[Marxism] Barbarous Confinement

Bonnie Weinstein giobon at comcast.net
Mon Jul 18 10:50:53 MDT 2011

Barbarous Confinement
July 17, 2011


MORE than 1,700 prisoners in California, many of whom are in maximum  
isolation units, have gone on a hunger strike. The protest began with  
inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison. How  
they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone’s guess —  
but their protest is everyone’s concern. Many of these prisoners have  
been sent to virtually total isolation and enforced idleness for no  
crime, not even for alleged infractions of prison regulations. Their  
isolation, which can last for decades, is often not explicitly  
disciplinary, and therefore not subject to court oversight. Their  
treatment is simply a matter of administrative convenience.

Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of  
discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention. The  
Supreme Court, over the last two decades, has whittled steadily away  
at the rights of inmates, surrendering to prison administrators  
virtually all control over what is done to those held in  
“administrative segregation.” Since it is not defined as punishment  
for a crime, it does not fall under “cruel and unusual punishment,”  
the reasoning goes.

As early as 1995, a federal judge, Thelton E. Henderson, conceded  
that so-called “supermax” confinement “may well hover on the edge of  
what is humanly tolerable,” though he ruled that it remained  
acceptable for most inmates. But a psychiatrist and Harvard  
professor, Stuart Grassian, had found that the environment was  
“strikingly toxic,” resulting in hallucinations, paranoia and  
delusions. In a “60 Minutes” interview, he went so far as to call it  
“far more egregious” than the death penalty.

Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, claim that those  
incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit are “the worst of the  
worst.” Yet often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally  
ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation.  
Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived  
as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and,  
most of all, alleged gang members. Often, the decisions are not based  
on evidence. And before the inmates are released from the barbarity  
of 22-hour-a-day isolation into normal prison conditions (themselves  
shameful) they are often expected to “debrief,” or spill the beans on  
other gang members.

The moral queasiness that we must feel about this method of  
extracting information from those in our clutches has all but  
disappeared these days, thanks to the national shame of “enhanced  
interrogation techniques” at Guantánamo. Those in isolation can get  
out by naming names, but if they do so they will likely be killed  
when returned to a normal facility. To “debrief” is to be targeted  
for death by gang members, so the prisoners are moved to “protective  
custody” — that is, another form of solitary confinement.

Hunger strikes are the only weapon these prisoners have left. Legal  
avenues are closed. Communication with the outside world, even with  
family members, is so restricted as to be meaningless. Possessions —  
paper and pencil, reading matter, photos of family members, even hand- 
drawn pictures — are removed. (They could contain coded messages  
between gang members, we are told, or their loss may persuade the  
inmates to snitch when every other deprivation has failed.)

The poverty of our criminological theorizing is reflected in the  
official response to the hunger strike. Now refusing to eat is  
regarded as a threat, too. Authorities are considering force-feeding.  
It is likely it will be carried out — as it has been, and possibly  
still continues to be — at Guantánamo (in possible violation of  
international law) and in an evil caricature of medical care.

In the summer of 1996, I visited two “special management units” at  
the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. A warden boasted that  
one of the units was the model for Pelican Bay. He led me down the  
corridors on impeccably clean floors. There was no paint on the  
concrete walls. Although the corridors had skylights, the cells had  
no windows. Nothing inside could be moved or removed. The cells  
contained only a poured concrete bed, a stainless steel mirror, a  
sink and a toilet. Inmates had no human contact, except when  
handcuffed or chained to leave their cells or during the often brutal  
cell extractions. A small place for exercise, called the “dog pen,”  
with cement floors and walls, so high they could see nothing but the  
sky, provided the only access to fresh air.

Later, an inmate wrote to me, confessing to a shame made palpable and  
real: “If they only touch you when you’re at the end of a chain, then  
they can’t see you as anything but a dog. Now I can’t see my face in  
the mirror. I’ve lost my skin. I can’t feel my mind.”

Do we find our ethics by forcing prisoners to live in what Judge  
Henderson described as the setting of “senseless suffering” and  
“wretched misery”? Maybe our reaction to hunger strikes should  
involve some self-reflection. Not allowing inmates to choose death as  
an escape from a murderous fate or as a protest against continued  
degradation depends, as we will see when doctors come to make their  
judgment calls, on the skilled manipulation of techniques that are  
indistinguishable from torture. Maybe one way to react to prisoners  
whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to  
death might be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings.

Colin Dayan, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is the  
author of “The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake  

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