Transcript: Testimony of UC Irvine Professor Keramet Reiter at the joint legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California – Oct. 9, 2013

Partial transcript of testimony of 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:

…I’m a professor of criminology and law at UC Irvine, and I’ve been studying California prison policy and reform for more than 10 years and I’m current writing a book about the history and uses of solitary confinement in the United States with a special focus on California.

So I’d like to contextualize California in the national story that Margaret Winter just gave us and make two straightforward points about segregation and solitary confinement in the states.

First, segregation is over-used in California today. And second, as we had a sense I think from the first panel, we need more and better information about who’s in segregation in the state and why.

So I’ll talk a little about each of those in turn – what we know and what it would be helpful to know.

Solitary confinement is over-used in California. So we heard about snapshot data of how many people are in solitary confinement today in California and how they’ve been there, and one of the things we heard today is that there’s hundreds of prisoners who’ve been there for more than 10 years.

And when you look at data about people who were released, the average is two or more years that people spend in solitary confinement before release, but as we heard a large number of people in California aren’t released; they’re serving indeterminate sentences; they’re spending years and even decades in solitary confinement.

And this is unusual. The indeterminate sentences are unusual. According to a recent survey by Mother Jones, fewer than half of all states allow indeterminate assignments to SHUs like Pelican Bay. And in many states, only a few prisoners at a time serve these long sentences of a decade or more, and California has a few hundred.

And then again, in California, it’s not just the average stays are long, the sheer number of people in solitary confinement is quite high in this state. So California, as we heard today, has more than 4,000 people in SHUs right now, and these cells are actually often overcrowded. So at any given time over the last 10 to 15 years, roughly half the prisoners in the SHUs in California have been double-bunked. So it’s not just that we have a lot, they’re actually – they’re crowded just the way the rest of the prisons are.

Again, very few states compare with the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. Texas, New York, the federal prison system and California have these numbers in the thousands. Most states have a few hundred people in these conditions, and most states don’t double-bunk at the rate that California does in these cells where prisoners are there 22 to 23 hours a day.

So there’s a couple of big problems with having this many people in solitary confinement for so long.

One is that it means that there’s thousands of people in any given year experiencing these harsh conditions of confinement and struggling with reintegrating when they get out. So we know that many people have mental health problems after they stay in these conditions and that transitions can be extremely difficult from solitary confinement back to the general prison population and then back to society.

And as we heard earlier in the last year, a couple dozen people a month have been released directly from solitary confinement to the streets. In previous years, data I’ve analyzed suggested that it was much more; it was more closer to a thousand a year, roughly 100 a month being released onto the streets. So we have this problem of lots of people in there but again, they’re not there permanently. The vast majority of people are ultimately going to get out and come back to our communities.

Also, the impact of this policy is disproportionately felt by minorities. So the most recent data that I’ve seen is that in the SHUs in California, about 56% of prisoners coming out are Latino as opposed to the general prison population where about 42% of prisoners are Latino. You know, there’s already a disproportionate impact in the prison population but in the SHUs there’s an even greater, statistically significant disproportionate impact on minorities.

And then finally, this policy is incredibly expensive. So in California it’s estimated that upwards of $70,000 per year to keep a prisoner in the SHU, and that was a data that was released in 2012. So it would be good to have updated data as was suggested earlier. This is more than $20,000 a year more than the average per prison[er] cost in California, and this is really high. California’s per prisoner costs are generally high within the nation, and this $70,000 number again is comparable to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and not many other places.

So that’s the overuse of solitary confinement and segregation in California.

But the second point that I want to make is about transparency and the kinds of information we could use to make better policies. So I want to talk about three categories of questions that would be really helpful to have more data and data over time, not just snapshot data in a moment at a hearing like this.

So I want to talk about who’s in the SHU and why, what happens to people in the SHU upon release, and are our prisons safer and our communities safer because of the SHUs?

So in terms of this question of who is in the SHU and why, what we often hear is that it’s the worst of the worst prisoners. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence behind this claim and less evidence that there are 4,000 or more of the worst of the worst prisoners.

One of the main examples in California that is given to talk about the worst of the worst is an extremely violent time in California corrections in the 1970s when in a 3-year period 11 correctional officers died and more prisoners died between 1970 and 1973. This is around the time there was a shoot-out with George Jackson in San Quentin, 3 officers died in that. Other officers died around the same time in other prison systems. And this was a notably extremely scary time in the California prison system, especially if you were working there.

However, in the last 40 years, there have been half as many officer deaths as in that anomalous 3-year period in the 1970s.

So since 1975 or so, our prisons have never been as violent as they were in the 1970s, and the same is true for prisoner homicides.

In the 1970s, the rate was high in California, spiking at about 18 homicides per 100,000 prisoners. And today, the rate of homicides in the California prison system – prisoner on prisoner violence – is less than 1 homicide per 100,000 prisoners. So it’s one thing that we can actually congratulate the Department of Corrections for, I think, is that their prisoner homicide rates are actually pretty low – lower than the general prison population, and that’s been true for a long time.

So this is the little bit of evidence we have about how many worst of the worst prisoners there are in the prison system, how much violence, and we need more. And given this evidence about how low rates of homicides have been in the prison system over the last 4 years, it suggested that maybe there aren’t 4,000 worst of the worst prisoners.

But we don’t know. So the things we want to know are not just, as we heard today, how many prisoners are serving indeterminate sentences in the SHU today but how has this changed over time? So in any given year, how many prisoners are validated gang members, how many have committed rule infractions, what were those rule infractions? And we want to see that consistently over time so we can really analyze this population and look at who’s there and how dangerous they are.

And then we also want to know information about what was the evidence used at the hearing. What underlies these assignments to SHU confinement? And what was the evidence used at their regular reviews that kept them incarcerated? These prisoners who’ve been in there for 10 and 15 years – what did the hearing officers look at to determine that they needed to stay in the SHU? What were those? And was it violent, was it not? So we really need to know more about these people.

We also want to know – it was really interesting – California tries really hard, it sounds like, to not put people with mental illnesses into the SHU. So if as they leave the SHU they have a mental illness, that would also be really interesting to know. So it would be good to know how many people leaving the SHU have developed mental health problems since we know that the state try to ensure that they didn’t have mental health problems when they went in.

And then as the state reforms its policies, we want to continue to collect this kind of information – what evidence is being used in these new reviews looking back at these prisoners’ files and trying to get some of the people out of the SHU, and how do these prisoners do as they’re released into the general prison population. Looking, again, were they the worst of the worst? Were they not? How can we refine this over time?

So that’s the first question – who’s the in the SHU, why? Better data.

The second set of questions is what happens to prisoners after they are released from the SHU? How did they fare in the general prison population? How did they fare on parole out of prison?

I’ve interviewed dozens of former prisoners who spent time in the SHU, and my preliminary research suggests it’s transitioning from the deprivations of the SHU out to the street can be extremely challenging. Prisoners have trouble making basic decisions. They have trouble being in public places in crowds. All of the things happening, having not seen natural light or interacted with more than one person at a time for years. All of these things create all kinds of overwhelming sensations as they come out. And we don’t know what happens to them. As far as I know, we don’t track these people as they go out, and this would be really important information to have.

And it will help us to think about how we can facilitate the transitions back to the community that 95% of our prisoners make.

And it might provide further insight into how well our prison system identifies which of these prisoners are the worst of the worst.

People come out of the SHU and they do great as functioning members of society, it raises questions about whether they needed to be in the SHU in the first place.

So the final set of questions is one that’s been a theme through some of the comments today, and that is has solitary confinement made our prisons safer?

So just as the Government [Accountability] Office recently found that the federal prison system had never systematically evaluated the safety impacts of the federal segregation units, so California has never systematically conducted such an evaluation either.

So we need data about violence and disciplinary infractions that’s specifically and systematically collected and analyzed. What disciplinary infractions underlie the SHU confinement? Are prisoners in the SHU because they committed acts of violence within the institution or for some other reason? And do they remain in the SHU because of acts of violence? And then when they’re released, do they commit fewer or more acts of violence in the institution?

And we also need to know more and more specific information about where and how violence takes place in the prison system. Are there assaults that take place in the SHU units? How frequent are those? Are the SHUs themselves safe places? Are there assaults that take place in the prisons that surround the SHUs? Are those institutions safe or safer for having a SHU?

So those are the kinds of things that would really help us to assess are these institutions making our prisons and our communities safer?

So I want to sum up by saying that in collecting better data and reducing California’s reliance on isolation and segregation.

There’s a challenge of trying to reconcile two things. One is that we have to work with correctional administrators to design better policies. On the one hand, California has institutionalized deference to administrators who played a significant role in designing the physical structures and operational policies of SHUs like Pelican Bay and Corcoran. So they write the rules about when people get sent to isolation, how those hearings work – they make those determinations often in the absence, as I think this committee is hearing, of legislative or judicial oversight.

On the other hand, correctional administrators make these really tough decisions, manage these really tough populations, and face overcrowded prisons and often get blamed for things that go wrong. They’re left alone to resolve hunger strikes, to resolve overcrowding. And so I think in working on these solutions, it’s important to work with them to acknowledge that these are really tough problems that they’re facing, that they don’t always have control over, and to figure out what would give them better resources.

There’s that piece. But that also has to be reconciled with the need for basic humane conditions of confinement in the state of California.

I think it’s helpful to remember that prior to the 1970s, California was looked to as a model of effective and humane incarceration throughout the U.S. and around the world. It was a nice position to have and it would be nice to gain that place of respect again in correctional policy and within the nation.


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One Comment on “Transcript: Testimony of UC Irvine Professor Keramet Reiter at the joint legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California – Oct. 9, 2013

  1. Pingback: Alternatives to long-term solitary confinement in California | What The Folly?!

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