Two ex-prisoners, California lawyer speak about solitary confinement
On Nov. 29, Tutors for Inmates (TFI) at UC Davis along with the Department for Asian American Studies hosted an awareness event titled “Mental Health Impacts of Solitary Confinement.” Attorney Anne Weills described how solitary confinement within the Security Housing Unit runs contrary to the rehabilitative principles of criminal justice. Two former California prisoners who experienced SHU, Danny Murillo and Joshua Mason, spoke about life in prison, in SHU and the knowledge they gained.
Prior to the event, Anusha Sundar, the president of TFI and a third-year philosophy major, explained how TFI volunteers tutor inmates at California State Prison, Solano and Yolo County Juvenile Hall. When asked about how the inmates react to the tutors, Sundar mentioned invisible contracts of trust that non-volunteer educators may not form.
“A lot of programs exist through […the] California Department of Correction or someone who’s paid in the prison,” Sundar said. ”One thing to keep in mind is, is there sufficient reason for the inmates to even trust in those individuals who provide those programs? One thing that’s special about us is that we’re volunteers — we don’t get paid. Once they’re aware that we’re going out of our way to care and invest in their future and education, that makes a pretty significant difference in our interaction.”
The Nov. 29 event focused on the negative mental health impacts of long-term solitary confinement in prison — the United Nations considers solitary confinement after 15 days a form of torture. The New York Times reported that there are over 75,000 United States prisoners secluded in solitary units. In the Pelican Bay State California prison, where guest speakers Murillo and Mason were housed, there are an estimated 1,123 prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.
A Fusion YouTube video and a Mother Jones video were shown to the audience; both described the psychological damage of solitary confinement, marked by spending between 22 and 24 hours alone in a cell. The Fusion video stated that “sometimes, a bit of ceiling is uncovered, [and] this is the only time you’ll see the sky.” The Mother Jones video documented former Iranian prison detainee Shane Baurer’s visit to Pelican Bay; Bauer found Pelican Bay’s solitary confinement conditions worse than his Iranian prison.
Phone calls, letters and visits are withheld from inmates living in isolation. Debriefing, or snitching, is often the only way to escape solitary confinement. Debriefing is questionable in its reliability as testimony and can result in violent retaliation from the accused.
According to Weills and a Stanford mental health study that was passed around, solitary confinement is categorically abusive and inhumane.
“There is no social contact [in SHU],” Weills said. “As human beings, we need social contact — people to hug us, touch us, kiss us. That is essential to our growth and humanity, and [some prisoners] were denied that for decades. The suicidal ideation, the depression, […] anxiety, cognitive disabilities, confusion — […] neuroscientists talk about how it shrinks the brain.”
Weills specifically addressed mass incarceration in California.
“The only way you can actually understand what our prisoners in California experience is dealing with them individually,” Weills said. “California has the worst prison system in the United States. We have more prisoners per capita in custody, and we have the largest security housing units in the country.”
According to Weills, conservative politics in the 1970s furthered mass incarceration through the war on drugs and increased legal severities, favoring punitive justice over restorative justice. Under conservatives like Ronald Reagan, “hundreds of thousands” of people were incarcerated for modest offences.
“[Some] European [countries] have a progressed, enlightened prison system,” Weills said. “They decided that in order to have a healthy society, they want to make [criminals] whole individuals again. They bring all these resources — mental health care, […] education, training [and] they involve their families. In the United States we have this very puritanical, harsh — I think Calvinistic — system, where you’re punished for life.”
Weills said inmates “cannot parole” when they are “in the SHU.” This means inmates can be in SHU for the duration of their prison sentence and cannot reduce it.
“Since 2011, I have been dealing with California’s prisons,” Weills said. “I have prisoners coming out of SHU through a settlement agreement in 2015 who are being denied parole because they were in the SHU and are gang validated. Many of these men refused to snitch, so they did 10 years [or] 20 years in this torturous situation, and now they’re out [of SHU but] they can’t get out of the system.”
The Fusion video explored the process of placing inmates in SHU.
“Around the country, you can land in solitary for your art, your reading, your gender status, your sexuality, or your friends,” the video said. “Transgender prisoners are often put in solitary just for being trans. Very little evidence is needed to justify holding someone in solitary indefinitely. Solitary also enables abuse — in the privacy of solitary, guards beat and restrain prisoners.”
Danny Murillo, a former Pelican Bay prisoner, talked about his own experience in prison and in SHU. Murillo said he noticed how marginalized, under-performing high school students are not privileged with the same extra-curricular activities that higher-performing students are. Murillo talked about how he didn’t realize it at the time, but as a criminal he was “perpetuating microcapitalism within [his] society.”
“I wasn’t a very good student and I wasn’t allowed on the baseball team,” Murillo said. “I had to find something else. I lived in a community involved in gangs, on a street where six or seven people were on probation or parole. It was already normalized, but not something I wanted to be part of it. By age 13, I was already initiated as a gang member. By 1995, I was busted for a bag of crack cocaine — I used to sell a lot of crack. I got out a few months after my friend was murdered. My first day out, I said, ‘Let’s go gangbang.’ March of 1996, I got arrested for two armed robberies, a carjacking and a kidnapping.”
After being sent to Pelican Bay, a maximum security prison in California, Murillo said he was greeted by guards telling him the only way to get out of SHU was “parole, snitch or die.”
Murillo told attendees that it didn’t take long for him to “understand that Pelican Bay SHU was designed to break you — mentally, physically, and spiritually.” He talked about unlearning criminality and delving into philosophy and literature with figures like Marx. For Murillo, education, therapy and self-reflection helped him confront his mental health problems.
Murillo was released from Pelican Bay following a plea deal where his co-defendant with prior felonies received a life sentence as part of a plea bargain, granting Murillo 15 years in prison. He told the audience about how his motivation to never return to prison is anchored in his friend’s sacrifice.
“If he didn’t take that life sentence, we were all looking at 75 years to life,” Murillo said. “I couldn’t tell him to make that deal. He had to make that decision. And I never really thought about it. He swallowed a life sentence —and he’s still in prison now — so that I and my other friend could have an opportunity to come home.”
Following Murillo, former inmate Joshua Mason talked about how family relationships and poverty can predispose someone to crime and the cycle of dysfunction as self-perpetuating.
“A lot of us go to jail traumatized,” Mason said. “I started going to jail at 11. I had no sense of control. My mom was a young teenager when she had me [and] my dad was much older. They come from generations of dysfunction and trauma, so it’s difficult to fault them for their errors. From a young age, I was just trying to see where I fit. I was labeled a gang member before I knew I was a gang member. [The system] certainly shaped my perception of myself.”
Mason explained his notion of self-worth prior to going to jail, and how living in poverty affected his identity.
“When my momma’s strung out on dope, and someone steals keys so I can break into a car to sleep, how are you gonna say that’s a bad friend?” Mason asked. “I was an intensely loyal person. I felt like it’s all I had to offer. My identity continued to get wrapped up in being a ‘homeboy,’ and you can depend on me. That was the only thing I was good at — the only thing that was ever celebrated, and the only thing than anybody ever noticed about me.”
Mason spoke about his brother’s murder, which he believes has helped form his ideas of the criminal justice system, as well as providing a traumatic catalyst for some of his own actions. A 14-year-old murdered Mason’s brother “over a girl.”
“That kid didn’t to jail, he went to juvenile hall for a very brief amount of time,” Mason said. “He got out and disappeared — and not in the way I was trying to make him disappear. His family […] said it was my brother’s fault that he got killed because my brother had been stopped with a knife before. He never used the knife on anybody, [but] because of that incident years prior, the little kid’s family and lawyers could argue that he was defending himself against my brother.”
He spoke about SHU and his mindset as he occupied his day with monotonous activities, like working out and drinking water. Mason began taking college classes.
“[In prison], I started taking college classes,” Mason said. “My first semester, I took two classes and I got a 3.0. I never graduated seventh grade! I hadn’t gone in a classroom in a decade. I challenged myself. [I thought], ‘Next time, I’m gonna take all the classes they’ll let me and I’m gonna get straight A’s.’ So I did, and I did.”
Written by: Aaron Liss — firstname.lastname@example.org