Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Thawing of prison isolation policy a positive sign

By Jonathan Simon

A recent hearing in Sacramento of the Assembly Public Safety Committee was another remarkable sign that California's once frozen penal policies are beginning to thaw and change. Isolation of "high risk" prisoners, in a lock-down environment designed to promote security to the exclusion of all other penal objectives has been a pillar of California's prison system since the state opened one of the largest supermax prisons in the country, the Secure Housing Unit (or SHU in the inevitable bureaucratic parlance) of California State Prison Pelican Bay in 1989. Today California houses more than 3,000 prisoners in SHU conditions at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and in smaller units at two other prisons (read Keramet Reiter's recent study here). Despite three decades of criticism, a massive court intervention in the 1990s, and piles of academic research suggesting that holding prisoners in such circumstances for prolonged periods was dangerous and counter productive, California's prison officials have always steadfastly maintained that the regime is an essential barrier against the dominant gang culture among prisoners. At yesterday's hearing however, a representative of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was promising real change (read Sam Stanton's reporting in the Sac Bee here):

"I'm not talking about having another study," Scott Kernan, undersecretary at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said at a legislative hearing. "I'm talking about having some substantive changes."

The Department's change talk may in fact be coverage to buy more time and do more studies but there are other indicators that whether sincerely desired or not change is coming.

* The hunger strike led by prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU this July, which reached as many as 6,000 prisoners statewide, received significantly more media attention and expressions of public concern than the Department (or me for that matter) expected. This strike was particularly effective in getting attention to how extreme California's practice of supermax is, especially the long time prisoners spend in theses conditions (an average of 6.8 years according to the testimony yesterday) and the fact that it is imposed not for particular crimes or violations but as a preventive measure taken against supposed gang involvement.

* The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata handed down in May not only took away any legal hope that the state could shrug off lower court orders to reduce prisoner populations by tens of thousands, but also painted California's overall penal system as distended, irrational, and degrading. The ongoing budget crisis makes the super-expensive style of incarceration especially hard to defend but Brown may be even more important is a cultural shift that is making the whole enterprise of mass incarceration morally harder to defend. A former SHU prisoner, Earl Frears, who testified yesterday put it powerfully,""I am human, and by being human I do have certain rights … ." I think that is message Californians are increasingly able to hear.

Fixing California's extreme SHU practices is overdue, as is a fix for crazy sentencing laws like Three Strikes under which many SHU prisoners serve time without end, but if this moment is as promising for change as I think it is, we need to push this reconsideration of isolation in two further ways.

First, California has isolated itself for decades from national and international concerns about prison conditions and the tolerable scale of imprisonment in a democratic society that maintains respect for human rights. Our fear decades of high crime and paranoia during the 1970s and 1980s, left the state with a kind of political PTSD in which any measure against crime, no matter how costly, futile, and inhuman, was acceptable if it painted criminals/prisoners as monsters with no claim on human dignity. As a result prison policy has lived in a moral and intellectual lock-down in which the news that prisoners are humans has a startling quality to it. (Germany didn't end up where it found itself in 1945 overnight either).

Second, we need to end the larger policy of addressing community insecurity by isolating individuals in state prison. The era of big prison government must be declared dead and over. Prison remains an appropriate penal response to the most serious crimes and threatening criminal records. We cannot, however, make communities more secure by incarcerating whole neighborhoods full of residents. Realignment must become more than a way to hide prisoners from the federal courts; it must become a commitment to addressing community insecurities precisely and directly rather than through mass incarceration.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime