|Todd Ashker. Photo courtesy CDCR,
reproduced from New York Magazine
In the aftermath of the hunger strike against conditions in the SHU, we are witnessing legislative interest in improving conditions in solitary confinement. We recently reported on CDCR’s changes to gang restrictions, on the legislative hearings in Sacramento, and on Tom Ammiano’s proposition to limit gang-related SHU stays to 36 months. At this point, Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ article in New York Magazine, The Plot from Solitary, is particularly welcome. The article is so interesting, thorough, and multifaceted that I strongly recommend you read it in its entirety. Here are just a few highlights that interested me the most:
The article does a very good job juxtaposing the position of inmates and their supporters to that of CDCR staff.
From the beginning, even the most basic matters about the strike—what Ashker and the others were after, why so many people joined them, what the strike demonstrated—were opaque, and profoundly disputed. To the prisoners and their supporters, this was a protest against barbaric treatment, and the SHU was both an outrage in itself and a symbol of the arbitrariness and brutality of the prison system across the nation. The strike’s leaders had challenged the SHU’s constitutionality in court, arguing that the limits it placed on social interaction violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and they had watched closely as a few other states, some pressured by prisoners and others mandated by judges, had de-emphasized solitary confinement. They believed they were part of a human-rights movement. But the prison officials saw something far simpler at work: a tactical maneuver by the gangs, acting in collusion, to end a system that had made it much more difficult for them to operate as they pleased.
We also get fairly in-depth backgrounds of the Short Corridor strike leaders, complete with their lives before incarceration and some information about their standing vis-a-vis their own gangs, which adds to the complexity of the organization. And, we also get a blow-by-blow description of how news of the strike were transmitted across SHU cells:
Jamaa thought his fellow inmates might need some concrete encouragement. His private fast the previous fall had lasted 33 days, and he believed he could have gone longer. Soon after last summer’s strike began, the four leaders were moved from the SHU to a unit called Administrative Segregation, and Jamaa, entering the unit, started to holler, “Forty days and 40 nights! Forty days and 40 nights!” If prisoners can be counted upon to know any literature, it is the literature of suffering that in the Bible precedes redemption. Jamaa had chosen his slogan with intent: They were Moses in the desert. At night, Jamaa would drop on his knees, put his mouth to the crack between the door and the floor, and yell: “Forty days and 40 nights!” Soon, new hunger strikers arriving in AdSeg were shouting the slogan as they were hustled in. It was then that Jamaa began to believe their movement had some possibility, some momentum.
And a very sophisticated explanation of the gang leadership controvresy from Craig Haney:
Haney returned to Pelican Bay last year, for a follow-up study, and found that these patterns of self-isolation had deepened. Many inmates had discouraged family members from visiting, and some seemed to consider all social interactions a nuisance. “They have systematically extinguished all of the social skills they need to survive,” Haney says. Those inmates who do comparatively well tend to replace the social networks outside the SHU with those within it—which, in a society composed of alleged gang members, often means gangs. “In isolation,” he says, “gang activity is the only contact that is possible; it is the only loyalty that is possible; it is the only connection that is possible.”
And this bit about the effects of Judge Henderson’s ruling allowing force-feeding of inmates:
Until this point, the prisoners had thought of the guards—and, more broadly, the state—as their captors. But the state is also their warden and their protector: A prison is designed to separate convicts from society and prevent them from doing more harm, but also to shelter them and keep them alive. The judge’s order returned repeatedly to the problem of coercion. The specter of gang influence was so strong, Henderson’s ruling suggested, that the state could not trust that a prisoner’s advance medical directive had been made freely—that he had made his own decision about the terms under which he was willing to die. The strike leaders had thought that by volunteering to risk their own deaths they could compel the state to see them as individuals, and that in at least this one instance they could reassert freedom of control over their lives. But they had been wrong.
Read the whole thing. It’s fascinating and very well written.