A hunger strike in the California prison system is an urgent reminder about the horror that is solitary confinement in America. Every day behind prison walls, California and other states are subjecting prisoners to psychological torture by use of solitary confinement.
Since early July, thousands of prisoners in California state prisons have refused meals and their work duties, in protest of the state's odious solitary confinement policy. Nearly 30,000 prisoners initially participated in the protest, making it the largest strike of its kind in state history. A 2011 protest of 6,600 inmates led to promises of reform, yet few inmates were released from the hole.
California currently holds more than 10,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, with hundreds languishing under these conditions, in isolation, for 20 or even 30 years. Some are in solitary for infractions as inconsequential as reading Machiavelli's "The Prince."
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, most of the 80,000 people kept in solitary confinement in America are severely mentally ill or being punished for a minor infraction.
In 2011, Juan Mendez, a U.N. special rapporteur on torture, called for an immediate international ban on solitary confinement except in rare circumstances, given the lasting mental illness that even short stints of a few days can produce. And he called for an absolute prohibition on solitary confinement with a duration of more than 15 days and for the mentally disabled and juveniles.
"Solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion technique," Mendez told the U.N. General Assembly. "Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
In 2012, Amnesty International denounced solitary confinement in two California prisons, calling it "cruel, degrading and inhuman." It noted that often "prisoners are confined for relatively minor infractions of rules or disruptive behavior."
Prisoners are right to demand an end to long-term solitary confinement. And while that is their rallying cry, the hunger strike has become a focal point for prisoners and their supporters who demand a reform to the penal system and conditions behind bars in general.
On behalf of California's 130,000 inmates, striking prisoners are seeking other reforms, including an end to group punishment for the actions of individuals, adequate and nutritious food, and privileges such as a weekly phone call and expanded visiting.
In today's prisons, we have punishment for punishment's sake, not rehabilitation, and the hunger strike against solitary confinement is proof of that. Solitary confinement is torture, a living tomb - the type of thing the United States condemns when other nations practice it.
America must match its actions with its rhetoric and stop solitary confinement now.
David A. Love is the executive director of Witness to Innocence, a national organization of exonerated former death-row prisoners and their families.
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