Prisoners in as many as 11 of California’s 33 adult prisons are currently refusing state-issued meals, reports the Los Angeles Times, in solidarity with the hunger strike begun July 1 by prisoners held in solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay supermax. It’s unclear exactly how many Pelican Bay inmates are participating in the hunger strike — the Times cites estimates ranging from 400 (from prison reform advocates) to two dozen (from a CDCR spokesperson). According to CDCR statistics, Pelican Bay’s total inmate population is about 3,500; the hunger strike was organized by inmates in the most restrictive housing unit, the SHU, which houses about 1,100 prisoners in near-total isolation.
At one level, the hunger strikers’ demands are fairly basic: better food and clothing, one phone call per month. But the strike is also motivated by a more fundamental critique of conditions in the SHU. Prison reform advocates — and many psychologists — argue that extended isolation amounts to psychological torture. Because humans evolved to be social creatures, the experience of living without human contact for months or even years on end can have devastating effects on a person’s mental stability. Harvard public health professor Atul Gawande discussed conditions in California’s prisons in his 2009 New Yorker article on the subject:
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.
Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of the general population.* Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.
… Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.
Whether or not you call it torture, Haney’s findings suggest that life in the SHU can be a vicious catch-22: the conditions of isolation can cause the very type of behavior — combativeness, vengefulness, an antisocial mindset — that prison officials often cite as justification for keeping a prisoner in isolation.