A New York Times editorial this week picked up the story about the Pelican Bay hunger strike, offering support for the strikers.
With their health deteriorating, those inmates continuing to fast resumed eating after state prison officials met a few modest demands. Inmates in Pelican Bay’s isolation unit will get wool caps for cold weather, wall calendars to mark the passing time and some educational programming. Prison officials said current isolation and gang management policies are under review. But the protest has raised awareness about the national shame of extended solitary confinement at Pelican Bay and at high-security, “supermax” prisons all around the country.
Once used occasionally as a short-term punishment for violating prison rules, solitary confinement’s prevalent use as a long-term prison management strategy is a fairly recent development, Colin Dayan, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said in a recent Op-Ed article in The Times. Nationally, more than 20,000 inmates are confined in “supermax” facilities in horrid conditions.
Prison officials claim the treatment is necessary for combating gang activity and other threats to prison order. It is possible to maintain physical separation of prisoners without ultraharsh levels of deprivation and isolation. Mississippi, which once set the low bar for terrible prison practices, saw a steep reduction of prison violence and ample monetary savings when it dramatically cut back on long-term solitary several years ago.
And there's a humonetarian angle, too:
Holding prisoners in solitary also is very expensive, and several other states have begun to make reductions. In any case, decency requires limits. Resorting to a dehumanizing form of punishment well known to induce suffering and drive people into mental illness is beyond them.