The Horrifying Experience of Solitary Confinement

Imagine being locked in a cage alone for 22 ½ hours a day, sometimes for decades on end, with no normal human contact and no exposure to direct sunlight ever. California calls them Security Housing Units (SHU’s), and over 3,000 prisoners are in facilities like this (up to 80,000 in the U.S. ). The majority of these prisons have no windows, computers, or telephone calls. Showers are typically once a week, mail is withheld regularly, meals are pushed through a slot in their cell, and there is no work or rehabilitation of any kind. Conditions like these were the focus of this summer’s two-month long California prison hunger strike by 30,000 inmates which ended September 4.

A major reason this inhumane treatment continues is the common misconception that citizen’s have about who are in these facilities. This is most likely because of the government’s claims that these solitary confinement units are only for the “worst of the worst”. The truth is that there are many prisoners with no record of violence in the outside world in these facilities and that these same solitary confinement techniques are being used in juvenile facilities as well. Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit in Crescent City, California is widely considered by prisoners as the worst facility for solitary confinement in the state, and experts have called it the worst prison in the United States.

Over a thousand prisoners are warehoused in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) and are never given access to direct sunlight, let alone the right to go outside. The rare occasions that they get visitors (as the prison’s location is also extremely isolated), it is limited to an hour and a half and there is a glass screen separating them. Prisoners are not only separated from the outside world but also from prison staff and fellow inmates. This kind of isolation, consisting of always being inside under artificial light and alone in a small cage 22 ½ hours a day (for multiple decades sometimes), has severe psychological implications.

Stuart Grassian, a Harvard psychiatrist specializing in solitary confinement, found that the effects of this type of confinement included impaired thinking, perception, impulse control, and memory, as well as hallucinations . It was considered after only a couple of weeks of solitary confinement to be “psychological torture”. This treatment of prisoners and their conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison, led to Amnesty International concluding that the facility was in violation of international law . This extremist version of solitary confinement employed by PBSP will therefore inevitably affect our greater society, as these inmates develop a gamut of mental illnesses that go untreated before being released into the population of the outside world. The “supposed” purpose of the prison system in this nation is to rehabilitate, but these SHU facilities instead just inflict severe psychological damage to prisoners who will most likely be released at some point. Prison officials at PBSP claim the SHU facility is intended to keep their other prisons safer from gang violence, yet the SHU is also filled with political prisoners with no gang affiliation. This kind of violence is still on the rise in California’s prison system and has led to the Center for Constitutional Rights filing a lawsuit against the entire California prison system for their use of long term solitary confinement, claiming it is torture and therefore illegal. To put this all in perspective, solitary confinement was utilized in the 19th century as a form of self-reproach but was abandoned after concerns about its psychological effects .

Vaughn Dortch was convicted of petty thievery, got into fights in prison, and was then sent to Pelican Bay State Prison SHU unit. After several months of extreme solitary confinement, he deteriorated psychologically and covered himself in feces. He was then forced to take a bath in scalding hot water and held down by guards until receiving third degree burns all over his body. Medics refused to give him any pain medication for thirty minutes and the head doctor even went as far as saying that he was not burned. Only one individual was found culpable and fired, while no mechanisms were put in place to prevent an incident like this from occurring again .

Todd Ashker was convicted of burglary and sentenced to six years in prison. He got into an altercation with another prisoner over a debt and murdered him (according to Ashker it was self-defense). When an individual commits murder in prison when only serving six years, it can be argued that the defensive nature one must maintain within this type of system might be at least partially culpable. An anonymous informant told prison officials that the murder was connected to the Aryan Brotherhood and as a result Ashker was sent to Pelican Bay State Prison SHU unit. While serving time there he got into an altercation that has two versions of what happened, the State’s version and Ashker’s. According to Ashker, prison guards set him up for a “gladiator style” fight and when things escalated out of control, he was shot with an assault rifle by a guard. His wound nearly severed his hand and he was dumped into a urine and feces covered cell without medical treatment. Lack of sufficient medical treatment then and afterward resulted in an aneurysm in his wound. California’s official story was that they broke up a fight between Ashker and another inmate and that he was warned multiple times before being shot. The Department of Corrections also denies dumping him in a filthy cell and that lack of decent medical treatment resulted in his aneurysm. A couple of questions come to mind when evaluating the State’s official story. How was Ashker allowed so close to another inmate, when he is supposedly in severe solitary confinement with little to no contact with anyone but prison officials? If the State’s story is so accurate, then why was Ashker awarded $225,000 in a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections in a state notoriously tough on criminals? “In this tough-on-crime attitude here in California, it’s always the case that jurors don’t want to give a criminal one red cent, so there must have been something that went on there at Pelican Bay” said attorney Herman Franck .

The only way out of the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison is to “debrief”, or tell prison officials everything you know about the prison gang you have been “validated” to belong to. The problem is that “debriefing” results in the prisoner putting himself in tremendous danger of being killed once he is back in the general prison population (because of this California leads the nation in long-term solitary confinement). Another problematic aspect of these procedures is the process of “validating” gang members. The gang “validation” process has been criticized because it can occur without evidence of any specific illegal activity and heavily rely on anonymous informants. In Ashker’s case, he has denied ties to the Aryan Brotherhood and has never been convicted of a gang-related crime. If he is telling the truth, then how is he supposed to “debrief” (even if he wanted to)?

As a result of this quagmire and the horrendous conditions that Todd Ashker has had to endure for 26 years, 26 years of no direct sunlight or normal contact with human beings, he has decided to organize to end solitary confinement. Todd has filed lawsuits, organized hunger strikes, and put out a call for a mutually agreed upon ending to hostilities between races and ethnicities in California prisons. According to this agreement, California prisoners end group racial violence against one another and force the prison system to provide rehabilitation programs and end solitary confinement. For these incredible efforts, Todd says he has been given a lack of proper medical care and a plexiglass cell front cover that makes his tiny cell incredibly hot, restricts air flow, and makes it almost impossible to communicate.

It all seems to come down to whether or not the citizens of California feel it is worth psychologically torturing people for years, and in some cases decades, in order to keep the prison system safer (a claim debunked by the increase in prison violence since SHU’s inception). Up until recently, public opinion appeared to be indifferent regarding this issue. However, this is beginning to change after prisoners across California decided to organize a hunger strike. On July 8, 2013, 30,000 prisoners began a hunger strike demanding that prisons :

1) Stop punishing groups for the actions of individuals.

2) Stop rewarding those who provide information on others.

3) Improve nutrition.

4) Institute constructive programs for those in solitary confinement.

5) End long-term solitary confinement.

This hunger strike was the biggest in California history and received support from groups ranging from Amnesty International to the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. There was one suicide (who prison officials denied was a hunger striker initially), dozens hospitalized, and court approval to engage in the force-feeding of prisoners (a violation of international law). In spite of all this, the hunger strikers continued until the state agreed to have public hearings regarding the prisoner’s concerns in October. This incredible organizing effort of prisoners condemned to solitary confinement, in combination with amazing solidarity work being organized by groups on the outside, illustrates what’s possible when the oppressed unite in a mass action against state repression. Let’s just hope that the public hearings accurately reflect what actually goes on in these facilities and leads to the end of this cruel and unusual practice.

Sources: Amnesty International. USA, the Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.

London: Amnesty International Publications, 2012.

Naday, A.; Freilich, J.; & Mellow, Jeff. “The Elusive Data on Supermax Confinement,” The Prison Journal Vol. 88; 2008.

Grassian, Stuart. “Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement,” American Journal of Psychiatry Online; 1983.

Amnesty International. USA, the Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.

London: Amnesty International Publications, 2012.

Amnesty International. USA, the Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.

London: Amnesty International Publications, 2012.

60 Minutes (2012). “Pelican Bay.” Retrieved December 24, 2012 from id=7423194n

Shioya, Tara (October 5, 1995). “Jury awards $225,000 to pelican bay inmate shot by guards.” Retrieved December 24, 2012 from

July 9, 2013. “California Prison Hunger Strike: 30,000 Inmates Refuse Meals.” Retrieved September 19, 2013from

Carroll, Rory. July 9, 2013. “California Prisoners Launch Biggest Hunger Strike in State’s History.” Retrieved September 19, 2013from