A prison of cruelty: End injustice in criminal justice system

(Matt York/AP) When some friends began talking to me about the need for prison reform a few years ago, I … Continued


(Matt York/AP)

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.

  • kodiakbears

    Glad your eyes are wide open on this matter; we need more of you to see the light inside these darkened corridors of solitary confinement. Bless your heart for caring about those already forgotten and cast into the ring of fire and brimstone.

  • aspen32

    Maybe in 20 yrs this nation will look back on solitary like we look back on the Civil Rights movement, not believing how things were in this country.
    Prisons are money machines now. How to break the cycle of business.

  • WmarkW

    Yes, right.

    We’ll maintain prison discipline by making them write “I will not carve my toothbrush into a shivy” 100 times.

  • WmarkW

    The issue of whether solitary should be administered differently, is not the same question as whether it should exist.

  • freshtake

    As a Californian, we get to hear more of the details than most; most prisoners in the SHU units are placed there not because they present any danger it’s because of punitive reasons- typically COs use it to weld power over the inmates-for extremely petty reasons; don’t like your attitude today- 60 days in “segregation”. Many inmates have been in Segregation for decades- several told how they didn’t even recall what they looked like- no pictures allowed; one said he was able to get a murky-glimpse of his appearance from some reflective- foil-like material. This is a human disgrace of proportions that can’t even attach to words to adequately describe:Several years ago the CDC (California Department of Corrections) changed its name to CDRC (Calif Depart of REHABILITATION and Corrections) as if adding the REHAB in its name would actually amount to a change in its processes- an insult to any thinking human being. We have more PRISONS in Calif than Universities-some counties have more prisons than hospitals.

  • mormonpatriot

    What if we changed the entire way we looked at crime, incarceration, and other civil punishments?

    I hear the sentiment all the time that “prisoners are in prison to pay their debt to society.” Can we hear ourselves when we say this?
    There is no peace, justice, or good in revenge. And yet, it seems to me that we are using the court system now to get retribution against criminals. It seems to me that we live in a very imperfect world with very imperfect people, and that in order to make progress against the insanity, we will have to let go of our hurt and seek healing, as opposed to inflicting pain for revenge.
    The root of the word “penitentiary” is “penitent,” meaning “feeling or expressing humble or regretful pain or sorrow for sins or offenses : repentant.” Why are our prisons not focused on reforming with kindness and releasing prisoners as soon as they have shown change in their character and intent with respect to society?
    Cruelty, on the other hand, is a nearly sure-fire way to damage a prisoner long-term, inhibiting that desire and or hope left in them to rejoin and contribute positively to society. Do we want to send the message that prisoners are second-class citizens, never to be redeemed and made whole, or do we want full-fledged citizens, forgiven of their trespasses against the law, and enabled to function on a higher plane after prison?
    “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. “

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