At Taylor & Taylor, not only are we dedicated to our clients' rights, we are strong advocates on behalf of the rights of inmates in America's prisons. While people may make the wrong decisions or be in the wrong place at the wrong time, we still believe that there is a human element about prisoners that should never be ignored or forgotten, even when they are ultimately sent to prison and punished for their mistakes.
On July 16, 2013, The New York Times published an article that caught our attention, it was entitled, "When Prisoners Protest." The article was written by Wilbert Rideau, who served nearly 44 years for manslaughter, mostly in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Rideau is a journalist and author of the memoir "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance."
The Times article written by former inmate Rideau began by pointing out how there aren't many protests in prison. Rideau said that in a world where authorities exercise absolute power and demand obedience, prisoners are almost always going to lose and they know it.
Rideau said that the typical inmate does not want to get in trouble because he has little to gain and too much to lose such as his job, his visits, recreation time, phone privileges and his right to purchase tuna, ramen and stale bread at inflated prices as the commissary. He said that even the bystander to the most peaceful protest can be punished and are only limited by the imagination of their authorities.
Rideau, speaking from personal experience said that sometimes conditions get so bad that prisoners feel they are compelled to protest with work stoppages, prison riots or hunger strikes. Rideau pointed out how on July 8, 2013, some 30,000 inmates in the custody of the California Department of Corrections went on a hunger strike in order to demand improvements in prison conditions. He said their biggest complaint was the runaway use of solitary confinement, in which thousands of prisoners are consigned to this cruelty indefinitely and sometimes for decades at a time.
As of August 6, 2013, the California prison hunger strike reached its 25th day; as of Monday there were over 550 hunger strikers protesting against long-term solitary confinement. The hunger strike and work stoppage began on July 8th with the participation of around 30,000 prisoners across the state of California; this is the third time that California prisoners have launched a hunger strike since June of 2011 when strikers protested for the same set of demands as the current strike.
Rideau said he knows something about solitary confinement because he's been there. He said that he spent a total of 12 years in various solitary confinement cells. He told readers that isolating a human being for years in a barren cell the size of a bathroom is the cruelest thing that can be done to a human being. Deprived of all human contact, you lose feeling connected to the world, you lose your ability to make small talk, even with the guard who shoves your meal through the slot in the door. Rideau said that you live entirely in your head because there is nothing else. You talk to yourself, you answer yourself, you suffer from paranoia, depression and sleeplessness. He said that to ward off madness you have to give yourself something to do. In 1970 Rideau counted the 358 rivets that held his cell together over and over.
The Times article pointed out how there are prisoners such as Thomas Silverstein in the federal prison system who have been in solitary for 30 years and others such as Albert Woodfox who have been in solitary for 40 years. These men are examples of abuse of power and at times a rallying point for other inmates who know they too could one day face the same fate.
Riots, such as the California hunger strike that is still going on are generally done by men who have been made desperate due to their lack of options to address their grievances. If prison officials would actually listen to these inmates, they would realize their demands are often reasonable. For example, one of the five core demands of California hunger strikers is to allow inmates the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other activities associated with having a sense of being a part of the community; to release inmates to the general prison population who have been warehoused indefinitely in solitary confinement for the last 10 to 40 years; and to provide inmates in solitary adequate natural sunlight and quality healthcare.
If you're wondering why you should be concerned about the inhumane conditions of prolonged solitary confinement, with all of the mental, social and mental deterioration that solitary entails, then it's important to remember that every year that men are released from these supermax prisons around the nation, they are released directly from their tiny cells to society to live and work among you and the ones you love. We should all support the prisoners' request for rehabilitative opportunities that will improve the mental health of those in solitary confinement.