California nightmares: sensory deprivation and the Security Housing Units

Back in April I was blogging about the use of sensory deprivation by the prison authorities in the US state of Arizona.

You'll recall (or you may not recall!) that I was summarising an Amnesty report on the issue, noting that the “Special Management Units” of the state’s super-max prisons warehoused nearly 3,000 prisoners in extreme lockdown-type conditions – “no communal gatherings of any kind, no conversations, no visual or auditory stimulation or distraction, no opportunity to even touch another human being.”

Well, what Arizona does, California can do ... worse. Take the Pelican Bay State Prison maximum security complex in Crescent City, in the far north of California. This features a so-called “Security Housing Unit” which is closely modelled on the Arizona isolation units. This is how it’s designed:

It consists of a low level concrete structure divided into cell blocks. The cell blocks themselves are divided into “pods”, each containing eight cells arranged on two tiers.  The cells have no windows and face a blank wall so that prisoners have no view and cannot see each other. Each pod is self-contained with an exercise pen at one end and a shower at the other .... A central control area overlooks each cell-block, with TV screens giving a view into the pods. In general, correctional staff enter the pods only when delivering food to prisoners through slots in the cell doors, or when conducting cell searches. All doors are operated electronically and individually, so that a prisoner can be let out of his cell to go the exercise pen or shower cell without having contact with a guard or another prisoner.

It’s like a high-tech update of those Victorian-era “Panopticon” prisons described by the philosopher-historian Michel Foucault. Or the sort of place Stanley Kubrick might have dreamt up if he'd made a dystopian prison film.

There are over 3,000 prisoners in California held in these stripped-down “pods”. At the Pelican Bay prison, which has 1,100 of these, more than 500 inmates have spent in excess of ten years in their pods (78 prisoners have been Pelican pod-dwellers for a staggering 20 years).

Minimal light, fresh air or sunlight. Minimal stimulation or human interaction. It’s a sort of suspended animation. A ghastly sci-fi-like re-imagining of imprisonment. A major concern is what this does to people who are eventually released back into their communities, in many cases undoubtedly damaged by the experience.

The Amnesty report insists there’s “no justifiable penological reason for depriving prisoners ... of natural light, adequate exercise or meaningful human contact.” Even for short periods. The prison authorities claim the isolation regime is necessary to combat gang violence in Californian prisons, but it seems the original architects of Pelican Bay themselves envisaged isolation being used for no more than 18 months at a stretch. Now, 18 years is not unusual....

There are some 25,000 US prisoners currently held in extreme isolation. Not bad for the Land Of The Free. But California, the “Land of Sunshine and Opportunity”, is the place where more prisoners are held for longest, buried out of sight of the sun in their sterile pods. Never mind California dreaming ... it's the stuff of nightmares.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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1 comment

Thank you for this. An idea, as you say from Foucault, and seemingly designed to see inside the minds of the prisoners let alone their cells and to see them empty of their dignity; discipline and punish indeed! To spend a day let alone many months and years, one can surely have nothing left and says much about the state that is content to see this happen to one of their own citizens.

ShaunThinks 6 years ago