Suicides in solitary

Prison gang members are among the worst of the worst, felons who sometimes continue to kill from behind bars as they smuggle orders to other gang members on the outside. It makes sense to take special measures to protect society from such hard cases. But should that mean housing them in isolated conditions so inhumane that they can be driven insane?

Amnesty International released a report last week on California prisons' isolation units for suspected gang members, calling conditions there "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law."

Suspected gang members are often placed in Security Housing Units, isolated cells in which they are confined with little or no human contact, released for only an hour and a half a day to exercise alone in a narrow yard. Psychologists believe this kind of confinement to be mentally destabilizing, and the numbers from Amnesty would appear to back that up: Although the 3,000 inmates in solitary make up only about 2% of the prison population, they accounted for 42% of the suicides from 2006 to 2010.

Amnesty chronicled the effects of isolation on Alex Machado, who after 15 months began to lose his grip on sanity and finally used strips of mattress to hang himself. If that can happen in 15 months, imagine what can happen in 6.8 years, the average time spent in the units. Although corrections officials plan to implement a program to allow inmates to get out of solitary within four years on good behavior rather than the current minimum of six, that's still far too long.

Starting in the late 1980s, California began taking a wrong turn on criminal justice, approving a prison building boom and passing draconian sentencing laws. Only in recent years has it begun reversing the terrible consequences of that trend, though not always voluntarily; it took a panel of federal judges to force state officials to reduce prison overcrowding that was so bad that it violated constitutional standards. One reason things have become so dire is that few California voters are aware of what goes on behind the barbed wire, which is why we advocated a bill, AB 1270, to improve media access to inmates such as those in solitary confinement. Unfortunately, that bill was vetoed Sunday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Meanwhile, the Amnesty report shows that more is needed, such as a shift in the way the state handles inmates suspected of gang membership. That doesn't mean dangerous prisoners should be coddled, only that California should get in line with national and international standards on the humane treatment of prisoners.

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