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Op-Ed: Solitary confinement in California

By Alexander Baron     Aug 11, 2013 in Crime
Crescent City - The ongoing controversy over prisoners in solitary confinement at California's Pelican Bay State Prison raises questions with no easy answers.
One stock phrase bandied about in this connection is "a particularly cruel and inhuman form of punishment". Let's be clear about one thing: prison is a punishment, and is meant to be. Broadly speaking there are three kinds of men in prison - let's forget about women and minors for the sake of this dissertation, and remand prisoners.
There are those who are serving short, sometimes very short sentences. Those who are serving longer sentences. And those who will be behind bars until they die.
We need not concern ourselves here with the first category except to say that some end up serving a life sentence on the instalment plan, and until we find a way to rehabilitate them, this sorry state of affairs will continue. For most of these men, the real problem is an economic rather than a social one.
Let us now consider the third category; this includes common or garden murderers, who for whatever reason may never be released; it also includes the worst of the worst, and in this connection, three examples will suffice.
Although Mark Bridger committed only one murder, it should be clear to anyone au fait with his case that he will never be released, and rightly so. He is clearly a danger to young girls and will be so until the day he dies.
Another such inmate from the UK is the baby-faced Ian Huntley. Although not a recent case, anyone in the UK over about the age of 20 who has not been confined to a monastery will have a graphic mental image of the Soham Murders. Again, Huntley will never be freed.
Finally, the case of Ariel Castro, the man in the recent Cleveland Captives case. This was so horrific that it beggars belief. Castro avoided the death penalty in a plea bargain.
Of the above, Ian Huntley has been in solitary confinement for most of his sentence; attempts to integrate him into the prison population have resulted in his being attacked by the usual plastic gangsters. Mark Bridger has been behind bars as a convicted child killer for only a short time, but has already been targeted by the same type of person. Ariel Castro has the same thing to look forward to, and will almost certainly end up in solitary confinement either at his own request or as a pragmatic decision by the prison authorities.
Prisoners are also segregated to protect others; the recently executed murder Robert Gleason killed one man, which was why he was in gaol, and then murdered another two, one while he was theoretically segregated. Does anyone really care what happens to such men, or should we?
Now that hard labour, corporal punishment and for the most part capital punishment have been abolished, about the only punishment that can be legally inflicted on any inmate is to be locked in a room and left there, which could easily bore a man to death. Now let us consider the second category, which includes many of those segregated in Pelican Bay.
Americans are obsessed with statistics, an obsession which is shared by their Government, and there is a great deal of information about the prison population on the Pelican Bay website. Offenders (male and female) are serving hard time for everything from murder one to vehicular manslaughter, to burglary to petty theft.
As Pelican Bay is supposed to house "California’s most serious criminal offenders", it remains to be seen why thieves and common or garden burglars are also to be found behind its walls.
Is it right to segregate indefinitely men who will one day be released? More to the point, is it intelligent? There is plenty of evidence that for many if not most people, prolonged isolation coupled with total boredom can have serious consequences for their mental health. Check out this video.
Can it be right to keep such men in cells that have no natural light, and to allow them to exercise in what is little more than a large bare, cell with a closed in roof?
If they are segregated for genuine security reasons or punishment - about the only punishment that can be legally inflicted on them - that is another matter, but for such nebulous offences as "belonging to a gang" - something that is all but impossible to prove, and in a sense meaningless because prison gang members don't pay dues or carry ID cards - then clearly something is wrong with the system, and what is wrong is that it is all stick and no carrot.
Long term segregation and isolation should not be an option for this second group; there have been initiatives in the UK to deal with men who flout prison rules, and it is to the UK perhaps that the American authorities should look for a meaningful solution.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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