Revolution #237, June 26, 2011

“It is so dehumanizing, it’s almost unimaginable”

Laura Magnani is the author of the American Friends Service Committee 2008 report,“Buried Alive: Long-Term Isolation in California’s Youth and Adult Prisons.” In January 2011 she was on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK and described the conditions prisoners face in prison Security Housing Units. We are publishing this interview excerpt courtesy of The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Los Angeles:

The place to start might be the noise level. On the one hand we associate solitary confinement with this deadly silence, and in some case that is what you’re facing. You might be facing deadly silence, you might be facing total darkness, or only artificial light so you have no idea what day it is or whether the day just started or the day just ended. So you’re completely disoriented in terms of light and dark and so forth. And you might be in conditions of total silence.

But I think even worse than total silence is the more common phenomenon, which is that people are so desperate they’ll be screaming all day long. So you’ll be in a situation where there’s this din of despair that you’re subjected to. And of course you have to understand that these conditions go hand-in-hand with mental illness. So if you didn’t start out being mentally ill when you were put into these conditions, it wouldn’t take very long, it certainly wouldn’t take me very long, to get to the place where I was just screaming bloody murder. And that’s what happens. So people are living in an environment where people are screaming out of desperation twenty-four hours a day and you can’t get away from it.

So that’s the kind of beginning of the process. But then it goes on and on. The levels of torture—there are “cell extractions” where guards armed with incredible amount of armor and stuff come barging into your cell and putting you into horrible hog-ties and trashing your stuff. Now, at different levels that goes on throughout prisons. But the intensity increases in this environment. When you’ve been all alone and then all of a sudden you’re invaded by maybe three to six armed, armored guards, it’s pretty scary if not terrifying.

So those kinds of things go on. I don’t even know when to stop. I guess one of the most shocking things to me was that psychiatrists visiting people in the SHU are doing it in an environment where the person that they’re supposedly counseling is in a cage, is in literally a cage for their appointment with this person. And if they’re doing group therapy there’s literally a room full of cages, for group therapy.

So those kinds of things. It is so dehumanizing, it’s almost unimaginable. And although I’ve been doing this work since the ’70s, I really was shocked, the deeper I went into this.

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