Viewpoints: Indefinite solitary confinement is moral issue worth hunger strike

07/12/2013 12:00 AM

10/10/2013 8:14 AM

Tonight my partner will go to bed hungry. Actually he will go to bed starving, and it won't really be a bed. He will forgo a too-thin, too-short, too-lumpy mattress on a concrete slab and sleep on the concrete floor to catch a drift of fresh air seeping in under his cell door, which is covered in Plexiglas.

On Monday, he joined thousands of other prisoners throughout California in a nonviolent protest against conditions of indefinite solitary confinement, the third such hunger strike in two years. It is not what anyone wants, but he chose to unite with other inmates in heart to illuminate the nightmare of living in extreme sensory deprivation – an 8-by-10-foot windowless concrete box, eating and sleeping next to the toilet. Accepting that public sympathies may not be on his side, his mind is nonetheless at peace, though his body is no doubt starting to rebel.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there are nearly 4,000 prisoners statewide in Security Housing Units, called the SHU: solitary confinement. No court of law sentences anyone to isolation: ending up in this "prison within a prison" is an internal administrative act. Although other states, including Maine and Mississippi, have reduced their use of solitary confinement in agreement with mental health experts, international human rights organizations and legal advocates that prolonged isolation is torture, California – with the nation's largest prison population – has not seen fit to place human rights and rehabilitation above excessive and dehumanizing punishment.

The conditions of solitary confinement, even for short periods, can cause irreparable physical and psychological damage, sometimes leading to suicide. My loved one, who is in prison for robbery, has not seen the sun or stars, a blade of grass, a car, a shadow, an animal, or a tree; has not heard a dog barking nor seen a bird flying, nor enjoyed a friendly touch, in all these years. He has never used a computer or seen a cellphone. Our only means of communication is letters, which are always read, sometimes lost, occasionally delayed; this, and brief non-contact visits, even for families traveling thousands of miles.

Before the first two nonviolent protests in 2011, a few prisoners representing all racial groups united behind five "core demands," asking the corrections department to ameliorate the lack of human dignity and constitutional rights of due process and cruel and unusual punishment. While some welcome changes have been made, prime issues remain unresolved. Indefinite confinement continues; debatable evidence for placing and retaining someone in the SHU remains intact; and rehabilitation programming is uneven at best, despite a $25 million surplus as revealed by corrections secretary Jeffrey Beard in his June confirmation hearing.

When Californians are more morally outraged by the confinement of chickens than of human beings, we must ask, is this the kind of society we want to live in? It may be easy to turn a blind eye, a deaf ear and a closed heart to an outcast segment of society deemed unworthy. But that doesn't make it right. No one is saying these prisoners shouldn't be punished for individual crimes; they are saying these prisoners shouldn't be punished for the crimes of humanity.

It is time to shift the dialogue from crime and punishment to institutional and moral accountability. Prisons are by nature closed systems whose function is to oversee the deprivation of liberty, but they are funded by taxpayers with a stake in what happens inside. Fear and ignorance are no excuse for depriving anyone of human justice and moral decency. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."

This is our justice system, and these are our prisons. We should know what happens after the door is locked behind a prisoner. And when it costs more to incarcerate than to educate, we should be monitoring how our taxpayer dollars are being spent.

The ancient Greeks considered exile the worst form of punishment; Socrates took hemlock instead. Please contact your elected representatives asking to bring this protest to a rapid and equitable conclusion before human beings die – not from starvation, but because of society's neglect and indifference.

Beth Witrogen, who lives in Martinez, is a writer who has been published in the San Francisco Examiner and the Wall Street Journal.

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