After President Obama became the first in his position to visit a correctional facility, many of these institutions are experiencing sweeping reform. One such change effects California’s practice of solitary confinement. The interpretation and implementation of which is being redefined by the class action lawsuit Ashker v Governor of California. While this suit’s victory marks a major shit in solitary confinement practices, a culture of frustration, anger, and retaliation is emerging.
Solitary = Segregated Housing Units = SHU
The lawsuit, filed in 2009, was started by inmates who had been housed in solitary confinement for 20 years and contended that keeping an individual isolated in a small cell 22 1/2 hours a day amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Coupled with restricted visitation (typically only legal counsel), this only fostered anger, fear, mental illness, and did little to contribute to any actual rehabilitation.
While many prisoners deemed “dangerous” and “violent” have been sequestered to solitary indefinitely, many are labeled as such for minimal infractions or simply due to bias. The California Department of Corrections identified over 7,000 inmates as “security threats,” and had them placed into SHU, yet the criteria is questionable, at best. In the past there were only eight groups (serious gangs such as Crips, Bloods, and Aryan Brotherhood) that were targeted, and that number snowballed into 1,500 “disruptive” groups. With that definition, any person with a vaguely identifyable tattoo, an inmate who is in possession of a certain book, or with a particular ideology can be isolated. Furthermore, those with any “behavioral infraction” could be placed into the solitary housing unit indefinitely.
Reform Brings Complications
After the Sept. 4 ruling, inmates are being evaluated and reintegrated into the general population. So far, only 30% of the cases being looked at have been denied. This is bringing a massive influx of change that effects the isolated, the majority of prisoners, and the administration. Fears abound that those being released are mentally unfit to interact with the rest, following, in some cases, decades of isolation. Others fear those being released will be “high value” targets of violence for other inmates to make a name for themselves. Corrections officers and officials are vocally opposed to the reforms, and some prisoners allege they are being harassed and targeted, as a result. All of this brings to question: how do we effectively and humanely punish those already being punished?
October 8, 2015 / Ryan Serey