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What Do You Think: Amnesty International Blasts State Prison Program

The human rights agency called solitary confinement cruel. Should state lawmakers listen?

When Charles Dickens stopped in Philadelphia on his tour of America in 1842, he made a point of visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary, which at the time represented a new-fangled, experimental and distinctly American penal method. Dickens was horrified: “The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.”

Exactly 170 years later, some 3,000 prisoners in California live in what are known as Security Housing Units (SHU). Many of these inmates spend all but 90 minutes a day in a windowless cell measuring 9 feet by 9 feet. They are barred from religious services, work programs and other group activities. When they are allowed to exercise alone in a special yard, they view the sky through a small aperture covered with meshed plastic.

On Thursday, Amnesty International released a report urging California’s correctional system to place only the most intractable and dangerous prisoners in SHUs. The human rights agency also called on the state to improve the conditions for inmates who find themselves in isolation and to return to the general population the roughly 800 people who have been there for a decade or longer.

Amnesty International mentions several studies to bolster its claim that California’s Security Housing Units equal “cruel, degrading and inhuman conditions that violate international law.” Dickens consulted his novelist’s imagination to reach similar conclusions in 1842:

“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature.”

It’s worth noting that Dickens credited the designers of Eastern State Penitentiary with sincerely wishing to reform criminals. Can Californians today make the same claim for our correctional system? Should the state’s lawmakers listen to Amnesty International? 

Ian Lipnicky (still a SportsFan) October 01, 2012 at 04:28 AM
Such charming people as Charles Manson have spent time in solitary confinement. I'm not wasting my tears on the likes of Charlie Manson. It's a pity he hasn't been kept in solitary confinement every single day that he's been in prison.
Sarah Creeley October 01, 2012 at 04:30 AM
Anyone who cares about human rights. I agree with Amnesty International.
XBerkeleyite October 01, 2012 at 09:01 AM
True, Salt the Plumber. Those held in isolation units and Super Max admin. segregation need to be there for everyones' safety. They are indeed the worst of the worst. Pelican Bay, one California prison designed for our intractably violent offenders houses murder committing, verified gang members and their leaders who cannot have access to fellow gang members or the outside world, convicted violent offenders who as prisoners are unpredictable, assaultive inmates and continue to act out aggressively. Then, there are those who must be isolated for their own protection. In short, California hosts a large culture of violent, assaultive criminals who cannot be maintained safely in any general prison population. A.I. has no idea.
1776peace October 22, 2012 at 01:33 AM
If we had a society that really cared for what happens to people we would be building Rehabilitation Centers not prisons! America has it backwards. Prisons have become a business.
None October 22, 2012 at 02:42 AM
I believe our society has compassion for people caught up by the acts of criminals, lots of it. I know I have for the ones who have lost members of their family to a criminal, folks who have been robbed, carjacked, and pistol whipped and raped. I really feel for folks who have been robbed and shot and their kids kidnapped. However, the folks that did these things fail to get my sympathy, any of it. A rock pile, a cell with no windows and no TV is really “OK” with me. If the prison system does not suit your particular lifestyle, there is an easy way to avoid it, don’t do the crime. If prison was so bad, why do so many people find their way back into the prison system? We don’t need to give them anything except a couple of meals a day and a cot. The Amnesty folks are just a bunch of bleeding hearts and folks in need of a cause.

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