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Response: retaking the archive of knowledge about solitary confinement.

THIS SET OF RESPONSES TO 23/7 IS ESPECIALLY MEANINGFUL TO ME because it interweaves so many of the voices--too often absent in academia--which I sought to capture and amplify in 23/7. These voices include the people who have worked in solitary confinement units (like McCall), people whose family members have been exposed to solitary confinement (like Casique), and people who themselves have experienced-and are still experiencing--the trauma of solitary confinement (like Czifra). These generous responses layer the richness of individual experiences into analyses of the text of 23/7: Czifra's description of the "unnatural nature" of solitary; Casique's description of approaching Pelican Bay, a "concealed" and "easily ... forgettable" place; McCall's observation that "justice, fairness, and ethics" all too easily become "inconveniences." Zimring, a legal scholar and criminologist, brings vital interdisciplinary perspectives to bear in interpreting the supermax--raising questions about oversight and legal incentives. I hope that, with this conversation, we are taking control of the archive of solitary confinement, contesting and reconstructing this site of knowledge, as Casique suggests.

All of these interlocutors have been generous in their engagements and gentle in their critiques. But no text is perfect, and the entrance of this one into the world has given me ample opportunities to discuss--and even test--my conclusions. Yale University Press released 23/7 just one week before Donald Trump won the 2016 election for US president. The backdrop of that election--and the dramatic social changes subsequently unfurled by a Republican-dominated legislature and a president issuing a new rash of confusing and dismaying executive orders (on policing, immigration, and climate change, for instance) on every day after his January 20, 2017 confirmation--has shaped and reshaped the way I have thought and talked about the findings I describe in 23/7 concerning long-term solitary confinement.

First, there is the question of reform. What was possible, and what is possible now? Since I finished writing 23/7, California has implemented significant reforms to its long-term solitary confinement policies. Most notably, of the 513 prisoners I describe in 23/7--who had been locked in isolation in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit for 10 or more years as of 2011 (the class of prisoners who were certified in the Ashker v. Brown litigation)--only 5 remain in Pelican Bay as of December 2016. The rest of these prisoners have been reintegrated into lower security, general population prisons across California (Center for Constitutional Rights 2016). Moreover, of those 1,056 security housing unit beds at Pelican Bay State Prison, which were full if not overcrowded for nearly 30 years, only about 300 are still in use as of the spring 2017 (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2017,150). These are significant changes with immediate impacts upon prisoners' lives.

The changes came about, in significant part, because thousands of prisoners across the state of California mobilized through a nonviolent hunger strike and demanded reform. As one bookstore where I gave a talk tweeted: "Think organizing under Trump will be hard? Come hear @KerametR tonight at 7:30 on the Pelican Bay prisoners who organized while in solitary." There is, then, some inspiration in the story of the Pelican Bay hunger strike--inspiration which suggests that organized resistance might always be possible. There is also a second, perverse seed of hopefulness in the story of the Pelican Bay SHU: my argument about local innovation. Supermaxes were not invented at the federal level but rather were constructed rule-by-rule at a state, and even institution, level. Pelican Bay, as it turned out, took form when very few people were paying attention. At every point when people have paid attention, however, whether in the Madrid litigation in the 1990s or with the hunger strikes in the 2010s, significant reforms have transpired, again rule-by-rule at the state and institution level. At a time when federal reform to expand civil rights or to improve prison conditions seems unlikely at best and futile at worst, paying attention to the possibility and promise of local-level reform is critical.

However, local-level reforms are imperfect, too. As Czifra suggests in his comments, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reduced the Pelican Bay SHU population under intense public scrutiny In fact, proactively reducing the population obviated the need for prison officials to make public exactly why those hundreds of prisoners had been in the Pelican Bay SHU in the first place. In essence, the reforms allowed prison officials to maintain control over at least some of the archive of solitary confinement. Reform, then, must be at least partially concerned with taking control over the archive of knowledge undergirding the abuses inherent in (over)using solitary confinement. This exertion of control means, at least in part, demanding and maintaining transparency concerning who is in solitary confinement, why, and for how long.

The election of Donald Trump forced me to consider the possibilities and implications for the reform of solitary confinement, and those considerations, in turn, helped to crystallize two other points that I did not make explicitly in 23/7 but which are nonetheless important for making sense of supermaxes (and for developing reform agendas). The first point is about the idea of the so-called worst-of-the-worst prisoner and the second is about interpreting the perspectives of prison officials.

In the book, I focused on dissecting and debunking the concept of the worst-of-the-worst. I focused less on describing and enumerating the sheer range of people who end up in short- and long-term solitary confinement across the United States: protestors, gang members, transgender people, pregnant women, the seriously mentally ill and suicidal, disciplined escape artists, and undisciplined chronic rule breakers. [For just a sampling of recent news articles covering specific stories about transgender people, pregnant women, and a suicidal man all suffering in solitary confinement, see Stahl (2014), Mandak (2016), and Quandt & Ridgeway (2017), respectively.] In sum, the people who end up in solitary confinement are often the people who do not fit in the boxes that correctional officials have sketched out and built up. At first glance, these alleged nonconformists seem to have been categorized objectively, based on individual (and inherent) characteristics. However, a closer analysis of solitary confinement practices reveals that at least some of these categories often exist only in relation to institutional policies, procedures, and infrastructures. In California, for instance, until 2015, a tattoo or possession of The Autobiography of Malcolm X would have constituted evidence with which prison officials could establish gang membership and therefore assign a prisoner to indefinite solitary confinement. Institutional policy, rather than specific acts of violence or association, determined who was a gang member. And in many states, an attempt at suicide constitutes a disciplinary infraction, punishable by time (or often more time) in solitary confinement. Again, institutional policy, rather than specific states of mind, determines who is mentally ill or who is manipulative (see Rhodes 2004). McCall also makes this point eloquently in her review--referencing agitators, which she defines as people who prison officials wanted chemically restrained, even though they were behaving rationally (complaining or organizing, say). Paying close attention to the range of so-called agitators who end up in solitary confinement reveals that the gang member, the mentally ill, and the rule-breaker are not objective categories but institutional constructions. Reforms that attempt to discourage gang membership, provide mental health treatment, or encourage rule following, then, will likely fail, absent parallel institutional reforms to redefine and reinterpret these categories of nonconformists or agitators.

Such reforms, however, are especially difficult. They must confront and address prison officials' fears of nonconformists and agitators. I addressed the topic of prison officials' fears in 23/7 by describing the story of George Jackson and his death on Sunday, August 21, 1971 at California's San Quentin State Prison--the most violent day in that state's prison history. But I discounted prison officials' fears, too, arguing that prison officials misrepresented the story of George Jackson, exaggerating his dangerousness and downplaying their own power. Well-researched facts, however, do not necessarily construct, or deconstruct, fear--a lesson liberals are still metabolizing in the wake of an election won by a candidate who had little regard for well-researched facts. However, the more I have spoken with individuals, especially prison officials, about the history of supermax prisons like Pelican Bay, the better I understand that they are afraid of the prisoners in solitary confinement--afraid of their ability to be physically dangerous, socially unpredictable, and institutionally delegitimizing. The salience of this fear suggests to me that solitary confinement reform will require more attention not just to conditions of confinement and categories of nonconformists but to the fear prison officials experience in managing prisoners, especially those prisoners whom they have placed in solitary confinement. Until that fear is not just confronted with well-researched counterfactuals but diffused through sustained cultural change, solitary confinement reform will likely be both slow and ephemeral.


California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2017 "Compstat DAI Statistical Report 13-Month as of 3-13-2017." At DAI%20High%20Security.pdf.

Center for Constitutional Rights 2016 "California Solitary Confinement Statistics: Year One after Landmark Settlement." At resource-PB-monitoring-stats.pdf.

Mandak, Joe 2016 "Jail Sued over Pregnant Woman Placed in Solitary Confinement." Associated Press, December 19. At pregnant-women-placed- solitary-confinement.

Quandt, Katie Rose and James Ridgeway 2017 "Adam Hall Tried to Kill Himself in Prison. And Got Six More Years." The Village Voice, April 5. At adam-halTtried-to-kilThimself-in-prison-that-got-him-six-moreyears-9852972.

Rhodes, Lorna 2004 Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. Berkeley: University of California.

Stahl, Avia 2014 "Transgender Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Sexual Assault." Solitary Watch, August 7. At http:// solitary watch, com/2014/08/07/transgender-women-in-new-york-state-prisons-face- solitary-confinement-and-sexual-assault/.

Keramet Reiter *

* Keramet Reiter is Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law Society and in the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of 23/7, and her research focuses on prison conditions, laws, and policies.
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Author:Reiter, Keramet
Publication:Social Justice
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 18, 2017
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