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(Photo courtesy Dolores Canales)

Dolores Canales, the mother of a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate who has served 12 years of a life sentence in isolation, speaks to a reporter after addressing a state legislative hearing in Sacramento Oct. 9.

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Critics, including church, question use of isolation in California prisons
October 30th, 2013
By Christina M. Gray

Once a month after a full workweek, Dolores Canales gets into her car to make the 1,500-mile round trip between her home in Orange County and Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border. That’s where her 37-year-old son John, a convicted murderer, is serving out a life sentence in the Security Housing Unit – broadly described by critics as “solitary confinement.”

For 12 years, John’s human contact has been more or less limited to the monthly appearance of his mother’s face through thick panes of institutional glass and the prison staff who bring meals to the windowless, cement cell where he spends 23 hours out of each day, says Canales. He does get one hour outside his cell each day – for exercise – but that is also spent alone in another concrete, windowless structure.

“My son wrote to me and said: ‘I have no doubt this place was designed with the sole intention of driving men mad or to suicide; I know because I am living it,’” Canales told lawmakers and state prison officials Oct. 9 at a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Safety Committees in Sacramento.

Canales and other prisoner families testified at the hearing where state Inspector General Robert Barton stated that at present, 4,054 inmates are housed in solitary confinement.

The hearing was the result of a summer hunger strike during which up to 30,000 California state inmates refused meals to protest the state’s security housing sentencing policies. The prisoners say sentences are set or extended not by infractions but at the discretion of prison officials.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation which presented its side of the issue at the hearing, solitary confinement does not exist in state prisons.

“How outsiders define solitary confinement is all across the map,” said spokeswoman Terry Thornton. She said the California prison system separates certain inmates from others for many different reasons, including their own protection.

“SHU housing is not intended as punishment for misbehavior,” she said. “It is specifically for offenders whose conduct endangers or threatens to endanger the safety of others or the security of the prison.” She added that inmates earn their way into the SHU by committing a serious crime but stay there only if they are validated as a member of a “security threat group” – often a gang affiliation.

“If you have been in the SHU for 10 or more years, like I have, it is for no other reason than your choice to remain loyal to and active in the gang you are associated with,” J. Bryan Elrod, a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate and former Aryan Brotherhood member, said in court papers filed in July as part of the state’s legal response to the hunger strikers’ allegations.

Critics however, including the California bishops, say that prolonged prisoner isolation by any name or purpose is inhumane and ineffective.

Monterey Bishop Richard Garcia, chairman of the Restorative Justice Committee of the California Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Fresno Bishop Armando Ochoa, who is also on the committee, reinforced Catholic opposition to solitary confinement in an Oct. 8 statement to Assembly members Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) and Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).

“…While it may be that isolation mitigates gang activity, placing men in isolation in the SHU unit has no restorative or rehabilitative purpose,” the bishops wrote. “We oppose the increasing use of isolation units, especially in the absence of due process … No one affected by crime is helped when a human being is subjected to this inhumane form of punishment.”

Laura Markle Downton of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a national organization mobilizing people of faith to end torture, said that international human rights standards state that isolation lasting more than 15 days is torture. “Prolonged solitary confinement destroys prisoners’ minds, denies the opportunity for community and violates the inherent, God-given dignity and worth of every person,” she said.

Canales concluded her testimony by suggesting that caged animals are shown more compassion than caged men. “We know that research chimpanzees are protected under federal law from being housed in solitary confinement,” she said. “And a bill has been passed to protect chickens from the cruelty of confinement.”

After the three-hour hearing Canales said that she feels “more hope than she ever has.”

Hancock and Ammiano say they will introduce legislation next year that limits or ends the use of isolation in state prisons.

In the meantime, Canales will continue her monthly treks to Pelican Bay.

“I came to Sacramento in the hope that my son will not be one of the many who succumb to suicide or insanity and that someone will listen and demand changes in the conditions of confinement for human beings,” she said.


From November 1, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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