Transcript: Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s Q&A with ACLU’s Margaret Winter & Professor Keramet Reiter at the joint legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California – Oct. 9, 2013

Partial transcript of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s (D-San Francisco) Q&A with Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, and Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine, at the joint legislative hearing on “Segregation Policies in California Prisons: Current Conditions and Implications on Prison Management and Human Rights” on Oct. 9, 2013:

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
…I did enjoy your comment about the – if you do get out of the SHU and become a productive member of society, then why the heck were you in the SHU in the first place.

Just wondering if there are any statistics about suicides – the suicide rate amongst people who have been in solitary confinement?

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine:
So this is one of the challenges. There are often snapshot statistics. We heard great statistics today in response to your questions, but that doesn’t give us much of a sense of what happens over time. So as Ms. Winter mentioned, there was a report in California that showed…that 60% to 70% of suicides in the department were taking place in SHUs but that was a one-time report and that’s the kind of data where it would be great to just collect every month, systematically over time and see.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
…I loathe to refer to Mississippi but what can you do? [Audience laughter] Are there other jurisdictions where there is best practices that California could adopt? Because we’re looking towards maybe legislation coming up.

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union:
I think you should look at Maine. It’s a small state. Mississippi is a more dramatic example because there was such a large population and there’s a huge gang problem in Mississippi prisons. But Maine, I think, is certainly a state you should look at. And again, it’s a state where the Department of Corrections voluntarily adopted reforms, and there have been reports written on that and I think that’ll be a very good place to look at.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
What would be some alternatives for individuals who are dangerous to themselves – an alternative to solitary confinement that – are there practices that have happened or situations where that’s occurred? …If you truly are dangerous to yourself and maybe it’s not a mental health issue and others, what would be some of the things that –

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union:
All right, so let’s leave aside mental health because with mental health, you should simply accept that isolation – social isolation – is the worst thing for most people with serious mental illness.

For the rest, first of all, be sure by regular review and by looking at the right data that the person is in current and ongoing danger such that you have to protect others, that there has to be physical separation. Once you do that, what you need to do is to provide conditions that allow that person to have a life instead of going around the bend from total sensory deprivation, monotony, and isolation. There should be ways to be able to have congregate activities with others and it depends on the individual.

But my goodness, I’ve seen situations where they have people who are considered the worst of the worst but they’re playing checkers together but they’re shackled to the floor. They’re playing games. They are able to talk to each other. Sometimes people can be on the yard together, for example, in parallel yards so that they can communicate with each other.

There should be as much as possible things to think about and things to accomplish rather than just having a dead brain by being alone with nobody to talk to, nothing to see. So you have to enhance those opportunities.

And then you have to be willing to re-examine this individual’s progress. He might not be the same person in 5 years that he was when he did something terrible that made him seem like a danger to others. You then can incrementally increase the amount of freedom, the amount of possibility for socializing with others.

What there really is no justification for is to say that the only way to be safe is to put this person in a blank room with a steel door, in a room that is the size of a small bathroom. That is not needed for safety.

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine:
One thing if I can add is in interviews, one of the things I’ve heard from former SHU prisoners is that one of the hardest parts is never seeing nature or living things. People talk about going 10 years without seeing the moon. So really basic things that we take for granted. Like not seeing a bird or an insect. Those kinds of things don’t require any safety compromises to make sure that we treat people more like the human beings everybody is no matter what they’ve done, making sure that they have access to living things and natural light, for instance.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
What I gathered from my visits, just for the sake of argument, is because those of situations for 10 years is just excessive – but “I’m going to punish you in such a way that when you are released, you’ll know that that’s what’s going to happen to you again if you don’t correct that behavior”. But I think the misstep is that behavior is not going to be corrected by that action.

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine:
Well, also to be clear, legally, it shouldn’t be punishment, right? The people that we might need some form of segregation from the rest of the population, the justification should legally be because they’re too dangerous to be in the rest of the population. So it should be about safety of the institution and the community and not about “Can we take away all these rights to make you feel as punished as much as possible” because that’s not what the corrections system – right? The judiciary does that. The corrections system is trying to manage.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
Yeah, yet the line gets blurred…you know, from a caretaker as opposed to adjudicator.

…This is rhetorical – 30 years in solitary confinement? Does that happens in other states?

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union:
Unfortunately, it does happen. It’s extremely rare. We’ve all heard of the Angola Three. There are a few people around the country who are in solitary for decades.

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine:
California’s 500.

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union:
Yeah, there are still a few – a handful of people like that in Mississippi but the numbers are always reduced. You know, they are reduced. And it’s – ideally, it should be no one but I think what we can say positively is that there’s nowhere where it should be in the hundreds, that it just means that there is rote thinking going on – there is not an individualized examination of this person as a human being and taking a look at evidence-based risk factors. When you’re seeing these big numbers, there’s something terribly wrong. It’s extremely, extremely rare – the phenomenon of somebody who really needs to be isolated from other human beings or from nature for that matter.

I just want to underscore how very true that is in hundreds and hundreds of interviews I took with prisoners in solitary to be in a sterile hell where it’s not only that you are shut off from other people, that you are shut off from bird song, from a blade of grass. That’s profoundly dehumanizing and people don’t recover from that.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
Do you see us here in California doing away with solitary confinement? Do you think that we would have the political will, the resources and the background? I’m interested in that.

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine:
To limit this indeterminate – I can see California doing away with indeterminate solitary confinement, certainly, and to drastically reduce the use of segregation to these very small numbers. And California’s history demonstrates that’s possible, right?

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
Well, the super max and all that. I mean, that was a very good history for us…

I’m also concerned about women in the SHU. Are there different studies around that…in terms of gender issues around solitary confinement – women who are in solitary confinement?

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union:
That’s so rare in other jurisdictions. It’s extremely rare.

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine:
It’s another California outlier. I’ve only ever heard of one or two women in isolation in other states…

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union:
It seems to me that the potential is here. I mean, what I somehow think is possible is that California will go from being the outlier, from being, you know, dragging behind and bringing up the rear to take a big leap forward and go into the vanguard.

There’s developing nationwide movement. There’s so much information out there. Having seen that these things can happen very quickly when an individual plays a leadership role and is willing to open up their mind and re-examine these beliefs that they have, that are just branded in their brain, open it up and, for example, realize no, people shouldn’t be in solitary simply because they’re in a gang. That kind of thing.

There could be a – not a slow evolutionary process even here but there could be – it’s possible, with a hearing like this being a good beginning, for there to be rapid change. And there should be because the problem is so staggering in California.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco):
…One thing I would be interested in is – for the non-mental health identified inmates, what is the usage of psychotropic drugs and everything to modulate behavior? You know, that seems to be an easy way out and maybe practiced more than we think…

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