks at a press conference at the KRST Unity Center in South Los Angeles.
It has been said that to measure the degree of civilization in a society, you must enter its prisons. If you enter our prisons, you will see evidence of a barbarous and savage society, one where torture is apparently not only legal but commonplace.
The ACLU of Southern California joins its allies today to support the striking prisoners’ demands to end cruel and inhumane conditions in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison and at other prisons across the state and country. Today, 44 states and the federal government have built so-called “supermax” prisons similar to Pelican Bay — housing at least 25,000 people nationwide.
At these institutions, prisoners face solitary confinement in small, often windowless concrete or metal boxes. They remain confined there up to 24 hours a day. They have little human contact or interaction. There are severe restraints on visitation, and they are restricted from group activities, like eating or exercising with others. They are often denied reading material, radios, or other property.
In California prisons, time in solitary confinement can drag on years or even decades. Such prolonged isolation crushes the mind and kills the spirit. We call it torture when it is done to prisoners of war. In fact, prisoners of war say that prolonged isolation is as bad, if not worse, than any physical abuse, and it may lead more directly to permanent psychological damage.
According to one study conducted at Pelican Bay itself – prisoners subjected to months or years of complete isolation lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind. In the most extreme cases, they literally stop behaving at all – they become catatonic.
But solitary confinement isn’t just a brutal policy; it is a policy that ultimately puts public safety at risk. That’s because prisoners subjected to extreme isolation cannot properly reintegrate into society and are more likely to commit crimes in the future. An alarming number of prisoners are released directly from secure housing units into the community.
It’s time for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to correct itself – to implement policies that enhance safety both inside and outside prison walls.
We call on the state to bring the hunger strike to a swift and peaceful conclusion.
We call on Governor Brown and CDCR Secretary, Matthew Cate, to significantly curtail the use of the SHU at Pelican Bay and other California prisons.
We call on them to provide all prisoners confined to the SHU items, services, and programs necessary for psychological and physical well-being including warm clothing, out-of-cell time, and participation in rehabilitative programs.