A Psychologist’s Deceptions About Prison Abuse in California
“Brutal killers should not be glorified. This hunger strike is dangerous, disruptive and needs to end.”
That’s how Jeffrey Beard, head of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), concluded his disturbingly deceptive August 6th op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. He was condemning a hunger strike that had begun a month earlier, when 30,000 inmates refused meals in solidarity with striking prisoners subjected to long-term and indefinite solitary confinement at Pelican Bay and the state’s three other “supermax” prisons. Now nearly two months in, over 100 inmates reportedly still remain on strike. But rather than negotiating with these prisoners, Secretary Beard’s office has instead sought and obtained a court order authorizing medically unethical force-feeding.
What is it that the striking prisoners want? They have five core demands: (1) compliance with recommendations from the 2006 report of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, including an end to long-term solitary confinement; (2) modification of the criteria used to determine gang status (which include tattoos and certain artwork or literature) and abolishment of the “debriefing” policy whereby release from isolation often requires informing on other prisoners; (3) an end to group punishment and administrative abuse; (4) the provision of adequate and nutritious food; and (5) the expansion of constructive programming and privileges (such as a weekly phone call and a yearly photo) for inmates held indefinitely in “Security Housing Units” (SHUs). Currently over 10,000 prisoners are held in isolation in California SHUs, with more than 500 of them having been in solitary confinement for over a decade.
When Secretary Beard was appointed to lead the CDCR last December, this could have been viewed as an encouraging sign. As Gov. Jerry Brown said then, “Jeff Beard has arrived at the right time to take the next steps in returning California’s parole and correctional institutions to their former luster.” Previously, he had also received high praise from the governor of Pennsylvania when he held a similar position in that state: “Jeffrey Beard is setting a positive example not just in Pennsylvania, but nationally. …His exemplary leadership has ensured the improved management of Pennsylvania’s state prison system, and a safe place for inmates to rehabilitate.”
Even more, there was seemingly reason for optimism in the fact that Secretary Beard is a psychologist, having received his doctoral degree in counseling psychology over thirty years ago. That training should matter because among the core principles of psychologists’ professional code of ethics are all of the following: “respect the dignity and worth of all people,” “strive to benefit those with whom they work,” “take care to do no harm,” “safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons,” and “guard against personal, financial, social, organizational or political factors that might lead to misuse of their influence.”
But eight months later, Dr. Beard’s background as a psychologist only adds to the outrageousness of his recent op-ed in which he repeatedly misrepresented the seriousness and legitimacy of the striking prisoners’ concerns, including here:
Some prisoners claim this strike is about living conditions in the Security Housing Units, commonly called SHUs, which house some of the most dangerous inmates in California. Don’t be fooled. Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.
Dr. Beard’s office has offered neither evidence nor access for independent verification of these claims, and its misguided public relations campaign runs counter to compelling evidence of widespread abuse in the prison system. Last year Amnesty International issued a scathing report – titled “USA: The Edge of Endurance” – about California’s SHUs, based on a visit to Pelican Bay and other prisons in the state. The report concluded that conditions there “breach international standards on humane treatment” and amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” In describing prisoners who are confined to their cells for at least 22 and a half hours a day and have no access to work, group activities, or programs focused on rehabilitation, the report stated:
Most prisoners are confined alone in cells which have no windows to the outside or direct access to natural light. SHU prisoners are isolated both within prison and from meaningful contact with the outside world: contact with correctional staff is kept to a minimum, and consultations with medical, mental health and other staff routinely take place behind barriers; all visits, including family and legal visits, are also non-contact, with prisoners separated from their visitors behind a glass screen.
In addition to the critical assessments from human rights organizations and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Dr. Beard is certainly familiar with the research of fellow psychologists and psychiatrists documenting the extreme adverse effects of extended involuntary solitary confinement (sometimes referred to as the “SHU syndrome”), which can persist long after isolation has ended. Among the negative psychological effects identified by California psychologist Craig Haney, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, and other scholars in comprehensive reviews are lethargy, depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and behavior; anxiety, panic, and insomnia; irritability, hypersensitivity, aggression, and rage; and cognitive dysfunction, paranoia, and hallucinations. Haney has also noted that ten days in solitary confinement is enough to produce harmful health outcomes. Many of the prisoners at Pelican Bay have been held in isolation for years.
Exactly why Dr. Beard has decided to ignore, discount, or distort these unconscionable realities is ultimately beside the point. But the public should not be confused by his misleading rhetoric. The key demands of the hunger strikers are little different from prison reforms that have been strongly recommended by mental health experts and human rights advocates alike.
In an essay published shortly after the CDCR Secretary’s op-ed appeared, Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon argued that Dr. Beard’s public dishonesty and demonization of the hunger strikers demonstrate that he is the wrong leader to bring urgent reform to the “grotesque structure of inhumanity” that defines California’s prison system today. Simon called for “a protest movement and direct action campaign to force real change starting with Secretary Beard’s resignation.” Given their ethical commitment to the promotion of human welfare, psychologists should be among those at the forefront of these efforts.
Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.