SACRAMENTO, CA - It appears the seven-week hunger strike by California prisoners has had an effect.
A joint legislative public safety committee met at the State Capitol Wednesday to grill state prison officials on their use of solitary confinement.
The hearing lasted nearly four hours and the highlights were plentiful.
But it was clear from the beginning that Committee Co-chair Assem. Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, was not happy with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
"I'm not a fan of solitary confinement," Ammiano said. "Spare us today, tell us the truth, even if it's not pleasant."
Steven Czifra, a former prisoner in a solitary housing unit (SHU) told the committee, "The SHU is a torture chamber. When I went in I was whole. When I left, I was a fractured man."
What is at issue, and what prompted the hunger strike and the hearing, is twofold.
First, the length of time an offender is put in solitary confinement.
Second, what lands them there in the first place.
Statewide, there are more than 4,000 prisoners in solitary confinement. They're sent there, for example, for committing more crimes in prison.
Being labeled as a gang member plays a part, too.
"Sixty percent of the population is there due to being a gang member," Assem. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said to corrections officials. "And unless we see some data, they may have not committed any violence while they were in prison."
To the credit of the corrections department, that's one situation under change.
A prisoner now has a hearing before he is given a gang label. Officials are also reviewing those who were labeled as gang members prior to the new policy.
"We are reviewing inmates every week," said Michal Stainer, CDRC Director of the Division of Adult Institutions. "Some are being retained, some are being released."
A mock solitary cell was built near the west steps of the capitol building. The cells average about 75 to 85 square feet. Prisoners in SHU spend 20 to 22 hours every day in their cell.
"It causes agonizing psychic pain," said Margaret Winter with the ACLU's National Prison Project. "Over time, those who start out sane often develop mental illness."
According to CDRC, 23 prisoners have spent more than 25 years in solitary confinement. Eighty-four have been in SHU more than 20 years; 106 - more than 15 years; 197 - more than 10 years; and 574 have spent more than five years in a solitary cell.
By Nick Monacelli, email@example.com