Op-Ed: Here in San Quentin, I see why solitary confinement must end.
With the most progressive and enlightened law and corrections officials you can find, San Quentin is holding a trial now on whether to terminate solitary confinement in its state prisons. These state prisons employ a new policy for isolating those considered to be dangerous to themselves or others — in a tiny “lockup” room, without access to other people, the yard or other forms of contact, only to those deemed by a state-appointed psychiatrist to be beyond help. And the policy is causing great concern and alarm, particularly in communities where the death penalty is most needed, but also among inmates, even now that it is a fact.
The San Quentin policy, which the state announced in February, is called the Secure Housing Unit. Essentially, it is a three-room, 16-by-16-by-16 cell, with a tiny window at the end of the corridor that leads only to a steel door at the end of the cell. The room has no other doors, no windows, no light, no heat or air conditioning. Inmates are locked in each cell by a chain secured around the cell door.
Inmates placed in this “lockup” unit do not have a mattress or bedding. There are only two “beds,” both of which are essentially so-called “cots,” which are little wooden frames, usually without springs, just a wire frame that makes a “cubicle.” Inmates are encouraged to sleep with the walls against them. Their feet are exposed, and the cells are so small that the doors in the cells have to be so small that the bars on the door are all the way around the cell.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has defended the new policy as a good one. Inmates in lockup cells have been studied, evaluated and tested, and have been found to be as healthy as the other inmates in the state system.
The public has learned that this is not an effective way to hold prisoners in a secure setting and to ensure they are not violent. It also turns prisoners like Mr. Mays from being held in a controlled environment that is less stressful, to being under conditions that are more stressful, like going to a