Here at San Quentin, I understand why solitary confinement must end

Advocates nearly succeeded in curbing the use of solitary confinement in California jails and prisons this year. California’s Mandela Act, named after the long-imprisoned South African president, won the support it needed in August to pass the Assembly 41-16 and land on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. A month later, he vetoed the bill, citing security concerns.

The fight against this painful practice must not end there. Lawmakers should try again next year and every year until the governor signs those restrictions into law.

Solitary confinement has never been proven to reduce violence in prisons. Researchers have found that this leads to higher recidivism rates. It is also the setting for a disproportionate number of suicides in prisons.

The numbers tell a damn enough story. I also saw the tolls with my own eyes.

I spent more than 26 years in the California prison system, including 13 reporting for the San Quentin News, Solitary Watch and various other news outlets. I have spoken to dozens of people who have been locked up in solitary confinement for disruptive behavior, as well as those who have been sent to solitary confinement because they are thought to be ill.

Solitary confinement is used for a number of reasons — though prison officials who defend it are quick to say it’s for the “safety and security of the institution.”

Everyone I’ve spoken to about solitary confinement says the lingering effects of extreme isolation have stayed with them. Michael Sperling, 45, says his life’s journey has taken him not just to prison, but to solitary confinement.

“My dad shot me when I was 12 years old,” said Sperling, who is serving his 11th year in prison. He was sentenced to seven years to life in prison for racketeering conspiracy. Sperling says his troubles began shortly after his father turned him on to heroin. He started running the streets where he found acceptance in a street gang. His incarceration history includes several stints in juvenile hall. While in California prisons, he said he was sent to solitary confinement three times for gang-related activity.

Then there’s 36-year-old Terry Kitchen. He has been incarcerated since he was 14 and is serving a life sentence in San Quentin. As I recently reported, Kitchen was sent to a solitary confinement facility called the Adjustment Center after testing positive for COVID-19 last June.

“I was traumatized by the experience,” Kitchen said. In his Correctional Center cell, he said, “There’s a little window (in the cell door) where you can only see the wall. So your entertainment is to watch spiders and ants walk by.’

During his imprisonment. Kitchen said he was placed in solitary confinement several times for disciplinary actions. But the worst part was being sent to solitary confinement for illness, because the Adjustment Center is really like a dungeon.

William “Mike” Endres, 65, spoke of being incarcerated for 24 years without disciplinary action, but lamented that prison officials “found a way to put me in the hole for thinking I have COVID- 19 when I didn’t. .”

Sperling described the effects of extreme isolation. “He’s very quiet in the SHU,” he said. “That silence and stillness will become your worst enemy.” When it’s quiet like that, you can hear people talking about you in your head.’

As he sat alone in a cell for 23 hours a day, for years and months, he added, “I can see that I was slowly losing my mind.” He talked about how even a solid person can start to think that all of their friends are out to get them, all by the way a person looks at them or by simple gestures like waving or body language.

“Solitary confinement is not fair,” Sperling said. “All it does is degrade the great minds of great people.” I witness it. I saw it happen. I saw it happen.”

Sperling noticed the long-term effects the isolation had on him. He is constantly paranoid and suspicious of people’s intentions and actions when they are around him.

In his veto message, Newsom said he was instead ordering prison officials to improve the treatment of people in solitary confinement — an approach that is inadequate at best when dealing with a practice the United Nations has condemned as torture. Newsom said he believed the Mandela Act was too broad.

What is actually too broad, however, is California’s use of solitary confinement.

Juan Moreno Haines is a senior editor at San Quentin News and a contributing writer at Solitary Watch. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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