Transcript: Laura Magnani’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 Laura Magnani, regional director of American Friends Service Committee, at the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee hearing on Aug. 23, 2011:

“Thanks very much for this opportunity, Mr. Chairman. My name is Laura Magnani, and I’m regional director for the American Friends Service Committee based in San Francisco. I’ve been asked to address torture in related to the Security Housing Units. I also brought with me for distribution the American Friends Service Committee’s study “Buried Alive: Long-term isolation in Youth and Adult Prisons,” which I wrote in 2008.

“Although I’ve been working on these issues since the 1970s, I was shocked when I began to gather these statistics. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons co-chaired by John Gibbons and Nicholas Katzenbach found that there were 80,000 prisoners in long-term isolation around the country in the year 2000, a 40 percent increase from just five years earlier. Most experts today are putting the number at 100,000 nationwide.

“Our research found that California houses close to 4,000 prisoners in Secure Housing Units and close to 14,500 in some form of segregation – administrative, psychiatric, protective custody – you’ve heard different names. You’ll find these figures broken down in our report on page 6. These are shocking statistics, especially given the fact that the state is very hard up for money and that it costs at least twice as much to house people in these units.

“Over 240 of the people in isolation are women. They face particular hardship because women have special needs and because of the extreme lack of privacy. When male correctional personnel have 24 hour access to women’s most intimate functions, it creates an extreme form of oppression and often trauma that is made all the more acute because of the number of women in prisons with long histories of abuse at the hands of men. This may seem contradictory in that we are talking about isolation on the one hand and at the same time we’re talking about lack of privacy. But you can see what I’m saying. That even in their isolation, they can never escape the surveillance cameras or the slots in the cell doors that give full view to women’s every move. Covering up these slots results in disciplinary measures.

“Although officials often claim that there’s no clear definition of torture, that is hardly the case. Torture is defined in the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. To read: “Any state-sanctioned action, by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for obtaining information, punishment, intimidation, or for any reason based on discrimination.”

“By this definition, Secure Housing Units fail on several counts. They cause severe pain, both physical and mental. They do so often, or even primarily, with the hope of extracting information and for the purpose of intimidation. And they are the most racially-segregated part of the prison system. Though statistics are not released about the racial breakdown in these units, our estimate is that the people held there are over 90 percent people of color. This is because they are used largely to control judged by what prison officials consider to be gang-related matters, although no distinction is being made between actual gang activity and simple association or alleged affiliation.

“The UN Human Rights Commission, responsible for implementation on the covenant on civil and political rights, has specified that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited as a form of torture. Some of the preceding witnesses have already spoken to the whole dynamic of this kind of isolation and the way in which that in of itself contributes to torture.

“In addition to the units themselves violating the definition of torture, other practices associated with these units also involve torture, such as violent cell extractions, three-point restraints or hog-tying, and most recently a practice called “contraband watch” that puts prisoners in diapers, leaving them in their own waste for days at a time. Not only do these practices violate the international treaties, they violate our sense of human decency.

“The justification is always that the prisoner may have engaged in some kind of violent behavior. However, the Convention Against Torture is very clear about such justifications. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”

“So I want to just end by making a couple of legislative recommendations that begin to move the state away from torture. The first is something that the legislature has passed several times already but it’s always been vetoed, which is to restore the right of reporters to enter these facilities and interview prisoners – not just hand-selected prisoners chosen by prison administration. Free press is one of the most important safeguards we have against abuse.

“Secondly, I would recommend implementing limits on the amount of time a person can be held in isolation. Even in Abu Ghraib where there is widespread agreement that torture was the norm, prison officials had to get special permission to keep someone in solitary for more than 30 days.

“Short of an actual time limit, there must be due process with access to attorneys and an independent judge that is not just an internal administrator to determine if a person will be isolated beyond the limit, with a similar process occurring every few months if the sentence is prolonged. Thank you.”


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

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