Religious Leaders Decry Solitary Confinement in California Prisons As Torture

by on August 24, 2011 · 0 comments

in California, Civil Rights

Representatives of National Religious Campaign Against Torture Deliver Oral Testimony Opposing Prolonged Solitary Confinement to California Officials

NRCAT representatives also participated in public rally before legislative hearing

By NRCAT / August 24, 2011

Rev. Will McGarvey, representing the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), said yesterday in Sacramento at a hearing of the California State Assembly Committee on Public Safety investigating the solitary confinement policies of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation:

“What concerns us as people of faith is the destruction of the human spirit. When human beings are subjected to conditions that destroy who they are, it is incumbent upon the whole faith community to call our culture, and yes, even our government, to accountability. If we allow solitary confinement to continue in our society – especially when we have been informed of the harmful results – what does that say about the kind of people we have become?”

 Over recent weeks, there has been significant public criticism, including from the religious community, of the way that California’s prison system responded to the three-week-long hunger strike, initiated by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison. The hunger strike was joined by thousands of prison inmates throughout the state, protesting prison conditions, including the use of prolonged solitary confinement in Secure Housing Units, known as SHUs.

As NRCAT states in its nationwide statement calling for federal and state governments to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement:

“Prisoners held in isolation for extended periods experience symptoms akin to delirium, and the impact on mentally ill prisoners is especially damaging. Alarmingly, these prisoners are sometimes released from solitary confinement units directly to their communities when they complete their prison sentence. We need to invest in humane alternatives that address the mental health needs of prisoners in a way that effectively contributes both to their rehabilitation and to their successful transition back into society.”

 The religious community was represented significantly by those testifying. Rev. Will McGarvey, Senior Pastor at Pittsburg Community Church in Pittsburg, Calif., and former chairperson of the Justice, Advocacy, and Caring Committee of the San Francisco Presbytery, is a supporter of the Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture (BARCAT, a NRCAT partner). Long active in human rights issues, McGarvey presented the following testimony,

“Our laws and all faith traditions recognize the inherent and inviolable dignity of every human being. As Justice Thurgood Marshall so poignantly stated, ‘When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality.’ Prolonged solitary confinement destroys that human quality. Any practice that promotes that end does not reflect the values and moral principles that ground our nation and this great State.”

 Both Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who teaches at the Wright Institute in Berkeley and is chair of the human rights committee at his temple, Kehilla Synagogue in Oakland, and Laura Magnani, San Francisco Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker organization that is also a member of NRCAT, echoed McGarvey in their testimony.

 “Contemporary prison suicide data includes a stunning statistic: Half of the suicides that occur in a prison system, on average, occur among the 4% to 8% of the prisoners who are consigned to segregation or isolation,” Kupers told the committee. “We as a society need to ask ourselves: What breeds such massive despair in prisoners? And one of the outstanding stressors, that we know from clinical research, leading to suicide is the total isolation and idleness of long-term segregation.”

 Magnani spoke to the committee as an academic expert and summarized the research in her 2008 study, Buried Alive: Long-term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons. She highlighted the unique traumas and abuses suffered by women prisoners held in solitary confinement and offered recommendations for legislation, echoing the recommendations of other academic experts addressing the committee.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who is chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and called today’s hearing, said after hearing testimony from both those opposed to California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement as well as those representing the corrections department, “I think there is some basic concern here about human rights.”

In addition to attending the hearing, NRCAT members delivered to Gov. Jerry Brown’s office a packet of more than 600 endorsements by California residents of NRCAT’s statement calling for federal and state governments to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement. Copies of the packet also were sent to Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation Matthew Cate, and the members of the California State Legislature.

“All major religions recognize the inherent dignity of all human beings and their capacity for redemption,” said Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

“Long-term solitary confinement desecrates a person’s inherent dignity and hinders genuine rehabilitation and redemption. While we appreciated the fact that Assemblyman Ammiano held yesterday’s hearing and allowed testimony from many, many people who described the debilitating effects of solitary confinement, we were disappointed that not all of the members of the Committee on Public Safety valued the subject enough to attend the hearing or remain to hear what the public had to say on the matter.”

 Prior to the hearing, more than 200 people, including people of faith from NRCAT, gathered in front of the California State Capitol to rally against the use of prolonged solitary confinement.

 The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is a growing membership organization committed to ending U.S.-sponsored torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Since its formation in January 2006, more than 300 religious organizations have joined NRCAT, including representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Sikh communities. Members include national denominations and faith groups, regional organizations and local congregations.



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