African asylum seekers strike to demand rights, hold unprecedented rally in Tel Aviv
January 6, 2014
Over 20,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea, assembled in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Sunday morning to demand recognition as refugees. Across Israel, asylum seekers went on a three-day strike, and more protests were planned.
In recent weeks, the government stepped up the arrest and imprisonment of African asylum seekers who entered the state without permits. Several months ago, Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down a law authorizing the state to lock up for three years any person who entered the country illegally, and in some cases, indefinitely. But last month the Knesset passed a new law, authorizing the state to hold asylum seekers in “closed” prisons for a year. A new “open” holding facility named “Holot” began operating in the desert, where asylum seekers can be held indefinitely until their eventual deportation.
The government has stepped up enforcement measures against Israeli businesses that employ asylum seekers in recent weeks and months and municipalities have been shutting down shops and restaurants owned by Africans, adding to a feeling of despair in the asylum seeker community.
The general strike is the latest step in the African protest campaign against the recent measures. Dozens of asylum seekers walked out of the Holot facility (most of them were returned by force), large marches took place in Tel Aviv and Eritrean dissidents broke into an event in the North hosted by the Eritrean ambassador to Israel. Some 50 people were injured and arrested in the fight that broke out between the regime supporters and the protesters.
Most asylum seekers who do work are employed in hotels and restaurants, mostly as various types of cleaners.
Click here for +972 Magazine’s full coverage of asylum seekers in Israel
Protesters in Tel Aviv held signs reading: “We are not criminals; we are refugees,” and “Freedom”. Speakers told stories about the plight of the community. “We are living in fear,” one speaker said, “the government waged war on us.” At least a couple members of Knesset showed up and expressed their support for the asylum seekers.
Speaking at the rally, chair of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) said, “this is an existing moment: tens of thousands of innocent people are not willing to go to prison, standing together and shouting: ‘we are not criminals.”
“There are certain steps (taken by the state) about which we cannot stay silent,” she continued. “It’s time for real answers – and the government can give them.”
There are some 53,000 African Asylum seekers in Israel. The government refuses to review their individual requests for refugee status and instead refers to them as “infiltrators.” The term, which was used to describe Palestinians refugees that tried to enter the country in the 1950s, is also commonly used in the Hebrew media.
Death row inmates now executed with drug cocktail used to euthanize animals
October 11, 2012
Facing a shortage of supplies for lethal injections, US law enforcement officials have begun executing prisoners with an animal anesthetic that has not been approved at the federal level, with the first such execution coming this week.
European pharmacies, citing a moral issue with capital punishment, have stopped sending certain drugs to regions of the US that still carry out the death penalty, areas that include Ohio, Missouri, Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona.
States are still using pentobarbital, intended to euthanize animals, while local supplies last but those without that option have begun “making changes in their lethal injection process,” Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Agence France Presse.
Missouri began using propofol, the anesthetic that killed pop star Michael Jackson, but when the German supplier discovered how the drug was being used it ceased distribution to Missouri. The same happened when Denmark found out other states were using drugs produced there to execute prisoners.
“This is a continuing theme: every time a state starts to use a new drug, the company that makes that drug stops selling it,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University and expert on the subject.
Compounding pharmacies, which create specialized pharmaceutical product meant to fit the needs of a patient, have begun producing the drugs for state authorities.
But because of the lack of transparency around the production process – one compounding pharmacy was responsible for a fatal meningitis outbreak in 2012 because of poor hygiene – prisoners argue that risky drug cocktails put them at risk of being subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is prohibited under the US Constitution.
Earlier this month three Texas-based death row prisoners filed a lawsuit arguing this type of pharmacy is ”not subject to stringent FDA regulations” and is ”one of the leading sources for counterfeit drugs entering the US,” the lawsuit reads, as quoted by AFP.
"There is a significant chance that [the pentobarbital] could be contaminated, creating a grave likelihood that the lethal injection process could be extremely painful, or harm or handicap plaintiffs without actually killing them," it adds.
“Nobody really knows the quality of the drugs, because of the lack of oversight,” Denno told AFP.
Michael Yowell, who was convicted of murdering his parents 15 years ago, was executed in Texas Wednesday. He became the first inmate to be executed in Texas with pentobarbital since European nations halted production for this purpose. His lawyers unsuccessfully tried to stop him from being killed, saying the compounded factors in pentobarbital make the drug unpredictable and there have not been enough trials to guarantee the death is painless.
US judge approved force-feeding California inmates who have been on hunger strike since July 8
August 19, 2013
A federal judge approved a request from California and federal officials on Monday to force-feed inmates if necessary as a statewide prison hunger strike entered its seventh week.
Officials say they fear for the welfare of nearly 70 inmates who have refused all prison-issued meals since the strike began July 8 over the holding of gang leaders and other violent inmates in solitary confinement that can last for decades.
They are among nearly 130 inmates in six prisons who were refusing meals. When the strike began it included nearly 30,000 of the 133,000 inmates in California prisons.
Prison policy is to let inmates starve to death if they have signed legally binding do-not-resuscitate (DNR) requests. But state corrections officials and a federal receiver who controls inmate medical care received blanket authority from U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco to feed inmates who may be in failing health. The order includes those who recently signed requests that they not be revived.
Henderson oversees the ongoing lawsuit over inmates’ medical care. The filing Monday came as prison officials and inmates’ attorneys argued over whether strikers should be allowed to voluntarily begin a liquid diet.
"Patients have a right to refuse medical treatment. They also have a right to refuse food," said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the receiver’s office.
However, “If an inmate gets to the point where he can’t tell us what his wishes are, for instance if he’s found unresponsive in his cell, and we don’t have a DNR, we’re going to get nourishment into him. That’s what doctors do. They’re going to follow their medical ethics,” Hayhoe said. “We’d take any and all measures to sustain their life.”
The process, which prison officials call “refeeding,” could include starting intravenous fluids or snaking feeding tubes through inmates’ noses and into their stomachs.
Prison officials already can seek a court order forcing an individual inmate to take food, though they have not done so. Now they and the receiver’s office are jointly asking for blanket permission to take that step without seeking orders on a case-by-case basis.
The federal and state officials were joined in the request by the Prison Law Office, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that represents inmates’ welfare in ongoing lawsuits that led to a federal takeover of the prison health care system and a requirement that the state sharply reduce its inmate population to improve conditions.
They want Henderson to let the chief medical executive at each prison act if a hunger striker is at risk of “near-term death or great bodily injury” or is no longer deemed competent to give consent or make medical decisions.
Moreover, do-not-resuscitate directives would not be honored if the medical executive reasonably believes the inmate was coerced into signing the request or if an attorney representing the inmate revokes the request.
Do-not-resuscitate orders signed by a hunger striker at or near the beginning of the strike or during the hunger strike would automatically be deemed invalid.
"Force-feeding violates international law to the extent that it involves somebody who doesn’t give their consent," said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents 10 inmates suing to end prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Lobel said prison officials should look for alternatives, including providing the inmates with a liquid diet of fruit and vegetable drinks as they have requested, or negotiating with inmates over their demands.
However, Lobel said he will not seek to overturn Henderson’s order.
Prison officials said Monday that inmates are free to consume a liquid diet, but will be counted as having ended their hunger strike if they consume anything more than water, vitamins and electrolytes.
The most high-profile case of force-feeding prisoners has been the involuntary feeding of several dozen terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay through nasal tubes.
Other federal judges have turned down bids by the Guantanamo Bay inmates to stop the force-feeding. U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer said in a ruling last month that numerous courts said it is the government’s duty to prevent suicide and to provide life-saving nutritional and medical care to people in custody.
California incarcerates about 3,600 inmates in what are known as Security Housing Units, some because of crimes they committed in prison and others for indefinite terms if they are validated as leaders of prison gangs.
Four prisons have the units: Pelican Bay in Crescent City, Corcoran, California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi and California State Prison-Sacramento.
The highest-ranking gang leaders are held in what is known as the “short corridor” at Pelican Bay. Four leaders of rival white supremacist, black and enemy Latino gangs have formed an alliance to promote the hunger strike in a bid to force an end to the isolation units.
Indefinite solitary confinement violates human rights by Dr. Angela Davis
August 13, 2013
California prisoners are now in their 33rd day of a hunger strike; what they are risking their health and possibly their lives for is basic: an end to indefinite solitary confinement, a practice that most countries recognize as a violation of basic human rights.
Yet both Gov. Jerry Brown and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard are intransigent in their refusal to engage in honest negotiations with the prisoners.
Theirs is a system deep in crisis, mired in decades of lawsuits challenging numerous violations of the legal rights of prisoners that have yielded relatively little in terms of fundamental change. Headlines from the last month alone reveal the inability of current leadership to respect the most basic rights of California prisoners:
On Aug. 2, in spite of assertions by Brown that prison conditions have improved, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to delay a court order for California to release nearly 10,000 prisoners by year’s end to improve conditions in state prisons.
The three-judge panel overseeing the state’s prisons ruled that California must cut its prison population to deal with unconstitutional prison conditions such as substandard medical and mental health care caused by overcrowding. The CDCR is appealing this decision yet again.
On July 29, medical experts filed a report to a federal court monitor documenting substandard health care at Corcoran State Prison that represented “an ongoing serious risk of harm to patients” that results in preventable deaths. There was no comment from the Governor’s Office.
On July 7, the Center for Investigative Reporting broke a story about the fact that 148 women in state prisons received tubal ligations without required state approvals from 2006 to 2010. Former prisoners say doctors pressured women into being sterilized and targeted those whom prison officials deemed likely to commit crimes in the future. Brown offered no comment.
On July 1, California corrections officials reluctantly agreed to move up to 2,600 prisoners at risk of contracting valley fever out of Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons after being ordered to do so by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson.
The judge was critical of the department’s handling of valley fever outbreaks within its prisons, saying the death of 36 prisoners over the last six years “clearly demonstrated (the state’s) unwillingness to respond adequately to the health care needs of California’s inmate population.”
Again, no comment from the governor or the CDCR.
Instead of closing the prisons because of high health risks, Asian prisoners are being transferred to those prisons because of statistically lower “risks.”
Those with the power to make changes have dug in their heels, insisting that there is no crisis.
It comes as no surprise that we are asked to believe that the CDCR does not really hold prisoners in solitary confinement because they may have access to radios or televisions. We shouldn’t be surprised that the death of Billy Sell, a participant in the hunger strike for two weeks until the day before he died, is officially considered a death “unrelated to the hunger strike.”
We shouldn’t be shocked when Beard attempts to cover up the inhumanity of keeping prisoners in solitary for decades with no hope of release by calling the hunger strike “a gang power play.”
It’s important to remember that the United States stands alone in its extensive use of indefinite long-term solitary confinement; in Britain, solitary is banned for more than three weeks. In Pelican Bay, more than 500 people have been held in solitary for more than 10 years, and more than 78 have been held in solitary for more than 20 years.
There is a growing human rights movement across the country, led by prisoners and their families, that names this practice for what it is: torture. Some states like Illinois and Mississippi have closed or drastically downsized their solitary confinement units without any threat to institutional safety.
The California prisoners’ hunger strike is a courageous call for the California prison system to come out of the shadows and join a world in which the rights and dignity of every person is respected.
TW: Rape, sexual assault - State-sanctioned rape in Texas: Business as usual
August 8, 2013
While accusations of misogyny in Texas have been highlighted more recently in the battle for abortion rights that has been unfolding across the state, the most vulnerable women - those incarcerated in Texas state prisons and county jails - have reported experiencing wide-ranging assault in a pattern that reveals a larger rape culture in Texas law enforcement.
In June, two women filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Corpus Christi against Live Oak County and three former jail guards with the Live Oak County Jail. According to their suit, the guards ran a “rape camp” at the jail, repeatedly raping and humiliating the two detainees awaiting trial as other guards looked on during an extended period of time.
The court documents state that Live Oak County guards Vincent Aguilar, Jaime Smith and Israel Charles Jr. forced the women to perform oral sex on each other and on the guards. They were also forced to shave their vaginas in front of the guards and perform other humiliating and dehumanizing acts. The guards reportedly told one plaintiff that she was their “sex slave or whatever they wanted her to be.”
But what originally sounded like one isolated series of incidents confined to one particular county jail in Texas is proving to be part of a much larger pattern of sexual violence against women inmates and detainees across Texas county jails at the hands of correctional officers and prison guards.
Another jailer in Harris County is facing charges after his alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl during her two months in Houston’s Harris County Juvenile Justice Center was caught on video. The parents of the girl sued Harris County; Thomas Brooks, director of its juvenile probation department; and former correctional officer Robert Robinson.
The parents’ suit alleges that Robinson repeatedly visited the victim up to three times a week despite the fact that he was assigned to the boys unit at the jail. Robinson allegedly offered the girl food and candy in exchange for sexual acts before he raped her on the night of her transfer out of the jail. The cases join others across Texas in a series of systematic abuses at the hands of prison guards and other law enforcement officers.
A 2003 law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, requires certain standards for county jails, including the separation of minors from the general population and the completion of administrative or criminal investigations for all allegations of sexual abuse.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards provides administrative oversight to ensure the federal law is upheld. The commission approves operating policies at Texas county jails, and according to their minimum standards, an inmate can report an assault to anyone they feel comfortable with, including other inmates, who can then report it to another authority, as part of a grievance process. An inmate can also file a written report for the county sheriff. The commission relays all information regarding allegations of rape to other law enforcement agencies, according to a spokesman.
But in many cases there are only a few officers on duty at county jails, and the only person a victim may be able to report their sexual assault to is the same person who assaulted them. Overall, county sheriffs rarely prosecute in criminal investigations. It’s a chain of command structure that many advocates say is also at the root of the rampant issue of sexual assault in the US military.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) authored a bill in May that attempts to take sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of the chain of command of the accused, and despite opposition, it’s exactly the type of solution that may be needed in Texas county jails.
Michelle Smith, prisoner’s rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), said she was familiar with a recent case of a transgender woman who was unable to report her sexual assault because she could only speak Spanish, and the only other Spanish-speaking authority at the jail was her attacker.
The Texas Jails Project is a volunteer organization that works with families of inmates to improve conditions for those held in Texas county jails. Director Diana Claitor told Truthout that most of the reporting on rape and sexual assault the organization gets comes from family members of inmates who can’t or don’t know how to report their rape from inside the jail. Claitor thinks county sheriffs are too powerful and can’t be trusted to prosecute in criminal investigations regarding fellow law enforcement officers.
“It’s law enforcement investigating law enforcement. They’re all connected. They all have common beliefs. They too often are seeing the people they’re investigating as fellow law enforcement and not as possible perpetrators. They see them as allies,” Claitor said.
Claitor expressed little faith in the Texas Rangers’ ability to investigate and prosecute sexual assault and rape in Texas county jails after allegations have surfaced.
But the sexual abuse of women in Texas isn’t confined to county jails and state prisons. In fact, a woman in Texas doesn’t even need to be sent to a county jail before she can be sexually assaulted at the hands of law enforcement. Videos have recently surfaced of two separate incidents in Dallas and just outside Houston involving Texas State Troopers performing illegal body cavity searches of women pulled over on routine traffic stops.
In two separate stops, state troopers accused the drivers of having marijuana, which they did not, and then called in a female officer who penetrated the vagina and the rectum of the women involved with a pair of gloves. In one case, the female officer did not change gloves in between probing two women.
The prohibited practice was performed in the same manner in separate regions of the state, meaning there might be an unwritten departmental policy encouraging the use of the searches, TCRP Director Jim Harrington told The New York Daily News.
The Texas rangers are reviewing the cases, but plaintiffs in one case said it took the rangers more than two months to respond initially and that it wasn’t until the news media started covering the cases that she received a response.
The rangers and the state troopers are divisions of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which declined Truthout’s request for comment.
TW: Ableism, torture - The invisible punishment of prisoners with disabilities
July 27, 2013
As he has every year since taking office, President Obama will likely mark the July 26 anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with a public statement supporting the act, while acknowledging that its aim of equality is far from realized. Last year, he said that “despite the gains we have made, independence and freedom from discrimination remain out of reach for too many individuals with disabilities.” Possibly no group of people understands this so deeply as prisoners.
At the Santa Rita jail in Alameda County, California, 49-year-old Ricky Thomas was one of about 100 people with mental disabilities who was earlier this year housed in the psychiatric wing, known as Unit 9. Prisoners there wear special white and green uniforms—but that’s not all that sets them apart. “We don’t get no programs, no school, no church, no outside,” Thomas said. “We come out of our cells for two hours a day, sometimes. It’s not every day we come out.”
Thomas began complaining about the jail’s conditions in 2011. He says that as a result of his complaints, a prison doctor took away his walker. With spine issues from a car crash and a diabetes-induced nerve disorder, not having a walker meant Thomas couldn’t travel the distance to get his daily insulin shot for two weeks, until the jail’s physical therapist re-prescribed the walker. Other men in Unit 9 are afraid to speak out, he said, fearing similar retaliation. “Every time you voice your opinion…you’ll be lying on the ground, by force.”
Thomas’s story is not unique. Five years have passed since the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others started working on a class action lawsuit to force the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last last year, a judge finally granted class-action status to the case; meanwhile, prisoners in jails across the county have continued to say that they have to crawl on the ground for lack of mobility devices. ACLU lawyer Jessica Price is frustrated by the County’s inaction. “Each person who has to crawl around on the floor is, to me, an emergency, and it’s just not being treated that way,” she says.
The emergency spans well beyond Louisiana and includes mistreatment of prisoners with different medical issues. In Alabama, HIV-positive prisoners, who wear white armbands identifying them as “infected,” live in a dorm where they can’t participate in substance abuse, work-release, or other programs. A federal judge deemed the practice discriminatory in December 2012. The only other state to segregate its HIV-positive inmates, South Carolina, announced on July 10 that it would stop its practice of segregating all HIV-positive prisoners; currently, even those with sentences as short as ninety days are sent to maximum-security facilities. Meanwhile, a pending lawsuit in Maryland targets the lack of assistive devices for deaf inmates, without which prisoners cannot effectively communicate with guards or use the phone to call people on the outside. Three more accessibility-related lawsuits involve corrections departments in Arizona, Montana and Pennsylvania.
For all these scattered lawsuits, there could easily be more. ACLU spokesperson David Fathi points out that the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act limited the scope of prisoner-initiated lawsuits, making it more difficult to challenge poor conditions. “Congress has quite deliberately made it harder for prisoners to enforce their rights in court,” he says. Given the scale of mass incarceration in this country, it would be impossible to sue all states into compliance—and court orders don’t consistently result in material changes. So prisoners with disabilities and their allies are beginning to push for alternatives. Rather than litigate a solution, one would be to simply incarcerate fewer disabled people. As states across the country seek to rein in spending on incarceration, healthcare for prisoners with disabilities is particularly costly. The Federal Bureau of Prisons initiated a “compassionate release” program for people experiencing terminal illnesses or incapacitation as early as 1984, and at least twenty-seven states offer some form of geriatric release, but these programs are rarely utilized because of narrow eligibility criteria and daunting restrictions. According to Human Rights Watch, the only ground the Federal Bureau accepts for compassionate release is a terminal illness with up to a year of life expectancy, and the bureau has to petition on a prisoner’s behalf; the prisoner can’t petition on their own. The Vera Institute explains the reasons for so few geriatric releases include “political considerations and public opinion; narrow eligibility criteria; procedures that discourage inmates from applying for release; and complicated and lengthy referral and review processes.”
Of course, the biggest difference could be made by decriminalizing the poverty experienced by many (ordinances targeting panhandling and loitering disproportionately affect disabled people, for example), as well as decriminalizing certain drugs.
In the absence of such meaningful changes, prisoners with disabilities will continue to be subject to some of the prison system’s worse excesses, for example, punitive solitary confinement. At the Los Angeles County jail, Columbus Grigsby, a Vietnam veteran diagnosed with PTSD, suffered two strokes that paralyzed the left side of his body in 2008. Apparently noticing that his right leg worked fine, jail administrators planned to take away Grigsby’s wheelchair and put the 55-year-old in the general population, which scared him, since he would have a hard time defending himself against any attacks by non-disabled prisoners. But prison staff also had a reputation for violence. Grigsby had witnessed another disabled man experience painful retribution for refusing to allow his wheelchair to be taken away. “They dumped a guy out of his wheelchair [onto the ground], and the deputy dragged him to his cell,” he said.
Grigsby nonetheless decided to resist. For his refusal to give up the wheelchair, Grigsby says he was punished with weeks of solitary confinement and denied contact with the outside world, which aggravated his PTSD. Even though doctors had concluded that a wheelchair was medically necessary for him, the guards seemed convinced that men such as Grigsby might be faking their disabilities in order to be placed in a potentially less-violent, all-disabled dorm. Because prisoners with disabilities often cannot access the “good time” programs available to others—and which are known to reduce recidivism—ACLU attorney Jessica Price calls it “particularly egregious where people have disabilities as a result of their service to this country, who are now incarcerated and unable to access the [imprisoned veterans’] programs that are designed for them, just because of their disability.”
Of course, the healthcare needs of disabled prisoners are not seen as a problem for those private companies that thrive off lucrative government contracts to provide healthcare. Correctional Healthcare Companies, for example, provides services for more than 70,000 inmates in twenty-seven states. In 2009, California—whose prison healthcare crisis led to a Supreme Court ruling ordering it to reduce its prisoner population—spent $845 million on privately contracted healthcare for prisoners. “This is the logic of the prison industrial complex,” says Eric A. Stanley, co-editor of the book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Stanley and other activists are wary of the idea that reforms will bring major change. “The system isn’t broken” for companies like Correctional Healthcare, or for the many other corporations that benefit from mass incarceration.
As long as men like Grigsby or Ricky Thomas remain behind bars, they will depend on nonprofit organizations like Disability Rights Advocates, one of the organizations suing the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of the Santa Rita jail’s prisoners with disabilities, to fight for basic things like accessible toilets and a grievance process. Thomas has another idea for how to improve conditions: holding abusive guards accountable. “In (Unit 9),” he said, “they need to install cameras to protect us. It’s supposed to be a safe haven for us, and it’s not.”
The horrible psychology of solitary confinement
July 12, 2013
In the largest prison protest in California’s history, nearly 30,000 inmates have gone on hunger strike. Their main grievance: the state’s use of solitary confinement, in which prisoners are held for years or decades with almost no social contact and the barest of sensory stimuli.
The human brain is ill-adapted to such conditions, and activists and some psychologists equate it to torture. Solitary confinement isn’t merely uncomfortable, they say, but such an anathema to human needs that it often drives prisoners mad.
In isolation, people become anxious and angry, prone to hallucinations and wild mood swings, and unable to control their impulses. The problems are even worse in people predisposed to mental illness, and can wreak long-lasting changes in prisoners’ minds.
“What we’ve found is that a series of symptoms occur almost universally. They are so common that it’s something of a syndrome,” said psychiatrist Terry Kupers of the Wright Institute, a prominent critic of solitary confinement. “I’m afraid we’re talking about permanent damage.”
California holds some 4,500 inmates in solitary confinement, making it emblematic of the United States as a whole: More than 80,000 U.S. prisoners are housed this way, more than in any other democratic nation.
Even as those numbers have swelled, so have the ranks of critics. A series of scathing reports and documentaries — from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International — were released in 2012, and the U.S. Senate held its first-ever hearings on solitary confinement. In May of this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized the federal Bureau of Prisons for failing to consider what long-term solitary confinement did to prisoners.
What’s emerged from the reports and testimonies reads like a mix of medieval cruelty and sci-fi dystopia. For 23 hours or more per day, in what’s euphemistically called “administrative segregation” or “special housing,” prisoners are kept in bathroom-sized cells, under fluorescent lights that never shut off. Video surveillance is constant. Social contact is restricted to rare glimpses of other prisoners, encounters with guards, and brief video conferences with friends or family.
For stimulation, prisoners might have a few books; often they don’t have television, or even a radio. In 2011, another hunger strike among California’s prisoners secured such amenities as wool hats in cold weather and wall calendars. The enforced solitude can last for years, even decades.
These horrors are best understood by listening to people who’ve endured them. As one Florida teenager described in a report on solitary confinement in juvenile prisoners, “The only thing left to do is go crazy.” To some ears, though, stories will always be anecdotes, potentially misleading, possibly powerful, but not necessarily representative. That’s where science enters the picture.
“What we often hear from corrections officials is that inmates are feigning mental illness,” said Heather Rice, a prison policy expert at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “To actually hear the hard science is very powerful.”
Scientific studies of solitary confinement and its damages have actually come in waves, first emerging in the mid-19th century, when the practice fell from widespread favor in the United States and Europe. More study came in the 1950s, as a response to reports of prisoner isolation and brainwashing during the Korean War. The renewed popularity of solitary confinement in the United States, which dates to the prison overcrowding and rehabilitation program cuts of the 1980s, spurred the most recent research.
Consistent patterns emerge, centering around the aforementioned extreme anxiety, anger, hallucinations, mood swings and flatness, and loss of impulse control. In the absence of stimuli, prisoners may also become hypersensitive to any stimuli at all. Often they obsess uncontrollably, as if their minds didn’t belong to them, over tiny details or personal grievances. Panic attacks are routine, as is depression and loss of memory and cognitive function.
According to Kupers, who is serving as an expert witness in an ongoing lawsuit over California’s solitary confinement practices, prisoners in isolation account for just 5 percent of the total prison population, but nearly half of its suicides.
When prisoners leave solitary confinement and re-enter society — something that often happens with no transition period — their symptoms might abate, but they’re unable to adjust. “I’ve called this the decimation of life skills,” said Kupers. “It destroys one’s capacity to relate socially, to work, to play, to hold a job or enjoy life.”
Some disagreement does exist over the extent to which solitary confinement drives people mad who are not already predisposed to mental illness, said psychiatrist Jeffrey Metzner, who helped design what became a controversial study of solitary confinement in Colorado prisons.
In that study, led by the Colorado Department of Corrections, researchers reported that the mental conditions of many prisoners in solitary didn’t deteriorate. The methodology has been criticized as unreliable, confounded by prisoners hiding their feelings or happy just to be talking with anyone, even a researcher.
Metzner denies that charge, but says that even if healthy prisoners in solitary confinement make it through an unarguably grueling psychological ordeal, many — perhaps half of all prisoners — begin with mental disorders. “That’s bad in itself, because with adequate treatment, they could have gotten better,” Metzner said.
I just don’t understand how they can keep someone for 3 years after they are cleared for release?!
In all of the mainstream media analysis of WikiLeaks’ recent release of Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs) from Guantánamo, relating to almost all of the 779 prisoners who have been held at the prison over the last nine years and four months, one group of prisoners has so far been overlooked: the Yemenis.
The most unfortunate group of men in Guantánamo, the Yemenis — 89 in total — make up over half of the 172 prisoners still held. In 2006 and 2007, when the majority of the Saudi prisoners were released, as part of a political settlement between the Bush administration and the Saudi government, which introduced an expensive rehabilitation program to secure the return of its nationals, no such deal took place between the US and President Saleh of Yemen.
Just 23 Yemenis have been released from Guantánamo throughout its history, and those who remain have found themselves used as political pawns. When President Obama established the Guantanamo Review Task Force to examine the cases of all the remaining prisoners in 2009, the Task Force — a collection of sober officials and lawyers from various government departments and the intelligence agencies — recommended that 36 Yemenis should be released immediately, and that 30 others should be held in a new category of imprisonment — “conditional detention” — until the security situation in Yemen was assessed to have improved.
The Task Force also recommended that five others should be put forward for trial, and 26 others held indefinitely without charge or trial.
The designation of this latter group for indefinite detention — as part of a group of 48 prisoners in total — dismayed human rights activists and supporters, in general, of the principle that preventive detention is only authorized if the prisoners in question are enemy prisoners of war, removed from the battlefield until the end of hostilities.
This should not have been a contentious viewpoint, but it was a sign of the paranoia regarding Guantánamo — which was deliberately engendered by the prison’s supporters, and bought into by Obama administration officials — that few voices of dissent were raised when the President attempted to justify holding 48 men indefinitely because they were regarded as too dangerous to release, even though there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial.
In the real world, rather than the permanently spooked world of Guantánamo and terrorism, this would mean that there was no evidence, and that what the government had instead was multiple levels of hearsay and information extracted through torture. And this, indeed, is what has become apparent in the Detainee Assessment Briefsreleased by WikiLeaks, which have demonstrated that much of the government’s supposed evidence — against prisoners who, presumably, include some of these 48 men — was either extracted from “high-value detainees” likeAbu Zubaydah, who were tortured in secret CIA prisons, or from informants within Guantánamo, who were bribed or coerced to tell lies about their fellow prisoners.
The 28 Yemenis “approved for transfer” from Guantánamo, and the poor reasons for their ongoing detention
Beyond these 48 men, however, and the 26 Yemenis included in the total, the Yemenis cleared for release (or “approved for transfer,” in the careful words of the Task Force) have fared no better. Although President Obama released one Yemeni who had won his habeas corpus petition in the fall of 2009, and six others the week before Christmas, the capture, on Christmas Day 2009, of a would-be plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who had apparently been recruited in Yemen, caused a sudden backlash against releasing any more Yemenis from Guantánamo, which President Obama accepted without criticism, imposing a moratorium on releasing any Yemenis that is still in place 16 months later. (This moratorium lasted from 2009 to May 2013 when he lifted the ban because of the ongoing hunger strike. So no prisoners who were cleared for release were able to leave during this time.)
Since January 2010, just one Yemeni has been freed — a patently innocent man who also won his habeas corpus petition — while, in general, a terrible injustice has been allowed to prevail. On the one hand, this involves the US government endorsing guilt by nationality, and being content to tar the whole of Yemen as a terrorist nation that cannot be trusted with looking after prisoners released from Guantánamo, and on the other it involves supporters of Guantánamo telling deliberate lies about the Yemenis, by claiming that released Yemenis have “returned to the battlefield” in significant numbers, when only two examples have been reported — one who was subsequently killed in an airstrike, and another who surrendered to the Yemeni authorities.
In fact, the majority of the alleged recidivists in the Gulf — around a dozen ex-prisoners — are Saudis, released by President Bush against the advice of his own intelligence agencies, who identified them as a threat. These men passed through the rehabilitation program but then some of them crossed the border into Yemen to join Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a small terrorist cell inspired by Osama bin Laden’s example.
As a result of President Obama’s moratorium, the remaining 28 men cleared for immediate release by the Task Force but still held have been consigned to a fate that, in effect, is no different from the 48 men held indefinitely without charge or trial. The identities of these men have not been publicly announced, and it has not been possible to identify all of them, but 19 cleared Yemenis who are still held are identified in the WikiLeaks documents.
Latest on detainees cleared for release: Some 56 Yemenis have been cleared for release, including around 30 who can only be transferred back to their native land if certain security requirements are met. The administration has also reportedly been talking to Afghanistan about whether it could offer guarantees that released prisoners would not be a threat.
Officials said that detainees would have their cases dealt with on an individual basis, raising the prospect of a few prisoners being freed from Guantánamo one-by-one in the next few weeks rather than any wholesale transfer.
In a statement, the government of Yemen welcomed the move and pledged to “ensure the safe return of its detainees and … their gradual rehabilitation and integration back into society”.
Obama said that he would appoint a senior envoy at the State Department and the Defense Department whose sole responsibility would be to examine ways of transferring detainees to other countries. He had also asked Pentagon officials to come up with another site where military tribunals could take place to prosecute alleged terrorists.
Finally, he said that those detainees who had yet to be charged in those tribunals could be dealt with by the US civilian justice system – as several recent high-profile terrorism cases have been. “Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee,” he said.
*It’s also important to note that this moratorium on releasing innocent prisoners (???) was only lifted in an attempt to appease the majority of the prisoners at Guantanamo who were (& 106 still are) on a hunger strike & not because Obama has decided to keep his first term promise of closing the prison.
July 7, 2013
Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 women inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.
From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.
The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison.
Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.
Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate who worked in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, said she often overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized.
"I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ " said Nguyen, 28. "Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?"
One former Valley State inmate who gave birth to a son in October 2006 said the institution’s OB-GYN, Dr. James Heinrich, repeatedly pressured her to agree to a tubal ligation.
"As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it," said Christina Cordero, 34, who spent two years in prison for auto theft. "He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it."
Cordero, released in 2008 and now living in Upland, agreed to the procedure. “Today,” she said, “I wish I would have never had it done.”
The allegations echo those made nearly a half-century ago, when forced sterilizations of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor were commonplace in California. State lawmakers officially banned such practices in 1979.
In an interview with CIR, Heinrich said he provided an important service to poor women who faced health risks in future pregnancies because of past Caesarean sections. The 69-year-old Bay Area physician denied pressuring anyone and expressed surprise that local contract doctors had charged for the surgeries. He described the $147,460 total as minimal.
"Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money," Heinrich said, "compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more."
The top medical manager at Valley State Prison from 2005 to 2008 characterized the surgeries as an empowerment issue for female inmates, providing them the same options as women on the outside. Daun Martin, a licensed psychologist, also claimed that some pregnant women, particularly those on drugs or who were homeless, would commit crimes so they could return to prison for better health care.
"Do I criticize those women for manipulating the system because they’re pregnant? Absolutely not," said Martin, 73. "But I don’t think it should happen. And I’d like to find ways to decrease that."
Martin denied approving the surgeries, but at least 60 tubal ligations were done at Valley State while Martin was in charge, according to the state contracts database.
Federal and state laws ban inmate sterilizations if federal funds are used, reflecting concerns that prisoners might feel pressured to comply. California used state funds instead, but since 1994 the procedure has required approval from top medical officials in Sacramento on a case-by-case basis.
Yet no tubal ligation requests have come before the health care committee responsible for approving such restricted surgeries, said Dr. Ricki Barnett, who tracks medical services and costs for the California Prison Health Care Receivership Corp.
The receiver has overseen medical care in all 33 of the state’s prisons since 2006, when U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that the system’s health care violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The receiver’s office was aware that sterilizations were happening, records show.
In September 2008, the prisoner rights group Justice Now received a written response to questions about the treatment of pregnant inmates from Tim Rougeux, then the receiver’s chief operating officer. The letter acknowledged that the two prisons offered sterilization surgery to women.
But nothing changed until 2010, after the Oakland-based organization filed a public records request and complained to the office of state Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge. Liu was the chairwoman of the Select Committee on Women and Children in the Criminal Justice System.
This is absolutely outrageous.
On a related note, two dozen inmates at High Desert State Prison in northern California went on hunger strike last week protesting conditions in the prison’s segregation unit.
The statewide California prison hunger strike is set to begin tomorrow. Demands include ending group punishment, solitary confinement & to provide adequate, nutritious food. Read more about the hunger strike here.