When Charles Dickens stopped in Philadelphia on his tour of America in 1842, he made a point of visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary, which at the time represented a new-fangled, experimental and distinctly American penal method. Dickens was horrified: “The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.”
Exactly 170 years later, some 3,000 prisoners in California live in what are known as Security Housing Units (SHU). Many of these inmates spend all but 90 minutes a day in a windowless cell measuring 9 feet by 9 feet. They are barred from religious services, work programs and other group activities. When they are allowed to exercise alone in a special yard, they view the sky through a small aperture covered with meshed plastic.
On Thursday, Amnesty International released a report urging California’s correctional system to place only the most intractable and dangerous prisoners in SHUs. The human rights agency also called on the state to improve the conditions for inmates who find themselves in isolation and to return to the general population the roughly 800 people who have been there for a decade or longer.
Amnesty International mentions several studies to bolster its claim that California’s Security Housing Units equal “cruel, degrading and inhuman conditions that violate international law.” Dickens consulted his novelist’s imagination to reach similar conclusions in 1842:
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature.”
It’s worth noting that Dickens credited the designers of Eastern State Penitentiary with sincerely wishing to reform criminals. Can Californians today make the same claim for our correctional system? Should the state’s lawmakers listen to Amnesty International?