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Amnesty International Denounces Torture in California Prisons, Demands Changes --An interview with Tessa Murphy

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Off long drab corridors, prisoners are isolated from each other in pods of eight cells; these pods are self-contained with a shower and recreation yard, so that, with few exceptions, they rarely leave the pod.

This bleak environment of tiny windowless cells where little natural light infiltrates, few personal possessions, no programming to offset the boredom, out of cell time in "outdoor' yard with a view of a patch of sky, minimum human contact, and a view out of the cell of a dirty white wall is the totality of the prisoners' world.

A3N:      Accounts of the prisoners themselves are featured throughout your report. When it came to deciding which topics to focus on in your report, to what extent were you influenced by the striking Pelican Bay prisoners?  

TM:      AI's report on California is part of a body of work on conditions in prison isolation units in the USA; including Arizona, and Texas as being of particular concern. When we began our research into conditions in California's SHUs, a number of issues became apparent very quickly; First that there were a large number of inmates who had been held in the SHU for very long periods of time, secondly, that the majority of inmates in the SHU were being placed there for alleged gang affiliation/membership, thirdly, that there was no step-down system to allow these individuals to transition out of the SHU, and fourthly that physical conditions, particularly in Pelican Bay, were very harsh. Based on this initial research, the organization requested access to California SHU units before the prisoners initiated the hunger strikes.

When the strike began, we were contacted by members of the mediation group who made us aware of the prisoners' demands. During the course of researching the report, we were in close contact with the mediation team, as well as families and friends of inmates held in the SHUs, as well as with lawyers, as well as state employees, including legislators as well as grass roots groups. Of course, we also sought information from CDCR.

A3N:      The Amnesty report states that "the growth of super-maximum security facilities has been linked to the huge rise in the numbers of people incarcerated in the USA from the late 1970s onwards, together with a shift away from rehabilitation as a goal of imprisonment to more emphasis on punishment and control." Can you say more about how mass incarceration and prolonged solitary confinement relate to each other? Why did they rise together?

TM:      The prison population in the USA has quadrupled since 1980; this has come about due not to rising crime but to harsher sentencing policies that emanated out of a "get tough on crime" attitude pervasive in the 90's, such as three-strikes law, truth in sentencing laws, as well as mandatory minimums.

Supermaximum prisons were borne out of this need by elected officials need to be seen to be tough on crime, as well as to respond to the needs of an increasingly overcrowded prison system. The first such prison to be built, designed with social and environment deprivation inbuilt was SMU 1 in Eyman State prison in Arizona, this was the prototype for Pelican Bay Prison, built in 1989. Many states followed in building their own supermax prison, and many retrofitted current prisons to supermax criteria of holding prisoners in isolation with minimum social interaction for prolonged periods.

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States rationalized the building of these prisons with the argument that only by the large scale isolation of the "worst of the worst" prisoners, could violence be controlled throughout the prison system. However, studies have shown that predatory violent prisoners are but a small proportion of those held in isolation, which is replete with individuals with mental illness, persistent rule breakers and those alleged to be in a gang.

A3N:      With over 2.4 million prisoners today, the US now has the most total prisoners and the highest incarceration rate in the world. Much of the world has rightly condemned the US for the well-documented torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but what do you think the state of human rights inside prisons within US borders says about the US?

TM:      The US does have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. It also is the only country that uses prolonged isolation as a routine prison management tool in prisons built for this purpose. This reliance on long term isolation has profound consequences; first, it costs significantly more to house a prisoner in isolation than it does to house them in general population; secondly, the focus on punishment, rather than rehabilitation, that forms the backbone of this prison tool, has severely negative consequences on the prisoner--from mental and physical health, to their success in positively reintegrating back into society. So the costs on society are huge in both financial and other terms.

The conditions and policies of supermax prisons that affect over 30,000 prisoners across the country, falls short of international laws and treaties governing the humane treatment of prisoners, to which the US is a party. This casts a large shadow over any claim by the US administration that it is a champion of human rights.

A3N:      In two previous interviews (1, 2) we covered the case before the European Court of Human Rights, of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom. Recently the Court ruled against the co-appellants, who are fighting extradition to the US on grounds that the US tortures prisoners, which writer Chris Hedges has argued, "removes one of the last external checks on our emerging gulag state." What do you think is the significance of this Court ruling for the US, Europe, and beyond?

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TM:      Although the ruling denied the appeal, it conceded that there were circumstances in which prolonged incarceration in ADX could amount to a breach of Article 3. It accepted that there were sufficient safeguards in these particular cases on the basis of information provided the US government while largely disregarding the submissions provided by the lawyers for the applicants. We will be following the actual conditions under which these prisoners are held post-extradition.   See this link to the statement AI issued last week.

In terms of the ruling having broader consequences for other cases, each new case that comes before the court will need to be examined on its specific facts and evidence. When it comes to obligation of non refoulement (no transfer to risk of human rights violations of different kinds) a large part of the analysis in each case is highly specific to the evidence in the particular case.

A3N:      Shifting to another campaign you've worked on, why is Amnesty International calling for the release of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace of the Angola 3 from solitary confinement?

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Over 40 years ago in Louisiana, 3 young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola. In 1972 and (more...)

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