Solitary confinement in California Prisons

Op-Ed: Here in San Quentin, I see why solitary confinement must end

Solitary confinement, the confinement of an individual in a small, windowless, airless cell for an extended period of time, has come to symbolize our inhuman practices in California’s prison system.

In response to the death of a woman in San Quentin’s solitary confinement unit, I wrote about solitary confinement’s role in California’s prison system. In doing so, I made reference to another California prison – Chino Valley State Prison – where prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement. For the past ten years, I have visited Chino Valley State Prison. I learned that the conditions there are comparable to those at San Quentin. At Chino, prisoners may be held at the main level in the same manner as sentenced prisoners. However, because of the restrictions placed on them, prisoners only are permitted to exercise in the yard for 15 minutes on the hour.

When California’s prisons were built in the mid-19th century, the state did not separate prisoners by gender. In fact the women would be incarcerated with the men. Yet gender is still a factor in California prisons. When serving a life sentence, a woman may be housed with a man. When a man is serving a life sentence, he may be housed with a woman. When serving a life sentence for aggravated murder with special circumstances (e.g. torture or extreme mental disturbance), the man may be housed with the woman; when in the same prison, the woman may be housed with the woman. And, when serving a sentence for murder, even though a woman and a man may be housed in the same prison, male prisoners still may be housed with female prisoners.

A woman’s gender is a factor that can only be seen as a “convenience” on the prison level (to use a cliche). For example, a man is housed with a woman when he is

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