Transcript: Dorsey Nunn on the harmful impacts of solitary confinement practices at California’s Secure Housing Units
Transcript of the testimony delivered by Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children/All of Us or None, at the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee hearing on Aug. 23, 2011:
“Thanks for letting me come up here and talk. My name is Dorsey Nunn. I’m the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. We are a public interest law office. I’m also a proud member of All of Us or None that is a project of LSPC. All of Us or None is dedicated to the full restoration of civil and human rights of incarcerated and informally incarcerated people.
“I’ve been visiting people within the California Department of Corrections for 51 years – 22 years as personal visits and 29 years professionally as a paralegal. My office had been contacted consistently since the opening of Pelican Bay, where prisoners’ rights were being violated.
“On June 28, 2011, with a hunger strike looming, I decided to visit Pelican Bay for the first time. It was too hard to ignore people clearly stating that they were willing to risk their lives to change how they were being treated. I interviewed people with standard question assessing their medical history, emergency contact information, and the potential death of the strike efforts.
“There must be a line that’s crossed when punishment is torture. It may not be torture to isolate human beings for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, but it could be something totally different to isolate them for a few years or a few decades.
“One of the people I visited was PJ. I knew him when I was a fellow prisoner. When I asked PJ how long he had been in segregation, he informed me that they had put him in administrative segregation in 1988.
“Often when I visit someone who knows me, they ask me to work on their individual case. PJ didn’t. We spent time talking about torture. He knew about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. He couldn’t understand what would make something torture at Guantanamo Bay and not at Pelican Bay.
“The first thing that struck me when PJ entered the non-contact visiting area was that he had lost his color. He was much lighter than I remembered him. Over the course of that day, I learned about the lack of direct sunlight and where people were to exercise were referred to as the “dog run.” When they were in the dog run, they were unable to experience what is considered outdoors: no trees, no grass, natural sunlight happen to squeeze over a very very high wall. A blessing was to actually see the sun and the clouds; on a rainy day, a blessing was to not to get wet because of the lack of winter garb to protect you against inclement weather.
“When I was talking to PJ, I kept thinking if white people could really tell when black people experience color change. Do we always appear to be tan to them? Two people told me that day that they missed talking to black people. I couldn’t help but to imagine what it meant to be annihilated culturally and isolated to a point a person found it refreshing to talk to someone of the same race in America.
“One of the guys I visited complained that he only spoke to one other black person legally in 20 years. The other times he made the attempt, he was given a disciplinary report. What did this mean to their re-entry when you only have contact with human beings – the only contact you have with other human beings were acts of hostility – not to be touched or to be only touched suspiciously? What did it mean to communities of color to absorb large numbers of people who have had this experience?
“The reason I have elected to talk about this particular visit was PJ was locked up most of this time because of association and the fact that he did not name names.
“If this particular visit has any real meaning to this hearing, you’d have to consider the following things:
“Can justice be had absent an admission of wrongdoing? It is my belief that people have been tortured for multiple years.
“Can a system be fair and just if it is based on the use of confidential information extracted through questionable means?
“Should people have the fundamental right to confront the accuser?
“Has this practice of placing people in administrative segregation based on flimsy information secure the questionable methods unfairly deprive people of their right to be reasonably considered for parole? PJ has been eligible for parole for 35 years. How much programming and rehabilitation time has been lost?
“The last thing I wanted to say is PJ is my friend, and I didn’t mention it earlier, because I didn’t want to be labeled a gang member and subject my organization to suspicion of the California Department of Corrections based on association.
“Such a label enables the state not to be held accountable for their acts of violence.”
- 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
- American Friends Service Committee
- Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons
- Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
- All of Us or None