Transcript: Testimony by Laura Magnani on California’s solitary confinement policies before the Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013

Partial transcript of testimony by Laura Magnani, representative from the American Friends Service Committee, before the Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013:

Thank you, Mr. Chair, members of the committee.

Laura Magnani with the American Friends Service Committee. I hate to tell you how long I’ve been doing this prison work. Let’s just say it goes back to the ’70s and that the AFSC has been doing it for over 50 years.

I’m a member of the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition – a proud member – and also of the mediation team that’s been trying to facilitate communication between the prisoners…and the department.

I really, really want to thank you for holding this second hearing. It’s essential that the legislature continue to monitor these situations. There’s no real hope unless you play that role.

I’m particularly grateful to you, Mr. Chair, for making the trip up to Pelican Bay a couple of weeks ago. You can tell how difficult – it’s not an easy trip to make, and that shows real commitment.

Having watched CDCR make changes in the past or respond to court mandates, I know how slow that tends to be. And I can only imagine what it would be like to be sitting in isolation while these changes are theoretically rolling out. It’s pretty excruciating.

The mediation team has been working with Mr. [incomprehensible name] on these regulations and trying to be in these conversations. And it seems like at least two recommendations that grew out of the hunger strike are in these changes, although as Mr. Carbone says, not necessarily successfully.

One is to separate the – make the distinction between association and behavior and the other is to create a step-down program.

Now that the department is beginning to hold these hearings and release so many people could either look like a success story or ghastly in terms of why have those people been there for so long. I think that’s already been spoken to but it is rather appalling to contemplate.

I testified at the last hearing about that we believe that these conditions constitute torture. It’s pretty well-established in international law. But for anybody who wasn’t at the hearing last time, we do have a report which shows you where it is in international law as well as other information about the mental impact of being in isolation and…

Looking specifically at the new policies, we want to point out some of our concerns as well as make some recommendations, and some of them have already been spoken to so I’ll try not to repeat.

Although the new matrix appears to distinguish association from behavior, when you look closely you realize that behavior is defined so broadly that it virtually rules that any rules violation becomes behaviored. Behavior is no longer confined to gang situations…That makes it way bigger – as I think Mr. Carbone has said – and it really makes a mockery of the distinction between association and behavior. We were looking for something like violent behavior as a behavior that might be problematic…but it appears the department is really giving its staff a huge amount of discretion to decide what behavior would constitute behavior with regard to being assigned to the SHU.

Maybe these statistics of releasing 50% to general population will continue as this pilot project continues, and we’ll be pleasantly surprised we have some worries that might not be the case.

Unless the determination of who should be remanded to SHU is wrested away from the internal gang investigators and the Office of Correctional Safety and this internal process, we really can’t believe we’re going to see a lot of changes.

We believe strongly that there has to be independent review of who is being validated. And independent doesn’t mean independent within the department; independent means outside, it means due process, it means an opportunity to look at the evidence against people.

The shift to the STG [Security Threat Groups] framework, building off what Mr. Carbone said, is a potential for expanding not contracting gang validations.

Our organization – my organization, AFSC, has offices around the country and some states like New Jersey and Massachusetts and Michigan, where we have offices, been living with this STG framework for quite a few years…It looks at the people in the community and it basically validates people who are on the streets so that by the time they get to prison they’re already under suspicion and being treated that way…So we’re very concerned about switching to this STG framework.

As far as the step-down program is concerned, I have to say it took my breath away to see that it was a 4-year process. I mean, we were trying to limit the length of time people were doing. And the idea that a step-down would be 4 years – The first 2 years are total dead time. First 2 years are straight up isolation. There’s nothing new that happens to you there.

And then beginning in the third year is when they began this thing they called journaling, where we’ve got a problem of one of these workbooks. In the third year, you get to have workbooks alone in your cell to work through, and the things that you write in your workbook – it’s called a journal – could be used to keep you there longer if you don’t answer properly.

But the other thing that’s really upsetting to me about these is that it’s more blame and shame kinds of curriculum. It’s more how bad you are, you better get in touch with how bad you are, you have no legitimate reasons for why you’re here, so on and so forth and so on. And usually, it doesn’t get better from using these materials.

Now, I want to say that I have co-authored a curriculum that’s being used by the Federal Women’s Prison in Dublin. It’s been used for about 5 years, and it qualifies as a pre-release program. We’ve been serving about 25 women per cycle and it’s all about building people up not kicking them to the ground; it’s all about trying to get people on the step so they can start thinking about what they want to change in their lives or what behaviors are working and what aren’t working. But you don’t do that by having people write about how awful they are. So it’s really a point of passion for me. I had to tell you that…

We wanted to – hoping to work with my colleagues in Arizona to come up with a different kind of step-down program because there’s plenty of places around the country where this is being done effectively and Security Housing Units are being emptied, but it’s not going to be done in a workbook kind of curriculum.

…Our basic belief as a coalition…is that long-term isolation should not exist, does constitute torture, and it’s very damaging to all concerned, including staff. If it continues to exist, there needs to be a cap placed on the amount of time a person can be held in these conditions. Absolutely and unequivocally there needs to be a cap. Many of these have been spelled out. Many of the kinds of ways to put these limitations have been spelled out by the prisoner themselves in the materials they’ve provided to you and in the demands they originally made.

I think you know to achieve a cap would have to require legislation. It’s not going to happen from the department. The department doesn’t see it that way and we are hoping that you will be inspired to step in.

Secondly, we say that people need to stay in touch with their families, to correspond, to send pictures, to visit to the greatest extent possible. This cannot solely be privilege-based; it is a human right. The idea that, you know, coming between people and their families is a correctionally positive thing – there’s just no justification for that whatsoever. And if you tell me that after good behavior and step-down program of a year or two years and you’d get one phone call a year, I don’t know about your family relationships but that wouldn’t go through fine in mine, and I think we have to think seriously about what we’re doing to people.

Statistics must be kept under racial breakdown of people in security housing units because it’s the most segregated part of the system. And we know police stops in the community that if you don’t keep statistics on a racial breakdown of people being stopped by police, you have no way of holding police accountable. It’s the exact same thing. This process of security housing units, ladies and gentlemen, is a racist process. It is deeply, deeply wrapped around gang stuff, which is interpreted so racially…

There must be due process…including the right to see evidence against them and the right to be represented by counsel and it should be fully independent review. And if they are being re-validated for continuation or for going back to step one…they need to have the opportunity to be presented with the evidence and…there needs to be due process.

And as I said last year, there needs to be press access so there can be some sunlight into these institutions. The press access bill was passed by the legislature now 9 times and vetoed by governors 9 times, and that’s just too disrespectful of you all. You know, there needs to be a change. The press needs to get – have the right to get in because without that tool, we don’t have democracy.

Thank you.

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9 Comments on “Transcript: Testimony by Laura Magnani on California’s solitary confinement policies before the Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013

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