On July 27, The Real News Network reported that the prisoner hunger strike in Georgia entered its 47th day. The strike began with ten prisoners participating; it has since dwindled to two remaining strikers.
At this point, the strikers have only a few demands. They demand medical care for injuries they suffered as a result of beatings by guards 19 months ago. They ask that their families be granted visitation rights, which were arbitrarily revoked without explanation. Perhaps most notably, according to Bruce Dixon, the prisoners demand “that their status in solitary confinement be reviewed, as per written state procedure, every 30 days, so that the state should give a reason for why they are in solitary.”
These prisoners are simply demanding that the government give a reason to keep them held in solitary. This is an extremely moderate demand when we consider that solitary confinement is widely recognized as a method of torture.
In 2011, UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez declared that “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Furthermore, he called for an absolute ban on solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days, citing evidence that it could cause permanent psychological damage.
If the UN strikes you as too liberal a source, ask John McCain about solitary. The Republican senator and former presidential candidate has written, “It’s an awful thing, solitary … It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” McCain, like many other Vietnam veterans subjected to torture, found solitary confinement to be as damaging as any of the physical abuses he faced.
Yet today, the United States government is the world’s largest perpetrator of this torture technique. In addition to having the largest prison population on the planet, the United States holds approximately 80,000 prisoners in solitary. Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project points out that Americans concerned with torture abroad need to realize that they are “living with black sites in their own backyards.”
These domestic “black sites” are not just for violent criminals. According to a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, more than 60% of American prisoners are nonviolent offenders. And once they’ve been locked up, they can be sent to solitary without ever posing a real threat. A recent report in The Nation by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway found that the second most common reason prisoners in New York were sent to solitary was that their urine tested positive for drugs. “In a prison system where 85 percent of inmates are in need of substance-abuse treatment, drug use alone can get you up to ninety days in solitary, and a year if it happens multiple times,” Ridgeway and Casella explained.
A year in solitary confinement is more than enough time to cause permanent psychological damage. Yet the US government is willing to hold people in solitary for far longer than a year. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodcox have now spent over 40 years in solitary in Louisiana’s Angola prison. Many believe they were targeted for their prison activism with the Black Panther Party. The stated reason for their confinement is a crime that occurred over 40 years ago, a murder charge built on questionable evidence.
While the Angola case is extreme, it represents America’s cavalier approach to torturing prisoners. The US government leads the world in subjecting prisoners to extreme social isolation, and typically combines this torture with other abuses. Furthermore, those subjected to this torture are disproportionately ethnic minorities and the poor.
Fortunately, a resistance is building. In addition to the prisoner hunger strike in Georgia, recent hunger strikes in California’s Pelican Bay Prison and Virginia’s Red Onion Prison have challenged solitary confinement and other inhumane conditions. Outside prison walls, journalists like James Ridgeway are working to expose the horrors of solitary.
This resistance must escalate. Many held in solitary are there for non-violent and victimless “crimes.” Still more may be innocent. But regardless of what crimes America’s prisoners may have committed, a state that commits torture on a mass scale is a far more heinous criminal.
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