We throw thousands of men in the hole for the books they read, the company they keep, the beliefs they hold. Here's why.
IT'S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I've been inside a prison cell. Now I'm back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man's cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I'm taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can't get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I've ever inhabited. You can't pace in it.
Like in my dreams, I case the space for the means of staying sane. Is there a TV to watch, a book to read, a round object to toss? The pathetic artifacts of this inmate's life remind me of objects that were once everything to me: a stack of books, a handmade chessboard, a few scattered pieces of artwork taped to the concrete, a family photo, large manila envelopes full of letters. I know that these things are his world.
"So when you're in Iran and in solitary confinement," asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, "was it different?" His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place.
He's right about that. After being apprehended on the Iran-Iraq border, Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and I were held in Evin Prison's isolation ward for political prisoners. Sarah remained there for 13 months, Josh and I for 26 months. We were held incommunicado. We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn't go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage. The alleged evidence the court held was "confidential."
What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?
(Telephone press briefing held on May 31, 2012)
“My name is Marie Levin. I am the youngest sister of Ronnie Dewberry.
“Ronnie has been held in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison since 1990. That is truly cruel and unusual punishment.
“When I heard about the inhumane conditions in the SHU, I broke down crying uncontrollably.
“Ronnie lives in a cramped, windowless cell for at least 22.5 hours a day. He is let out of the cell only to exercise alone in a concrete enclosure and to shower 3 times weekly.
“He is allowed no phone calls and they only receive one package per year.
“His food is often cold and rotten.
“Ronnie has chronic stomach problems, swollen thyroid glands, and a severe Vitamin D deficiency. He also suffers from high blood pressure and has at times been denied his medication.
“He says that being in the SHU feels like psychological torture.
“This is traumatizing knowing that a loved one is suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Ronnie and I are 10 months apart, and we were very close growing up.
“At first, he was in [a] prison near our family and we were able to visit regularly. I was able to visit him regularly.
“Since he was transferred to Pelican Bay in 1990, I have seen him only 5 times. The drive is almost 8 hours in a car in travel…very expensive.
“There is much time between visits that each time Ronnie looks much older.
“After the long, costly trip, we are only permitted to visit for 1 hour through a piece of glass. I have not been able to hug my brother in over 2 decades.
“My mother has had several strokes and is now paralyzed, speaks with difficulty, and suffers from dementia. She longs to see her only son but she is no longer able to make the long and difficult trip.
“Though Ronnie is eligible for parole, he will not be paroled while he is in the SHU.
“I fear our mother will pass away before she and Ronnie can see each other again.
“In 2001, our oldest sibling, Carol, suffered kidney failure and Ronnie set about trying to donate a kidney for her. He was able to get tested and found out that he was a compatible donor. But the prison would not allow him to make the donation.
“For years, Ronnie fought for permission to save his sister.
“Carol died in 2010 in a pool of blood, bleeding out after a dialysis treatment. She was 59-years-old.
“I am very grateful for this lawsuit and for all of the support that has been given to Pelican Bay prisoners since the hunger strike.
“The movement to end these barbaric conditions has lifted Ronnie’s peers as well. For the first time in a very long time, I felt hopeful that Ronnie’s situation might change for the better.”
Transcript of Remarks by Marie Levin, family member of Pelican Bay SHU prisoner Ronnie Dewberry, on the Ruiz v. Brown class action lawsuit challenging California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison
1. SHUs don’t work.
Rates of gang activity, yard violence, illegal drug sales and assaults on staff are increasing in California, while decreasing in other states. Maryland has recently closed its SHU.
2. SHUs add violence to the prison system.
The psychologically brutal and degrading conditions of long term SHU confinement encourages violence and harassment by guards and enrages inmates.
3. SHUs cause short, medium, and long term psychological breakdown and social deterioration.
SHU inmates have no physical contact with anyone for years on end and rarely are able to talk to anyone else in the prison.
4. SHUs do not serve public safety.
Inmates are often released directly from the SHU to the general public without skills that would help them survive. They are thus often less well equipped than nonSHU inmates to function in society. Staff working in SHU units have higher rates of drug use, family breakdown, and spouse/child abuse.