Psychoanalysis Science & Technology

Behavioural Neurology: Atrocities on Prisoners – III

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As of 2011, almost one hundred of the prisoners at Pelican Bay had been held in solitary confinement for over two decades, and almost five hundred had been so confined for more than ten years. Survival does not, however, mean that they did not suffer serious mental harm, states Prof. Ashoka, in the third part of his erudite research. An exclusive for Different Truths.

One might think that only the most heinous, pathologically violent prisoners would be placed in these conditions. But, in fact, most of the 1,300 prisoners at the Pelican Bay were not there because of any violent act they had committed in prison, but solely because they were either members or associates (a loose definition that included people who simply associated with members) of a prison gang. These prisoners were placed in there for an indeterminate period of time, which in practice generally meant until the end of their prison terms unless they were paroled, snitched, or died. In short, the only real way out of the setting and into the general prison population was to become an informant against the gang, usually a dangerous proposition.

Some of the prisoners placed there did become mentally ill. But hundreds did not. It is a testament to the human being’s ability to adapt to atrocious conditions that many prisoners were able to survive these conditions not only for weeks but for decades.

It is hard to imagine surviving in this environment for more than a few days or weeks without becoming suicidal or mentally ill. Some of the prisoners placed there did become mentally ill. But hundreds did not. It is a testament to the human being’s ability to adapt to atrocious conditions that many prisoners were able to survive these conditions not only for weeks but for decades. As of 2011, almost one hundred of the prisoners at Pelican Bay had been held in solitary confinement for over two decades, and almost five hundred had been so confined for more than ten years. Survival does not, however, mean that they did not suffer serious mental harm: depression, paranoia, and loss of concentration and memory are just some of the symptoms associated with extended solitary confinement.

In 1990, within a year after the Pelican Bay opened, a high-powered and skilled group of lawyers sued the California prison system on behalf of the class of prisoners incarcerated at the Pelican Bay.

In 1990, within a year after the Pelican Bay opened, a high-powered and skilled group of lawyers sued the California prison system on behalf of the class of prisoners incarcerated at the Pelican Bay. They drew as the judge who would hear the case one of the most progressive, civil-rights oriented federal judges in the entire country, Thelton Henderson. The case went to trial in 1993, and in early 1995, Judge Henderson ruled that California officials had denied plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by using excessive force and by not providing adequate medical care. Yet on the fundamental issue of whether placing prisoners in such strict isolation for years by itself constituted cruel and unusual treatment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, Henderson did not pull the trigger, even if he did find that the conditions were draconian, sterile, and isolating. For example, he opined that “the overall effect is one of stark sterility and unremitting monotony. He found that the conditions of social isolation were profound and noted that when he visited the prison, he observed prisoners pacing around in their cells as if they were animals in a zoo.

The plaintiffs had submitted expert testimony from two internationally prominent psychological experts who had interviewed many prisoners and concluded that they suffered from varying degrees of psychological pain

The plaintiffs had submitted expert testimony from two internationally prominent psychological experts who had interviewed many prisoners and concluded that they suffered from varying degrees of psychological pain, including paranoia, lack of concentration, chronic depression, confused thought processes, hallucinations, irrational anger, emotional flatness, violent fantasies, and oversensitivity to stimuli. Henderson acknowledged that mental pain, but held that it did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation, stating: the record demonstrates that the conditions of extreme social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation found in the Pelican Bay will likely inflict some degree of psychological trauma upon most inmates confined there for more than brief periods. Clearly, this impact is not to be trivialised; however, for many inmates, it does not appear that the degree of mental injury suffered significantly exceeds the kind of generalized psychological pain that courts have found compatible with Eighth Amendment standards.

Henderson did find that for the group of prisoners who were mentally ill or had a history of prior psychiatric problems, placement did constitute an Eighth Amendment violation.

For these inmates, placing them here is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe. The risk is high enough

For these inmates, placing them here is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe. The risk is high enough, and the consequences serious enough, that we have no hesitancy in finding that the risk is plainly “unreasonable.” Such inmates are not required to endure the horrific suffering of a serious mental illness or major exacerbation of an existing mental illness before obtaining relief.

Almost twenty years later, in 2011, thousands of prisoners in California went on a hunger strike protesting the conditions at the Pelican Bay and others around the state.

Almost twenty years later, in 2011, thousands of prisoners in California went on a hunger strike protesting the conditions at the Pelican Bay and others around the state. That hunger strike garnered national and international attention and eventually led to a class action lawsuit claiming that incarceration at Pelican Bay for more than ten years was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Some of the same prisoners who were at Pelican in the early 1990s were still there in 2011 and were named plaintiffs in the new class action lawsuit.

The law concerning prisoners, like the torts jurisprudence discussed above, tends to discount psychological pain and suffering, as did Judge Henderson. While the courts have recognized that psychological harm inflicted by prison officials can constitute an Eighth Amendment violation, Congress enacted a statute, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, that precludes prisoners who suffer constitutional violations from being awarded damages unless they can show that they have suffered “physical injury” and not purely mental harm.

Thus, for example, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a damages claim in which prison officials had “ordered prisoners to strip naked, and performed body cavity searches while members of the opposite sex were present;… made harassing comments to an inmate because of his perceived sexual orientation; and ordered one prisoner to ‘tap dance’ while naked.” So too, while some courts have held that rape or other sexual assaults constitute a physical injury within the meaning of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, several courts have held that “the bare allegation of sexual assault” does not constitute a physical injury under the statute. Furthermore, when the Senate ratified the Convention on the Prevention of Torture, it added a reservation that mental harm would not count as torture unless it fell within certain narrowly circumscribed exceptions. As it does with tort law, the United States treats mental pain as a second-class citizen for purposes of the international law of torture.

(To be continued)

Photo from the Internet


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