by Shamont Andrews / photo by Virginia Cortland
“Violence in prisons has increased because of solitary confinement. Federal courts have California under pressure for overcrowding [prisons], and the state of California wants to kill gang violence and culture. One hundred years from now, we will look at the current prison system and say, ‘Oh my god! What were we thinking?’ just as we did with slavery in the past,” voiced Jules Lobel, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh & president of the Center of Constitutional Rights, a national human and constitutional rights organization based in New York.
On Nov. 1, Lobel spoke at the “Reflection on the California Prisoner Hunger Strike” event sponsored by the two student groups: Evergreen Political Information Center (EPIC) and Abolish Cops and Prisons (ACAP). The event was held during the Alternatives to Capitalist Globalization program. He expressed the necessary change within the definition of the word “cruelty”.
“If you ask my clients the difference between physical pain versus mental pain, for example, electric shock versus solitary confinement, they would agree that cruelty is when you drive someone crazy,” said Lobel. According to Professor Peter Bohmer, Lobel has been part of one of the most important strikes within the past few years: the 2013 California federal prison hunger strike. During the strike, prisoners demand five important changes: to eliminate group punishments, abolish the debriefing policy and modify the “active/inactive” gang status criteria, comply with recommendations of the US Commission of Civil Rights on safety and abuse in American prisons, provide adequate food, and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite solitary housing unit inmates.
Lobel challenged his audience to mentally picture Pelican Bay solitary confinement cells, otherwise known as security housing units [SHU]. He described each unit as an “80 square foot cells, no windows, and four full walls of emptiness. The prisoner has no access to physical interaction nor can they make or receive phone calls unless they are about the death of a close relative. Otherwise, that person is only allowed one call while in solitary.”
Lobel argued that “something as simple as a window to view the outside world keeps one’s sanity.” He continued his lawsuit against the state of California, arguing for “natural and dignified human interaction.”
Lobel explained how solitary confinement at Pelican Bay has been known to hold a disproportionate number of African American and Latino inmates. He also explained how these inmates are thrown into the SHU with indeterminate sentences, due to their association with gang violence, reading “radical” political literature, and owning artwork and photographs that may construe, under investigation, inmate communication with outside gang members.
Lobel also commented on how solitary confinement at Pelican Bay has caused solidarity between rival ethnic gangs. The old union slogan, “solidarity forever”, has been transformed in the prison into “solitary forever.” According to Lobel, black nationalist, white aryan brotherhood, hispanic gangs, and other gangs have come together in ethnic unity to end violence against one another, and to fight against the California solitary confinement policy.
Wrapping up his speech, he called for students to become more aware of the federal prison system, especially within their own states. He also urged them to interact more with former inmates, and to understand their personal stories under poor prison conditions.