Haney testifies at Sacramento hearing on perils of solitary confinement

UCSC professor Craig Haney
UCSC professor Craig Haney at a June 2012 Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C.
(Photo by Jay Mallin)

In testimony before a joint hearing on public safety, UC Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney described California's prison system as an outlier in the nation and world in the way it uses isolation of inmates.

"There is simply no other prison system in the country that I know of that places so many prisoners in isolation, and no other state that places remotely as many of them in isolation for so long a time," Haney told members of the state Senate and Assembly committees on Public Safety on February 11.

The hearing, the second on conditions in Security Housing Units (SHU) in four state prisons, comes after a prolonged prisoner hunger strike last summer. The committee is reviewing new policies the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC) has proposed that would allow inmates a way to ease out of solitary confinement.

Haney, a professor of psychology and director of the Legal Studies program at UCSC, has studied prisons and punishment for more than 40 years. As a graduate student in 1971 he helped organize the "Stanford Prison Experiment" where volunteer students played the role of guards or prisoners. Haney said he was shocked and dismayed at how badly the students were affected after only six days.

"Prisoners in isolation units suffer chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression," Haney told legislators. "Many SHU inmates become deeply and unshakably paranoid, and are profoundly anxious around and afraid of people (on those rare occasions when they are allowed any contact with them). Some begin to lose their grasp on their sanity and many others report struggling with it on a daily basis."

Even more troubling, Haney said, is the length of time many prisoners spend in isolation. What began as a program to isolate troublesome prisoners for relatively short periods has morphed into a long-term housing strategy. Haney has called them "pawns in a failed experiment." Most inmates in isolation are there because of alleged gang affiliations.

Many in the first busload of inmates brought to Pelican Bay in the far northwest corner of California in the 1980s are still there in isolation. "Nearly a hundred have been there for 20 years and over 500 for 10 years or more," Haney said.

Recent court decisions on overcrowding in the state's prison have given the legislature "a unique opportunity to get our prison house in order in California," Haney said.  The CDCR proposals are a modest step in the right direction, he told legislators, but they do not go nearly far enough.