Transcript: Testimony of Dr. Craig Haney on CDCR’s proposed new policies on solitary confinement – Feb. 11, 2014

Partial transcript of the testimony of Dr. Craig Haney, Professor at UC Santa Cruz, on CDCR’s proposed new policies on solitary confinement and prison gang or “security threat group” management. The joint informational hearing was held on Feb. 11, 2014:

Sen. Hancock, Assemblyman Ammiano, members of the public safety committee, my name is Craig Haney. I’m a professor of psychology, director of the legal studies program at the University of California Santa Cruz. I want to thank you for this opportunity to address you and also thank your respective staffs for working to hard to organize this important hearing.

I’ve been studying the effects – the psychological effects of imprisonment since 1971 when Philip Zimbardo, Curtis Banks, and I put a group of volunteer college students in a simulated prison environment, randomly assigned some to be prisoners and others to be guards, and watched with shock and dismay at how badly they were affected after six short days in what came to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

I’ve been studying real and much more powerful prisons ever since, and in the last several decades, much of my research has focused on conditions of confinement in isolated, solitary or super max type prisons.

My research has taken me all over the country, to dozens of isolation units, prison systems in many states as well as the federal bureau of prisons – places where I’ve conducted interviews with prison staff members and officials and by now also have interviewed in the neighborhood of a thousand prisoners living in some form solitary confinement while attempting to understand how these places work, the unique mentality that is created and operates on both sides of the bars inside and how prisoners are psychologically changed and affected by the isolation and deprivation to which they’re subjected there.

Because I live and work in California, much of my work on these issues has been concentrated on prisons in our state, including the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit, and I’ve testified as an expert witness in most of the major prison conditions lawsuits that have occurred in California, including Toussaint v. McCarthy, which looked at lock-up units in the 1980s; Madrid v. Gomez, when Judge Henderson shown a light on conditions inside Pelican Bay; and Brown v. Plata, which addressed unconstitutionally severe conditions of overcrowded confinement.

These and other cases – especially the Plata-ordered reduction in overcrowding and the historic legislative realignment that’s followed – have given us – you – the unique opportunity to get our prison house in order in California.

Other problematic aspects of the prison system that severe overcrowding not only helped to cause but also simultaneously made impossible to meaningfully address are now within our grasp to identify and hopefully to solve. Prison isolation policy is one of them.

I want to begin with the observation that the United States is an outlier in the extent to which it isolates its prisoners, and within the United States, California is an outlier with respect to its extreme isolation policies and practices.

The sheer number of prisoners that the United States holds in solitary confinement and the extraordinary lengths of time that we keep them there are shocking and unprecedented by international standards.

One can debate and we probably should at some point in the United States debate whether long-term solitary confinement constitutes torture. But that debate has long since been settled in the international human rights community.

Juan Mendez, the United [Nations] Special Rapporteur on Torture, has labeled solitary confinement lasting for longer than 15 days as “prolonged solitary confinement” and called for its abolition.

Numerous other international human rights organizations have echoed his sentiments.

There’s no question that measured by these standards, the United States is wildly and unsettlingly out of sync with the rest of the world on this issue.

But within our already out of sync U.S. context, California is in itself an outlier. There is simply no other prison system in the country that I know of that places so many prisoners in isolation and no other state that places them in remotely for as long as we do.

To give you just one benchmark – and it’s difficult not to compare apples with oranges – the federal super max prison, the so-called ADX in Florence, Colorado, which serves as the end of the line for the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons or BOP houses approximately 400 prisoners. That is less than half the population of the Pelican Bay SHU. Yet, there are well over 200,000 federal prisoners – almost twice the number that we have in California.

Moreover, notwithstanding this much more favorable ratio, the BOP last year was the focus of a critical Government Accountability Office report – one in which they were told to “consider lessons learned from some state initiatives that reduce the number of inmates held in segregation without significant adverse impacts on violence or assault rates.”

As I said, California is an outlier by any measure, even measured against the prison system that has been cited for its apparent overuse of isolated or restricted housing.

With these things in mind, whatever reforms are being proposed and implemented in California with respect to prison isolation must be judged in light of how far back we are compared to the rest of the country and the world.

A little bit of slowly implemented reform is frankly not going to make much of a difference.

I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise to any of you if I say that we know that long-term isolation can have terrible consequences for many of the persons subjected to it. This borders on common sense. It is why harsh prison systems and torture regimes alike regularly and routinely resort to solitary confinement as severe punishment and why none of us would tolerate having a loved one, a child, or parent locked alone in a closet-like space for days or weeks, let alone years or decades.

In our studies of prisoners at Pelican Bay and elsewhere, we have documented the multiple ways in which they suffer and are changed by this experience.

The list of symptoms is far too long for me to recite or explain in detail in the short time available, but to briefly summarize, prisoners in isolation suffer chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression. Many SHU inmates become deeply and unshakably paranoid and are profoundly anxious around and afraid of people on those rare occasions when they’re allowed any contact with them. Some begin to lose their grasp on sanity and many others report struggling with this on a daily basis. Many prisoners are certain they will never be able to live normally among people again and are consumed by this fear. Too many do actually deteriorate mentally and emotionally and their capacity to function as remotely effective social beings atrophies.

We knew these facts and I testified to many of them at the time the Madrid case was decided in 1995, the last time a very bright light, public light, was really shined on policies and practices at Pelican Bay notwithstanding the current hearings which have taken place.

But two things have changed since then to make these concerns more grave.

For one, we now know from extensive research from other context that social isolation, loneliness, and social exclusion, which prisoners in solitary confinement experience in abundance, are not just painful but can, as one social science writer recently put it, “ravage the body and the brain.” Another prominent scientific review put it more judiciously, noting that “social neuroscience has witnessed an incredible rise in the number of studies demonstrating the effects of perceived isolation on mental and physical health.” However you express it, we now know that prolonged social deprivation has the capacity to literally change who we are physically as well as mentally.

The second significant change is that the deprived and punishing environment that was created at Pelican Bay, which was originally intended for no more than a short-term stay of a few years at most, has morphed into something very different and far more dangerous. In a turn of events that would have been regarded as unthinkable at the time of Madrid in 1995, some of the men who were on the first busload of prisoners brought to the stark and barren place in the late 1980s are still there, never having left.

Nearly 100 have been there, as you know, for 20 years; over 500 for 10 years or more. In the hearing that Assemblyman Ammiano –

Senator Loni Hancock:
Professor Haney? You know, we heard at our last hearing how detrimental isolation can be for people and some of the issues at Pelican Bay. We’re hoping that you can help us a little bit with what you think should change in this policy based on maybe what’s done in other places and any examples of that that you might have.

Dr. Craig Haney, Professor at UC Santa Cruz:
…There are two inter-related things that make the already destructive aspects of solitary confinement even worse – its uncertain duration and the sense among prisoners that they lack any realistic means with which they can end their isolation.

For this reason, from a psychological rather than a legal perspective, I regard the newly proposed and implemented isolation policies as a modest step in the right direction but a step that does not go nearly as far enough.

I say this because they failed to offer all prisoners a realistic objective pathway by which they can work their way out of isolation in a reasonable amount of time – a pathway that does not continue to invest significant discretion in the hands of correctional decision-makers, who for intents and purposes are beyond challenge or meaningful redress or appeal.

Moreover, a four year normative timeframe for a step-down program is longer than most prisoners in most prison systems ever spend in isolation, and here it comes on top of what already may be a decade or more of such confinement. There need to be more humane time limits, ones that are realistic and potentially achievable by all prisoners, with presumptive release dates that are met on the basis of objective criteria that focus on overt behavioral infractions. A system in which releases made contingent on a record of compliant behavior for a certain amount of time is preferable to one that can be invalidated by a set of wholly subjective judgments that in most instances are neither provable nor disprovable and in which the prisoners virtually never get the benefit of the doubt.

We have to do better. Otherwise, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness will remain, and many of these prisoners – including many already entering old age – who have no violent disciplinary infractions for years or even decades will continue to languish and end their lives in isolation.

The only additional thing I would add to that, Senator, is that as a veteran observer of decades of efforts to improve prison conditions and practices in California, I can’t over-emphasize or over-state how important it is for legislative involvement and oversight of this issue to be consistent and persistent and longstanding.

That involvement needs to include not just providing the stimulus for the implementation of these new policies as you have but also in the drafting of tangible and enforceable legal mandates to control the manner in which they operate and are judged, and the long-term auditing of how well they are working or not.

There need to be measurable objective outcomes that are written into law rather than discretionary promises to act wisely or humanely now and in the future.

I’ve watched the process of prison reform flounder again and again when such promises – irrespective of the earnestness and good will of the participants – personnel come and go, institutional memories fade, and good intentions invariably dissipate over time. We cannot depend on hunger strikes, grassroots mobilization, and high visibility hearings from time to time to bring critical scrutiny and change to policies and practices that have grown substantially unexamined and unrevised for decades.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano:
I have a comment. I thought it was a very astute observation you made. The two words that I think of are political will, and that means us, and it means them, and it means the governor. But that can be made to happen but it ain’t going to happen in this room. But I really appreciate your perspective on this.

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