Ronnie Dewberry is 54 years old. For more than half of his life he has spent 23 hours of every day in an 8-by-10-foot cell, furnished with a concrete bed, stool, and desk that protrude from the concrete walls. There is no window or any source of natural light at all; the perforations on the door allow Dewberry to peer out into a concrete hallway. Dewberry does not speak to or see anyone, save for the three brief moments each day when a guard delivers his meals through a slot in the door.
But his cell is not a quiet place; at night, guards noisily stamp prison mail, rattle their keys and chains, and periodically and purposely wake Dewberry.
A few days a week, for one hour, Dewberry is allowed outside into a slightly larger pen to exercise. It is then that he can catch a view of the sky.
Dewberry is one of more than around 4,000 men who are currently held in solitary confinement in California. Around the country, it is estimated that more than 80,000 people are held in long-term solitary confinement, though no exact number exists. This is one indicator of the lack of oversight under which the practice proceeds.
For most of these years, Dewberry, who now goes by the name Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, has been held at Pelican Bay State Prison, the largest of California’s three supermax facilities, located in the northwest corner of the state in Crescent City. Dewberry was placed in solitary confinement when he was identified by prison authorities as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, a so-called gang founded in California’s San Quentin State Prison in the 1960s by Black Panther member, George Jackson.
If prison authorities at any of California’s 33 prisons determine a prisoner is affiliated with a gang, then that person is “validated” and can be transferred to a supermax prison’s segregated housing units (SHU) for an indefinite period of time.
According to Keramet Reiter, a professor of criminology and law at UC Irvine, prison staff members are required to present three pieces of evidence to support their allegation that a prisoner is affiliated with a gang. The evidence might be a tattoo, a letter, photo or piece of political literature found in a prisoner’s cell, or seeing the prisoner talking to another suspected gang member.
Reiter is the author of the paper, “Parole, Snitch or Die: California’s Supermax Prisons and Prisoners, 1987-2007,” one of the only attempts to delineate and analyze the character of solitary confinement in California, a difficult feat considering the dearth of information collected by CDCR on the population of isolated prisoners. In order to get around that stumbling block, Reiter analyzed the data of men who have been released from solitary and conducted interviews with the architects of the first supermax prisons in California—a novel strategy to shine light on a subject that remains largely hidden from public scrutiny.
After the first two California prisoner hunger strikes in 2011 and the lawsuit filed on behalf of 10 prisoners at Pelican Bay (including Dewberry) by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus and two private firms in May 2012, the CDCR promised to institute reform. They passed the “Pilot Program for Security Threat Group Identification” in October 2012 and have since maintained this will address the concerns of the CCR’s suit. But absent any external oversight, there is no mechanism to gauge the implementation or the success of the reform.
In a letter sent to CDCR and the management of Pelican Bay in December 2012, prisoners wrote, “The truth is that the Pilot Program fails to change the present policies and practices at issue in any substantive meaningful ways, and it will actually result in a significant expansion of the numbers of prisoners kept indefinitely in SHU and Ad Seg solitary confinement torture cells.”
Anne Weills, a lawyer representing the men, explained to AlterNet that the Pilot Program cannot remedy the wanton use of solitary because it “maintains the same matrix of violations that could be used to validate a prisoner as part of a gang—such as a George Jackson book, saying hello to another gang member, a photograph.”
Unlike many of the men who are serving decades long sentences in the SHU, Dewberry makes no attempt to hide his political leanings. From his cell, he has written about New Afrikan Nationalism for the San Francisco Bayview National Black Newspaper. According to Stanford historian James Campbell, the political views of New Afrikan Nationalism were ubiquitous in black urban life during the 1960s and ’70s. But prison authorities conflate subscribing to the black nationalism and political analysis associated with New Afrikan Nationalism with participating in a prison gang, and thus Dewberry’s open adherence to this ideology makes him a “threat.”
Weills calls the New Afrikan Nationalists the next generation of the Black Guerrilla Family. “They see themselves as carrying on the philosophies of George Jackson, which includes class analysis, criticism of US imperialism and black nationalism.”
“I don’t think the BGF are a gang in the traditional sense of being involved in blackmarket crime. I’ve talked to male guards there over the years who also don’t believe they are a gang in the traditional sense. I believe this particular group has been unconstitutionally labeled a gang.”
Douglas Thompkins, a sociologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, told the 2006 Vera Institute’s committee investigating the abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons that “race is often a ‘proxy for dangerousness.’”
According to Reiter’s data, in 2007 56 percent of the supermax population of California was Latino and 16 percent was black.
While an estimated two-thirds of the prisoners held in solitary at Pelican Bay have been “validated,” a prisoner can also be placed in isolation for breaking a rule. In that case, they go through an administrative process and are sentenced to isolation for a fixed period of time—anywhere between six months and five years. The process of determining whether an inmate is placed in solitary is left to the discretion of the prison authorities.
Many inmates have been validated because other prisoners have accused them of being associated with a gang, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, La EME, the BFG and Nuestra Familia.
Paul Redd, 55, has spent 33 years in solitary confinement after being designated a BFG member based on classified statements that indicated he had communicated with other BFG prisoners.
George Franco, 46, has tried to escape his classification as a member of Nuestra Familia, but informants have told prison authorities that he maintains a role in the gang, and thus he remains in the SHU.
Short of being informed on, any hint of associating with a gang can be used to indefinitely isolate a prisoner in the SHU. Luis Esquivel, 43, has spent 13 years in solitary for possessing Aztec artwork that is associated with La Eme, the Mexican Mafia.
“The arcane system of validation allows everything to be secret. Most people have been validated because of secret informants—either guards or inmates—so they can’t refute the evidence used against them because they can’t even see it,” Weills explains.
Unreliable snitching is endemic to the system the CDCR has set up: the only way an inmate can be released from solitary is if they “debrief,” which means to confess every crime a prisoner has ever done—which Weills points out is a forfeiture of the Fifth Amendment—and then inform on other prisoners.
“It’s a cycle: once you’re in, the only way to get out is to get somebody else put in,” Keramet explains.
No data is available on the prevalence of debriefing, which is why the CCR has asked the CDCR to provide details on debriefing as part of the discovery process in its lawsuit. But Weills believes that “very few [prisoners] debrief—just a handful. It’s a code of honor amongst prisoners not to snitch on each other and not to incriminate themselves because ultimately they might want to be paroled.”
“For the men who do debrief— they just can’t take it anymore and are willing to say anything. That’s part of the ideology of the powers that be in the prisons: to create a class of broken men, because when they’re more in charge of themselves they’re more of a threat to the institution.”
CCR collected the stories of Dewberry, Redd, Franco, Esquivel, and seven other men at Pelican Bay who have been held in solitary between 11 and 33 years (while Pelican Bay is only 24 years old, many men were transferred directly to its SHU in 1989 from other isolated cells around the state). In the CCR’s lawsuit against the CDCR, Governor Jerry Brown, and the warden of Pelican Bay, they allege that California’s longterm use of the SHU violates the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
“There were many men who could have become plaintiffs but we needed to pare it down to just 10. We had a clear strategy in our selection. We wanted diversity and representatives of different groups—from the north and south; blacks, whites, Mexicans; leaders of the hunger strike,” Weills explains.
But because these 10 men are neither alone nor are their circumstances exceptional, the CCR argued before a district court in Oakland, Calif. in September that their case should be made a class-action suit on behalf of all 500 prisoners who have been held in the SHU at Pelican Bay for more than a decade.
According to Inspector General Robert Barton’s testimony at the 9 October hearings, at least 984 prisoners have been held in the SHU for more than five years: “We err on the side of conservatism: 10 years is still far too long.”
The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has asserted that any solitary confinement exceeding 15 days should be prohibited. Why must the CCR aim only for an injunction against permitting prisoners to spend more than 10 years in solitary? The reason lies in recognizing the history of the court’s deference to prison authorities as well as the long-established independence of the CDCR when it comes to managing the supermaxes.
While sending a prisoner to the “hole” is a centuries-old practice, the modern-day practice of the SHU in supermax prisons is relatively new. States began opening their first supermax prisons in the mid-1980s in order to house prisoners deemed “the worst of the worst”: too dangerous to live with the general population. These men (and some women) would be transferred to supermax prisons, which were designed for maximum sensory deprivation. Reiter writes that supermax prisons “deploy[ed] modern technologies like computer-automated doors, poured concrete moulds, and fluorescent lighting to impose unprecedentedly secure isolation for unprecedentedly long periods of time.”
Because a prisoner’s transfer to a supermax is based on in-prison behavior (i.e. getting validated or breaking a prison rule), the decision to transfer is an administrative, rather than judicial, process, unrelated to the initial criminal sentence, and entirely reliant on the discretion of prison officials.
“These units were administratively designed—inventions of the corrections administration—so there wasn’t any concern for oversight in the first place,” Reiter explains.
“Pelican Bay was built with no oversight by the legislation. CDCR is an agency unto itself; there is no oversight. I have never known of one governor who really cares about these men,” Weills said.
According to Reiter, when the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 1222 in 1986 to authorize the construction of Pelican Bay—the state’s first “maximum security complex”—all the “details were left up to the executive officials and corrections department administrators.”
In an interview with Reiter, Craig Brown, the Undersecretary of Corrections in California during the 1980s, said: “I don’t think we ever conceptualized it as a permanent thing for anyone other than a handful of inmates.” Brown explained to Reiter that the “the assumption was that people would serve a set term at Pelican Bay, for something like nine months, but no more than 18 months.”
According to Reiter’s analysis, today California holds 10 times as many prisoners in supermaxes than most other states.
So how did facilities like Pelican Bay go from their original conception as providing short-term segregation of highly dangerous criminals to caging, potentially indefinitely, anyone found with an article penned by George Jackson?
“For one, they built the facilities,” Reiter proffers as the foundational cause for the out-of-control utilization of solitary confinement in the country.
Furthermore, as Fred Cohen, who has served as a court-appointed monitor of prisons in several states for the past 30 years, told AlterNet: “Corrections unions love supermax prisons. Prison guards love penal isolation because everyone is locked up. There’s a lot of payoff—they don’t have to work very hard.”
Indeed, the prison guards’ union of California—California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCOPA)—filed a motion to intervene in CCR’s lawsuit, claiming that the Pilot Program will undermine their workers’ safety.
But in fact, since 2007 some states have been quietly shuttering their supermax facilities with great success and evidence of improved safety, including Mississippi, Illinois and Colorado.
“They’re realizing that all of the superbad guys they thought were out there don’t really exist,” says Cohen.
Without an institutionalized mechanism to regulate prisons, Cohen believes lawsuits are the only way to enforce the constitutional rights of prisoners.
“The truth is, the only effective oversight is with effective litigation. I don’t know of any real effective internal security. But lawsuits takes time: you have to wait to get sued for something effective to happen,” says Cohen.
John Maki, the director of the John Howards Association of Illinois—the only external organization that monitors prisons in the state—agrees: “Usually the only oversight prisons really get is if they’re sued. Litigation is important but it depends on serious violations of constitutional rights. It’s hard to violate someone’s rights in prison. As soon as you walk into prison you lose your constitutional rights.”
“This is where we put people and problems we don’t like to think about. There’s a reason we don’t build institutions to monitor this.”
But it’s clear the courts have played a significant role in giving prison authorities the discretion they are now abusing.
“The deference of the courts to the people who run the penal system in the courts is extraordinary,” says Weills.
Reiter points out, “There’s an important story to tell about judicial oversight and solitary confinement—by in large courts have decided that these conditions are not unconstitutional.”
For example, in 1995, after a class-action suit was brought to court on behalf of inmates at Pelican Bay, a federal judge found that while certain conduct of the guards violated the rights of the prisoners, the basic conditions of solitary confinement did not violate prisoners’ Eighth Amendments, except in the case of the mentally ill.
At the time the case had been brought to court in 1993, Pelican Bay had only been operating for four years. The judge may not have imagined that some of the plaintiffs who had been held for the entirety of those four years would remain in solitary confinement for another 20 years and counting.
Last summer, 30,000 inmates across the California’s prisons launched the largest hunger strike in the state’s history, lasting 60 days and causing the death of one man.
Prisoners only resumed eating after the State Assembly and Senate agreed to hold legislative hearings to address what they said could “no longer be ignored.”
At the first hearing held on 9 October, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, promised that, “I don’t want lip service. I want real testimony from those who are the most concerned, and if necessary, I want legislation from these hearings.”
Weills and Reiter are hopeful that the legislature is finally paying attention and expect the hearings to produce a tangible outcome that may reform the practice of solitary confinement in California’s prisons.
It appears that if genuine reform is indeed on the horizon, it will have been pushed through by the unlikely figures that disappeared into the dark hole of a small concrete cell.