When some friends began talking to me about the need for prison reform a few years ago, I was already on the verge of “issue fatigue.”
I was already committed to a number of important issues, from abolishing nuclear weapons to reducing carbon emissions, from national immigration reform to the Fair Food Campaign, from care for returning veterans — especially those suffering from moral injury — to promoting a regenerative economy, from seeking equal rights for LGBT persons to opposing our government’s use of torture in Afghanistan, Iran, Guantanamo and elsewhere.
I didn’t think I could add another commitment to my portfolio of concern.
Then I saw an interview with Shane Bauer, one of three Americans imprisoned in Iran for months. He explained that he wasn’t allowed contact with anyone outside, that he was given no access to a lawyer, that he wasn’t told what evidence there was for the charges against him, and that he had no idea if he would ever even get a trial or see freedom.
What left the biggest mark on me was when he said that no part of his experience was worse than the four months he spent in solitary confinement. He admitted that the experience was so unbearable that he wished he could have been interrogated — just to have some form of human contact.
Later, I read an article in Mother Jones by Bauer. In it, he described what it was like to discover that many prisoners in California are subjected to even more extreme forms of solitary confinement than he had been in Iran.
I knew I could not be silent. Solitary confinement might not involve beatings, electric shocks, or water boarding, but it looks, smells and sounds like torture. And people like me — who believe that human beings are created in the image of God, and therefore have innate dignity — cannot be silent about torture, whether in Iran or California.
The issue has gained more attention since July 8, when over 30,000 prisoners in California prisons began a peaceful hunger strike. Now, over 40 days after the hunger strike began, hundreds of California prisoners are still refusing food, and many of them are nearing organ failure and death. They are protesting a number of inhumane conditions, but solitary confinement is the one that many of us can’t stop thinking about.
Imagine being placed in a small, windowless cell, devoid of fresh air, sunlight, human contact, or anything to do for 23 or 24 hours a day, often for years and even decades on end.
Tragically, the United States is exceptional in its use of solitary confinement. Our nation makes up five percent of the world’s population, incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and now leads the world in using solitary confinement in its prisons. And California is exceptional in America as the state with the highest use of solitary confinement.
The Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations, Juan Mendez, has recommended that indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be subject to an absolute prohibition, in keeping with Article I of the UN Convention Against Torture, which prohibits policies and practices that “constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”
That’s why, as a committed Christian and former pastor, I must join with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in calling on Governor Brown and Dr. Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, to honor the reasonable demands of the California prisoner hunger strikers, and especially to end the abusive use of solitary confinement in California prisons.
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, public theologian and former college English instructor and pastor. He lives on Marco Island, Fla.