Tuesday, January 3, 2017

"23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement"

Keramet Reiter, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and at the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine, has been an associate at Human Rights Watch and testified about the impacts of solitary confinement before state and federal legislators. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Reiter applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement, and reported the following:
I put off writing about page 99 of 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement out of fear that what would actually appear on that page would be hard to explain out of context (or worse yet, contain a glaring typo that I would catch for the first time with fresh eyes). Instead, I opened to page 99 and found one of my favorite quotes from my research into the history and uses of long-term solitary confinement in the United States.

A central narrative thread of 23/7 is the power prison administrators have had and continue to have over every aspect of incarceration in the United States: what prisons look like, where prisoners spend their time while incarcerated, and especially who goes to isolation and for how long. Page 99 has the quote, drawn from dozens of interviews I conducted formally and informally, which best sums up this argument.

In an effort to understand who had made prison building decisions in California in the 1980s, when the state built one of the first modern supermax prisons, with 1,056 beds designed for indefinite solitary confinement, I interviewed prison officials who had worked on prison design, construction, and operational policy in those years. One of the people I interviewed was Craig Brown, who had been the head of the California prison system in the 1980s. When I asked him what role the legislature played in prison building decisions in the state in the 1980s, he said, as I quote on page 99: “You’re not going to find much in the record. It was all negotiated [off the record], and we [corrections] pretty much had our way with the legislature.”

Indeed, the only legislative mention I ever found of California’s supermax prison, later named Pelican Bay State Prison, was a transcript of a conference committee meeting in which legislators joked about whether the new prison being built in Del Norte County (on California’s northernmost border with Oregon, on the coastline) should be named Dungeness Dungeon or Slammer by the Sea. While legislature argued over what to call it, prison officials, supported by Craig Brown’s behind-closed-doors legislative negotiations, designed one of the most secure, and most expensive, prison facilities ever built in the United States.

Prisoners at Pelican Bay would spend 23 or more hours of every day, 7 days a week, in windowless cells barely the size of wheelchair accessible bathroom stalls. Prison officials decided which prisoners got sent there and for how long. Over the last three decades, hundreds of prisoners have been sent to Pelican Bay because prison officials labeled them (or “validated” them in prison policy language) as gang members: based on their tattoos, what they were reading, or who they were hanging out with on prison yards. More than five hundred of these prisoners spent at least ten years in total solitary confinement at Pelican Bay – never seeing the moon, feeling grass under their feet, or shaking a loved one’s hand.

23/7 is the story of how and why prison officials built Pelican Bay, and what prisoners have experienced behind its solid, poured concrete walls, over the last twenty-eight years.
Visit Keramet Reiter's website, and learn more about 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue