The legislative hearings held at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) began with a tour of the Security Housing Unit (SHU). There legislators saw for themselves the tiny solitary confinement cells which women are forced to live in twenty-three and a half hours a day. They got to see how women in the SHU are under constant surveillance, without any privacy from male guards. And they witnessed first hand the absurdly cruel practice of conducting “group therapy” sessions with SHU prisoners who are each locked in separate adjoining cages (or holding cells as the CDC euphemism has it) – a practice which flies in the face of all principles of humane mental health treatment. Unfortunately, during the hearings the SHU was once again pushed to the margins and there was no time left to focus on what the legislators had seen or what could be done about it.
Women, most of whom are imprisoned for non-violent offenses such as possession of drugs, face this most vicious power of the state for minor infractions in prison, such as spitting at guards or fighting with other women.
As visitors to the SHU we observe 250-pound, 6-foot+ guard don a full armor to “help” 3 or 4 other guards, also heavily armored, escort one 100-pound woman in handcuffs and shackles to the visiting area. The excessive power brought by the state is easily seen in the visiting room.
What is not as easily seen, is what happens inside. Women tell us that the SHU is primarily a tool of humiliation. Guards often choose to harass women while they are on the toilet. Male guards are present during strip searches, which are performed every time a woman enters or leaves her cell. This is perceived by the women, many of whom are victims of sexual abuse prior to their incarceration, as equivalent to rape.
The first SHU was constructed in 1970s as “behavior control unit” in Marion, Il. State-of-the-art research in psychology and psychiatry was used to design an environment to “break” the most “hardened criminals.” Far from “containing” violent behavior, the extreme isolation and the sharp curtailment of all social interactions escalates the use of violence by both guards and prisoners. From the beginning, the behavior control unit was used to break primarily those prisoners who acted on behalf of other prisoners: jail-house lawyers, primarily Black. Marion’s control unit resulted in many prisoners doing harm to themselves or to others. Some, however, came out saying that the complete control of their environment and absolute coercion of all their activities, while successful in modifying their behavior, made transparent that all that control cannot get to their mind, that their thoughts are their own. Their freedom of thought led them to work to abolish the whole prison system.
Depriving human beings of interactions with other people has been shown centuries ago to drive us crazy. It is particularly inhumane that mentally ill women are frequently placed in the SHU. This course of “treatment” is guaranteed to make an already ill person much worse.
Solitary confinement strikes at the core of the social relationships which make us human. There are many forms that fighting back against such an assault on one’s humanity can take. When the whole power of the state sets out to convince you that you’re all alone, just finding a way to share some shampoo with an-other prisoner is a way to assert your social self. Women help each other write letters and grievances. They file individual law suits despite almost certain retaliation. Some women resist submitting to the strip searches as their way of expressing their opposition.
To women inside the SHU, we want you to know that we believe there is a social responsibility for the pain you experience. It is no exaggeration to call the SHU a crime against humanity. Since the legislators did not get to discuss the SHU, we call for public hearings specifically on the SHU to expose what is going on in that most invisible section of the prison system. This could be one step to shutting the SHU down!
For more information on women in California’s SHU’s based in large part on reports from women, see “‘It’s Like Living in a Black Hole’: Women of Color and Solitary Confinement in the Prison Industrial Complex” by Cassandra Shaylor in New England Jouranl on Criminal and Civil Confinement, Summer 1998.