Report decries suicides, isolation cells in California prisons

An Amnesty International report says conditions in the state’s security housing ‘breach international standards.’ State officials rebut the findings. Many of the suicides occurred in isolation units.

By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times
Alex MachadoAlex Machado, shown before his incarceration in 1999, committed suicide last year after being placed in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison.


For 11 years in California‘s vast prison system, Alex Machado didn’t stand out. Not until the day he was “validated” as a gang member and transferred to Pelican Bay.

There, in solitary confinement, he began to unravel, prison documents showed. He slept little. Hygiene became sporadic. He heard voices and knocking on the walls.

In 15 months, Machado went from being an inmate who helped others craft legal appeals to one who smeared feces on his cell. In October 2011, he killed himself.

California has more inmate suicides than any other state, a total that is rising even as its prison population falls. Almost half those deaths occurred in the system’s segregation cells.

According to an Amnesty International report to be released Thursday, conditions within the state’s security housing “breach international standards on humane treatment.”

“It would crush you,” said Tessa Murphy, an Amnesty International observer who was given unusual access to the isolation units at Pelican Bay and two other California prisons last November.

But California officials rebutted Amnesty’s findings, insisting the state’s security units “follow the national standard. They are clean. They are secure,” said Terri McDonald, who is in charge of prison operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

She cited the constant monitoring of those units — the result of federal lawsuits over poor medical and mental healthcare in the state system. “We have not been inhumane,” McDonald said.

There currently are more than 3,100 inmates living in California’s maximum security segregation units, and thousands more in similar administrative segregation units.

The windowless, 7- by 12-foot cells at Pelican Bay exceed international space standards for a single inmate. The only way in or out is through a perforated steel door that looks out onto a concrete wall.

Except for an unknown number of prisoners who have cellmates, Amnesty International reported that there was no contact with other inmates and little interaction with the guards — who monitor them via closed circuit cameras, open doors with remote switches and push food through slots.

Segregated prisoners do not have access to rehabilitation programs, the report said. They are permitted to exercise 90 minutes a day, inside a concrete enclosure through which a slice of sky is visible 20 feet overhead.

Group therapy consists of inmates in individual holding cages lined up before a therapist; physicians examine ill inmates through the closed cell door.

According to state officials, the average stay in solitary confinement is 6.8 years — although California is set to begin a trial program next month that would allow compliant inmates out of isolation after four years.

But Amnesty International reported that at least 500 prisoners have spent more than 10 years in isolation. Seventy-eight inmates have been segregated for more than 20 years.

“There is no question … the conditions are among the worst in the nation,” Murphy said.

Continue Reading @ The LA Times


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