|Typical cell on Texas death row|
In nearly three years, Dominic Walker rarely looked another human being in the eye.
Except for showers, he left his cell at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles only once a week, to exercise in a small cage resembling a dog kennel. His conversations were typically shouted through cell bars to other inmates in his row.
“It makes you feel like nobody. I’m here, the walls are closing in. It makes you hallucinate,” said Walker, 34, who was released in June after prosecutors dropped his armed robbery charge.
More than 300 inmates in the antiquated jail live in near-total solitude, deprived of meaningful human contact either because they have misbehaved behind bars or because officials believe they must be kept away from others for safety reasons. Another 100 or so, including women, are doing their time in solitary units — officially called restrictive housing — at jails elsewhere in the county.
Throughout the nation, state prisons have come under intense scrutiny because of concerns that inmates who are deprived of social contact in solitary confinement can suffer serious psychological damage. Last year, spurred by hunger strikes and a lawsuit, the California state prison system reduced the population of its Solitary Housing Unit by thousands of inmates, joining states such as Colorado, Mississippi, Maine and North Carolina that have made similar changes.
But long-term isolation in county lockups, where most inmates are awaiting trial or serving short sentences, has largely remained a hidden issue.
Some of the 4,800-man jail’s most dangerous and disruptive inmates, including high-level gang leaders, live here in the restrictive housing unit, which is known informally as K-10, with the K standing for “keep-away.” Another term, “high-power,” also alludes to the threat jailers believe these inmates pose.
But not all K-10s are violent. Some live in isolation because they need to be protected from other inmates. This category includes celebrity inmates or those accused of high-profile crimes, like gangsta rap mogul Suge Knight and the Grim Sleeper serial killer.
The county’s euphemistic lexicon for solitary confinement has helped keep the issue out of the public eye, said Mark-Anthony Johnson, director of health and wellness for the jail reform group Dignity and Power Now.
“The way K-10 is talked about is, ‘We need to keep these people away from the population,’ and that’s where the conversation around their rights gets lost,” Johnson said.
Contrary to the assertions of sheriff’s officials, the conditions at Men’s Central Jail fit the definition of solitary confinement, according to some experts.
|Tomblike dungeons designed by human beings for other human beings.|
“We’re not talking truly about sensory deprivation but about meaningful, anchoring stimulation,” said Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has served as an expert for plaintiffs in lawsuits opposing solitary confinement.
In a recent article in the Prison Journal, UC Santa Cruz psychologist Craig Haney called solitary confinement in local jails “among the least studied components of the entire criminal justice system.” Haney, who provided a scathing critique of solitary confinement in the California state prison lawsuit, cited a United Nations-appointed expert who contended that solitary confinement of more than 15 days can amount to torture.
As state prisons across the country have changed their practices to reflect mental health and human rights concerns, jails have been slow to follow.
In November 2015, the Prison Law Office sued on behalf of two Santa Clara County jail inmates in solitary confinement who allegedly were not taken outdoors for seven months.
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Source: Los Angeles Times, Cindy Chang, September 25, 2016
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