Author, Expert & Speaker

Real prison reform is a slow process. As with other social issues, it takes time for the public, judges, and legislators to make serious moves toward change. I’ve been asked why reforming prison living conditions takes so long. It’s because such reform germinates in the dark and easily goes unnoticed.

Prisons are the black holes of societies; they hold facts about aberrant morality that result in serious moral issues. Because black holes hide moral decay, people need to shed light on them—together. The result is a movement.

Between 1954 and 1968, the American civil rights movement brought attention to racial inequality by means of nonviolent protests. The movement’s goals were to secure legal recognition and federal protection of all citizenship rights provided by the Constitution and federal law. Civil disobedience was the key method used.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. describes civil disobedience:

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Civil disobedience doesn’t translate very well into prison reform language. There are reasons for this: Outside prison, witnesses are free to talk, and often there is press coverage with a degree of transparency. Planned events fund common causes. Society generally accepts one’s right to state his or her cause; it’s not considered civil disobedience except by racists and other bigots. Behind bars, however, disobedience of any kind is handled by authorities as insurrection to be met with disproportionate force. Force begets control to keep order. The techniques of force are enacted in the dark—sometimes literally, as in the case of solitary confinement. Enforcement is often done with contempt, using tactics that violate inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

A case highlighting this unchecked contempt for inmates is being litigated in the United States District Court, Northern District, of California. In a civil complaint brought by inmates against a former prison warden, Lipsey v. Barnes alleges in part:

Since 2013, [Christopher] Lipsey has been subject to a cacophonous system of “Guard One welfare checks” that require officers to strike a metal button with a metal rod every thirty minutes, 24 hours a day, on each cell in the Security Housing Units [SHUs] and Administrative Segregation [Ad Seg] Units.

This system is intended to reduce inmate suicides, but instead subjects inmates to torturous and unconstitutional sleep deprivation in the process of checking whether they remain alive.

The complaint goes on to say the following:

Even though the purported purpose of the Guard One system is to confirm that floor officers are conducting suicide checks, many officers often do not even look inside Lipsey’s cell during the checks. The Guard One system does not even guarantee that a cell has been checked, because an officer can hit the button without looking inside the cell.

On February 8, 2018, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) submitted a motion to dismiss Lipsey’s lawsuit. The defense was that the CDCR didn’t do anything wrong; the policy in question was designed to save lives. According to a report by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity

Judge Chhabria [the judge hearing the case] was critical of CDCR, . . . saying he thought California was getting rid of solitary confinement. He then questioned why the plaintiffs are being held in isolation. Judge Chhabria showed no indication that he would dismiss the cases or that he thought dismissal was appropriate. He also asked CDCR attorneys if it seems to them to be a “very serious problem” for people in solitary, already under extreme psychological stress and some with mental illness, to be woken up every half hour at night.

The judge’s question shows his awareness of a mental health population in the prison system and how a prison experience such as the one stated in the complaint would traumatize anyone, especially someone with mental illness. The judge is being reasonable, scholarly, and compassionate in his approach. This is a refreshing judicial tone.

Judge Chhabria has not yet made a final ruling about whether he will dismiss the case. When he does, either side will be able to appeal his decision. If no appeal is filed, the case will eventually be decided by a federal court jury. From when the civil offenses started in 2013, it has taken five years for the case to be heard. I will watch for advances in the case and provide periodic updates.

Everyone has social change issues that he or she is passionate about. However, it takes a movement to shed light on black holes. I applaud the Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition for its efforts to shine a spotlight on a specific prison reform issue that is outrageous and has strong visceral and humane appeal. Welfare and security checks don’t check anything. Some people are confined to the SHU or Ad Seg Unit because they have suicidal tendencies, ideations, or plans to harm themselves. A qualified mental health board should make recommendations about the special incarceration needs of inmates with diagnosable and disabling mental disorders. Mental illness is involuntary civil disobedience and not a crime.

Getting Involved

Here’s one way you can help:

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition asks you to help end the sleep deprivation by joining the prisoners’ call to end the checks.

If you know someone in solitary in a CA prison (Ad-Seg/ASU, SHU, PSU, or Condemned Units/death row), please print and send this survey to them. They can write the PHSS Committee to End Sleep Deprivation and send their survey responses to us, also.

Please watch this video of highlights from a February 8, 2018, rally in San Francisco.

Because real prison reform is a slow process that can start in the dark, it’s always the time to get involved for social change. I encourage you to act upon your social change passions.

Image courtesy of 123rf

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