Transcript: Rev. William McGarvey’s testimony on the harmful impacts of solitary confinement practices at California’s Secure Housing Units (SHU) prison facilities
Transcript of the testimony delivered by Rev. William McGarvey, representing the Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, at the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee hearing on Aug. 23, 2011:
“Elective state representatives, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Rev. Will McGarvey. I’m pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Pittsburg, Calif. Our congregation duly align with Presbyterian USA and the United Church of Christ.
“I’m the past chair of the Justice Advocacy and the Caring Community of the Presbyterian of San Francisco, and I current serve on the national board of More Light Presbyterians.
“I’m one of the earliest clergy signers of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s statement on the optional protocol to the convention against torture, something both of my denominations have also signed. I regularly visit elected leaders with the contingent of the Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, asking for transparency from our military and police forces in following our nation’s laws.
“The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is a membership organization of over 300 religious organizations committed to ending U.S.-sponsored torture, including torture in U.S. prisons.
“I’m here today to share inter-religious perspectives on solitary confinement within our criminal justice system.
“I would draw your attention to our NRCAT statement paper on “Ending prolonged isolation,” which we have sent you, which states: “Solitary confinement typically embodies the following: Prisoners are usually confined alone in their 8 by 10 often cage-like, windowless, and soundproof cell for up to 23 hours a day. Prisoners are subjected to sleep deprivation or sensory assault. Some prisoners are held for months – even years – in complete isolation and suffer lifelong consequences in their ability to function.”
“Prolonged solitary confinement under these kinds of conditions has long been considered a form of torture, which destroys the humanity of those who suffered it, particularly those with mental illness, those with learning disabilities, and those with developmental disabilities.
“As of May 18, 2011, 3,259 people were being held in solitary confinement in California’s Special Housing Units or SHUs and hundreds more are being held at administrative segregations awaiting issue assignments.
“People of faith all over California are calling for a comprehensive and public review of solitary confinement practices in California prisons and an end to the implementation of this practice as a long-term solution for individual prisoners. Our laws and all faith traditions recognize the inherent and inviolable dignity of every human being. As Justice Thurgood Marshall has so poignantly stated, “When the prison gate slams behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality.”
“As you may know, the history of solitary confinement in U.S. penal institutions has a religious underpinning. Edith E. Flynn and Margaret Zahn in their article “Prisons and Jails: Development of Prison and Jails in the United States” notes this history.
“”Reflecting the legacies of our ancestors, American colonists made extensive use of corporal punishment, including death, mutilation, branding, and whipping, decreed for serious offenses, and public ridicule, which is the stocks, the pillory, the public cage, or the ducking stool, imposed for lesser offenses.”
“In general, the colonial penal system was harsh, exacting, and motivated principally by revenge. After the Revolutionary War, reform-minded colonists began to experiment with new criminal codes. They also embarked on a course of penal reform that would not only affect America but eventually spread throughout the world.
“In 1787, a small group of concerned citizens in Pennsylvania organized the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons, advocating for reform, reforming the existing penal structure to make prison more humane. Pennsylvania Quakers provided significant support for this Society’s efforts at prison reform. It was actually the Quakers that came up with the idea of solitary confinement as a rehabilitation practice. It was thought that prisoners confined in solitary conditions with time to reflect on their actions would be rehabilitated through penitence. The term penitentiary comes from this Quaker idea that solitude could bring about penitence.
“The Wall Street Jail in Philadelphia was the first to experiment with solitary confinement. First constructed in 1776, according to Flynn and Zahn, this jail had all of the hellish characteristics of its predecessors. Men, women, and children were kept in the same facilities, where conditions were brutal and inhumane. The Wall Street jail was renovated in 1790, becoming the nation’s first penitentiary. Debtors were separated from hardened felons, and men, women, and children were now separated. Corporal punishment was banned. New legislation developed by the Philadelphia Society shifted the focus from physical – often capricious punishment of offenders – to their reform and rehabilitation.
“Inmates were given a Bible and religious instructions to facilitate solitary contemplation and hard labor to teach self-control. It was thought that the combination of contemplation and self-control would bring about rehabilitation and redemption, and prisoners would be returned to society as law-abiding citizens.
“Then, as now, the total lack of human contact led to the development of psychosis and other forms of mental and physical illnesses among the prison population. Then, as now, suicide was a frequent response of prisoners who were left in solitary confinement for prolonged periods.
“By the late 1880s, U.S. prison authorities began looking at clinical evidence from Europe to confirm the dire effects of solitary confinement they’ve experienced in the Wall Street Jail and other U.S. penitentiaries, and the practice of solitary confinement was abandoned in U.S. prisons from the 1880s through the 1970s when it was revived in its most extreme forms in supermax and special housing units.
“What began as a religious impulse toward the reformation and rehabilitation of inmates has become an often cruel and brutal system of warehousing inmates with little if any concern for the genuine reformation and reclamation of the individual as a suitable member of society. And we all suffer the consequences.
“Prisoners suffer and our community suffer when many people who have been subjected to prolonged periods of isolation from any human contact are returned to communities psychologically broken and unfit for social intercourse. Inmates who have experienced long-term solitary confinement suffer some of the same effects as prisoners of war and those who have been held hostage. And we should remember that while the system of confinement causes physical and mental injuries to the inmate, it also causes moral injury to the officers and staff who witness and participate in this system.
“Inmates in the U.S. who have been put into solitary confinement for many different reasons, including disciplinary actions. I’ll leave it to others speaking to you today to document the psychological and social impairments which solitary confinement produces, but we should also note how solitary confinement is used to enforce cultural biases, particularly around race and religion.
“Native American inmates have been put into solitary confinement for not submitting to policies of wearing their hairs short. Rastafarians have been targeted for declining to have their dreadlocks cut off, also a protected religious expression. For the last 10 years, Kendall Gibson and 10 other prisoners have been kept in solitary confinement in Virginia for keeping the Biblical injunction found in number 65: “There shall no razor come upon his head.”
“Also, in Virginia, over 30 inmates were moved to a maximum security facility for non-compliance with standards that require hair to be above one’s shirt collar or beards to be completely shaven.
“For many Muslims, the situation is worse. Islamaphobia contributes to a significant number of Muslim inmates being placed in a new form of solitary confinement called “Communications Management Unit” or CMUs under the blanket assumptions that Muslims are terrorists who needed to be separated from one another.
“The Center for Constitutional Rights estimates that 60 to 75 percent of those in CMUs are Muslim. Unlike other federal prisoners, CMU prisoners are forbidden from any physical contact with their children, spouses, family members, or other loved ones during their visits.
“On the flip side of this problem are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered inmates, 67 percent of whom have reported they have been sexually assaulted by another inmate during their incarceration – a rate 15 times higher than the general population.
“The faith community is univocal that rape should not be a part of anyone’s sentence, but a surprising number of LGBT inmates – especially the transgendered inmates – have reported knowingly committing minor infractions in prison in order to go into the horror of solitary confinement in order to avoid rape and other brutal forms of treatment not only coming from inmates but sometimes from staff and the officers in the jails and prisons.
“Fortunately, California allows for conjugal visits for same-gendered loving couples where most states do not. So thank you for that.
“Ladies and gentleman, the United States is a signatory of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. We’ve agreed that it is a the law of the land.
“I would submit that persistent, long-term solitary confinement constitutes torture under the definition of Article One paragraph one. It is clearly an intentional infliction of physical and mental pain and suffering.
“Prisons that use debriefing practices, offering prisoners freedom from solitary confinement if they become informants on other inmates, also breaks this convention since there are ways to protect inmates who are a danger to themselves and others without completely isolating them from human community. And given what we have known since the late 19th century about the impact of extreme isolation, I believe that what we’re doing in supermax, SHUs, control unit prisons in California is a form of torture and a violation of human rights, in which we are all implicated.
“The Reverend Richard Kilmer, the executive director of NRCAT, wrote this: “The National Religious Campaign Against Torture vehemently believes that even those convicted of crimes are human beings with inherent dignity and worth, and they deserve humane treatment.”
“Each of our faith traditions reminds us of the inherent worth of each being. As people of faith, we are called to recognize, bless, and reclaim the dignity of each person. And in the Christian tradition, we call this “imago dei,” the image of God found within each one of us.
“What concerns us as people of faith is the destruction of the human spirit. When human beings are subject to conditions that destroy who they are, it is incumbent upon the whole faith community to call our culture and, yes, even our government to accountability. If we allow solitary confinement to continue in our society, especially when we have been informed of the harmful results, what does that say about the kind of people we all have become? Thank you for your time and consideration.”
- California Assembly Public Safety Committee: California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation Secure Housing Unit hearing from 8/23/11 (1 of 2)
- California Assembly Public Safety Committee: California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation Secure Housing Unit hearing from 8/23/11 (2 of 2)
- Southern California Public Radio: At hearing, prison officials say Pelican Bay isolation policies will change
- California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation’s website
- California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation: Pelican Bay State Prison
- California Prison Focus (CPF) website
- Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture website
- National Religious Campaign Against Torture website
- Center for Constitutional Rights website