Transcript: Craig Haney’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 Craig Haney, professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz, at the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee hearing on Aug. 23, 2011:

“Thank you for this opportunity to address the committee on this important issue.

“My name is Craig Haney. I’m a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and I’ve been studying the effects – the psychological effects – of prison conditions, including effects of solitary confinement, for well over 30 years. The research has included in-depth analyses of the conditions of confinement in many – if not most – of the facilities in the California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, including the Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit.

“In the 10 short minutes I have available to me, I want to make several brief points that will hopefully put today’s important issues in a somewhat larger context.

“The first is the historical context, and it is that the CDCR officials certainly knew – or should have known – at the time they created the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit in the late 1980s that it would expose prisoners to psychologically dangerous conditions of confinement.

“Indeed, as a society, as you heard in the earlier panel, we’ve known since at least the mid-19th century that the practice of solitary confinement was psychologically harmful and could significantly damage those persons who were subjected to it on a long-term basis.

“A hundred or more years before Pelican Bay was designed and built, public figures like Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville wrote eloquently about the evils of prison solitary confinement and its powers to drive prisoners mad.

“Our own United States Supreme Court acknowledged that as much in a case known as “In Re Medley” when Justice Miller wrote that this form of imprisonment had been universally abandoned in the United States because, in his words, “a considerable number of prisoners fell after even a short confinement into a semi-fatuous condition from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane. Others still committed suicide while those who withstood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be any subsequent service to the community.”

“If the CDCR officials were unaware of these vivid historical precedents, they certainly were aware of the many more immediate ones. Indeed, for the 10 years preceding the construction of Pelican Bay, the department was engaged in continuous and contentious litigation from the late 1970s through the 1980s that focused on exactly these issues: the harmful effects of solitary or isolated confinement and the wrongheadedness of attempting to use it as technique to control prison gangs. Both issues were at the very heart of a federal case in which Federal Judge Stanley Weigel repeatedly chastised the Department of Corrections for inhumane conditions that were being operated in the so-called “lock-up units” in San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad, and DBI.

“I know this because I provided much of the testimony to establish those facts. Instead of taking that information and those admonitions to heart, CDCR officials simply and cynically ignored them and moved on to create yet another “lock-up unit,” this one on an enormous, unprecedented scale that was designed to impose hitherto unimagined level of isolation in the supermax prison at Pelican Bay. There can be no doubt that they knew the risk they were taking with the psyches of the prisoners who were confined there. I, and many other experts, including my colleague Dr. Kupers and at least one federal judge, had clearly and repeatedly told them so. Throughout the entire period of litigation, the department never presented one single credible expert witness to dispute the facts we presented. They just deliberately and indifferently ignored us.

“In fact, notwithstanding the clear and undeniable evidence that long-term solitary confinement expose prisoners to extreme psychological dangers and despite the unprecedented and uncharted levels of nearly complete isolation to which they knew Pelican Bay would expose prisoners, CDCR officials chose to open Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit and to operate it for over a year with only one single Master’s level psychologist on staff to administer to the needs of the entire population of approximately 4,000 prisoners at the entire prison, including 1,500 who were housed under truly dangerous levels of isolation.

“When those conditions and the psychological effects were finally scrutinized in federal district court a few years later, Judge Thelton Henderson acknowledged that in his words “Pelican Bay SHU may press against the outer limits of what humans can psychologically tolerate.” As you no doubt know, Judge Henderson ordered some significant changes in certain practices that took place in the prison, most notably in its use of force policy in the screening and removal of the most seriously mentally ill prisoners. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that although Judge Henderson did not shut the Pelican Bay SHU down, the facility had only been in operation for a few years at the time of the hearing in the Madrid case and had been operating for a mere six years at the time he issued his strongly-worded Madrid opinion. Back then, in 1995, as Judge Henderson himself noted, “We could not begin to speculate on the impact that Pelican Bay SHU conditions might have on inmates’ confined in the SHU for periods of 10 or 20 years more.”

“Indeed, it’s now been 20 years since the facility was opened, and unfortunately we no longer need to speculate. Some of the men who were on that first busloads of prisoners brought to the stark, barren and desperate place in the late 1980s are still there, never having left. And do not lose sight of the fact that these men continue to be treated very badly, routinely worse than prisoners in any civilized nation anywhere else in the world are treated, under conditions that many nations and international human rights organizations regard as torture.

“They live their entire lives within the confines of an 80 square foot windowless cell, which they leave for about an hour a day when they are allowed to enter in a concrete encased but otherwise barren outdoor exercise pen. Save for a glimpse of the overhead sky they have when they look directly up inside this pen, they have no contact with the natural world at all, not even to touch or see a blade of grass. They have no contact with the normal social world either. Indeed, the only regular physical contact they have with another human being is the incidental brushing up against the correctional officer who must place them first in handcuffs and chains to escort them out of their cells and units. They visit loved ones through thick glass and over phones and are thus denied the opportunity to ever touch another human being with affection. This has gone on unabated for years and years, for some of these men, for several decades now.

“Not surprisingly this mistreatment had terrible consequences for many of them. In our studies of prisoners at Pelican Bay, we have documented the multiple ways in which they are suffering. They complain of sadness, hopelessness, desperation, and thoughts of suicide. Many become paranoid or anxious around or afraid of people. Some begin to lose their grasp on their sanity. Others are certain that they will never be able to live normally among people again. They’re paying a terrible price as pawns in this failed experiment, a price in terms of the pain they feel during the time they are housed in isolation to be sure, but perhaps an ever greater price when they are released  and find they’re unable to cope with the demands of a normal social life outside prison.

“There’s now clear and convincing evidence that this attempt at managing California prison gangs simply does not work. When Pelican Bay came online in the late 1980s, California had a serious prison gang problem. It now has the worst one in the entire nation.

“I believe that a compelling argument can be made that the SHU units actually make the gang problem much worse rather than better. In this sense then, sadly, the suffering of the prisoners is not only in vain, it is counterproductive. Thank you.”



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2 Comments on “Transcript: Craig Haney’s testimony on the harmful impacts of solitary confinement practices at California’s Secure Housing Units (SHU) prison facilities

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