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Dispatches from the Inside: Separation and psychosis

California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC).

October 1, 2012

A recent article in The L.A. Times called attention to the high rate of prisoner suicides inside California's security housing lockups. An Amnesty International report, due out October 4, states that "Conditions within the state's security housing breach international standards on human treatment," the Times article reported. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation responded by saying they "follow the national standard. They (lock up units) are clean. They are secure." As if placing someone in a clean, secure cell, then ignoring them, is acceptable treatment. 

The story recounted events leading up to Alex Machado's suicide in 2011. Prison records indicate a prison doctor misdiagnosed Machado's deteriorating grip on reality as a "Pre-contemplation phase of decision making." The article states that "Two months later, another prison psychiatrist labeled Machado as suffering a psychotic disorder." The article doesn't even reveal what steps, if any, authorities took to address Machado's deepening psychosis. 

There are more than 3,000 prisoners in segregation cells, "and thousands more in similar administrative segregation units." The Dept. of Corrections estimates that two-thirds of prisoners in isolation are there due to "suspected gang ties."

"Validation", the process whereby prisoners are identified as having gang-ties, qualifying them for placement into a segregation unit, is a perfunctory process. It affords prisoners little in the way of due process protections, and has been used and abused by guards for years as a means to punish and terrorize prisoners, sometimes for little more than raising a staff member's ire. I myself was threatened with validation once by a hostile prison guard, simply because I had the audacity to assert my right to fair treatment: even though I have never had any gang affiliations.

Prisoners banished to isolation cells "can be held indefinitely, with the promise of release back into the general population only if they provide information on gang activity." But, what if they weren't gang members to begin with?

Amnesty International reported that upwards of 500 prisoners have been isolated for more than 10 years, and almost 80 have spent more than 20 years in solitary confinement. Inside these high-tech lock ups there is almost no human contact for the prisoner. Inmates are monitored via closed circuit cameras, doors are remote controlled, and meals are pushed through tray slots cut into cell doors. Even exercise is solitary. 

Just prior to his death, other inmates in nearby cells reported that Machado was calling for help "while guards stood by and took no action." 

As a part of their response, a departmental spokesperson said, "This is a world people don't understand." I think we do understand, all too well.