updated 7/13/2013 4:16:30 PM ET 2013-07-13T20:16:30

Virtually no human contact? For years on end? It's a reality for thousands of inmates in U.S. prisons.

Solitary confinement is not a punishment only the most hardened and dangerous criminals have to endure. In the United States, more than 81,000 people are being held in isolation cells, sometimes for years on end. The mental health effects can be devastating, from major depression, PTSD, panic disorders, to psychosis. And the practice  is not limited just to adults; some juveniles end up held in solitary because they are housed in adult prisons and officials cannot find any other way to deal with questions of safety.

While prison conditions in California are so bad that the Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce the prison population, the brutal reality of solitary confinement is a major reason thousands of prisoners there began a hunger strike to get the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement.

As the panel on Saturday’s Melissa Harris-Perry discussed, a prisoner could find him or herself inside a 12′ by 8′ cell for nothing more than having the wrong book in a cell. According to guest Victoria Law, women in California prisons find themselves housed inside the state’s Security Housing Units because there simply isn’t enough room anywhere else.

Shane Bauer, who spend four months of the 26 he spent in an Iranian prison in solitary confinement spoke about, officials can remove someone from the general population if they believe a prisoner to be associated with a gang. No acts of violence need to be committed; many prisoners have been labeled and isolated because their reading materials were too political.

The United Nations argues that more than 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes torture, but some prisoners in the U.S. have endured decades of it. Watch the full discussion about why America holds so many people in such terrible conditions and why it is so difficult to improve those conditions.

Video: Mental health erodes for inmates in solitary confinement

  1. Closed captioning of: Mental health erodes for inmates in solitary confinement

    >>> imagine in your world was limited to this. 11 feet, 7 inches long. 7 feet, 7 inches wide. no windows, a bed, a toilet, a sink. unable to move more than about 8 feet in one direction or another. little to no contact with other people all day. the exception, a 90-minute period of time to move into a concrete pen for exercise. and then it's back into the tiny box, for days, weeks, months, years, decades, in a space very much like the space -- actually, not like the space -- not with the big, high ceilings, just in the tiny space like the one i'm in now, except no idea when or if the isolation is going to end. those are the dimensions of life for nearly 4,000 people living in long-term isolation, in the security housing units or shus in california 's prison system , more commonly known as solitary confinement . those housed in indefinite isolation are left to con tend with the slow, steady erosion of their mental health into depression, psychosis, hallucinations, rage, sequences that led to a lawsuit filed last year by the center for constitutional rights , on behalf of prisoners who spent 10 to 28 years in isolation at pelican bay , one of the country's first super max facilities, built specifically to house inmates in long-term isolation. on monday, prisoners responded to the policy with a hunger strike that began at pelican bay and spread to two-thirds of california 's 3 3 prisons to push for an end to long-term solitary confinement . at its peak, nearly 30,000 california prisoners joined the protests. yesterday marked day five of the day strike, with more than 12,000 prisoners continuing to forego meals in demand for their rights. one of my guests today has experienced firsthand what it means to live in solitary confinement and what it feels like to be inside a cell at pelican bay prison .

    >> this cell is one of eight in a pod. at a little over 11 x 7 feet, it's smaller than any i've ever inhabited.

    >> we're in a shu cell right now. the inmate is outside. this is where he sleeps, and another cell mate sleeps up there. it's pretty bleak.

    >> that was shane bauer, an investigative journalist who visited the shu at pelican bay state prison , as part of an investigative report for " mother jones " magazine. shane was also imprisoned in iran for 26 months and sfepent four of those months locked in solitary confinement . also here, pardiss kebriaei. glenn martin , vice president of public affairs for the fortune society, a nonprofit organization that works to help formerly incarcerated people to reenter our society. and victoria law, author of "resistance wbehind bars," and a contributor to "the nation." let me start with you. you write that pelican bay is worse than your experience in iran ?

    >> yeah, i think it's hard to generally compare kind of american prisons and iranian prisons . iranian prisons , you know, people are physically tortured and things like that. but specifically dealing with solitary confinement , the cells at pelican bay are smaller than the cells i inhabited. there are no windows in these cells. i have met people at pelican bay who have not seen a tree in 12 years. just the duration of time is really much, much longer in california . my wife, sarah, spent 13 months in solitary confinement in iran . i know of no case of anybody spending a longer period of time in iran in solitary confinement . in california , there's at least people who spent ten years in confinement. there's a man who's been in for 42 years.

    >> that notion that it can go on for decades, victoria , your writing here is compel, in part because it reminds us that human contact, like even contact with girds, the ability to call your family, all of that goes away. what happens to people's minds, to their emotions in this kind of context?

    >> for a lot of people, their minds start to deteriorate. a lot of people have reported getting agorophobia, because they're unable to live outside of this tiny little 7 x 11 foot box. and when we're talking about security housing units, that's only one form of solitary confinement that california and the united states practices. so in california , there are also women in these security housing units as well. and as you may know, women in prison are often primary caregivers of their children before they go to prison. and when they're in the security housing units, both -- both they and male prisoners in security housing units are not loud to make phone calls. so manage going 10, 15, 20 years without being able to call your loved ones . the only time you're allowed to call your loved ones is when someone dies.

    >> and in fact, the children, not just you not being able to call, but you, small child, not being able to hear from your parents.

    >> yes.

    >> part of the reason why we wanted to do this back to back with the gitmo hunger strikes is this sense of, when we talk about gitmo , people are like, well, i mean, those are terrorists. those are people who have done potentially this terrible -- these are, for the most part, american citizens, for the most part, men of color, for the most part, poor people . people who have had drug addictions of various kinds. this is how we treat people in this country, in this -- is there -- does this tell us something about who we are as a country?

    >> you know, i think the other thing it does, though, for me, gitmo was my first exposure to solitary confinement . and a group us working on gitmo for a long time thought it was an aberration and the exception. and it was only when i started representing a man who is now at a supermax facility, a federal facility, in florence, colorado, the adx prison, and i saw -- i met him and saw the conditions that he was in and i heard from him that i realized the connections, that i started here. there are tens of thousands of people who are held in those very conditions that you were just standing in. and what's happened at guantanamo is really sort of exporting those policies. but it started here.

    >> we practiced on our own people.

    >> and it is far from an exception.

    >> glen, every time we do a prison segment, and you've been a guest, you know, several times, every time my executive producer rolls his eyes and says, really? because we lose audience. people actually turn the tv off. and yet, the relatively sensati sensation docu-dramas that we do on "lockup" on this network are extremely highly rated. how can i get nerdland to care that this is happening? that this matters for who we are as a people?

    >> i think -- you know, i'm glad you're contextualizing it. we're addicted to punishment and addicted to incarceration. and if the country is addicted to incarceration, california is like a heroin addict that just hit the lottery. essentially, you have the majority of their state work is our correctional officers . the correctional officers are extremely powerful. you have to understand, there's a national lobby now pushing to sustain these prison systems and to build them, essentially. because they have become part of the economic engine in states like california .

    >> that strikes me as so important. victoria , this idea that the people who are working there now constitute the majority of those state workers. i just kept thinking, i'm sorry, didn't i just hear a supreme court ruling telling california to shed prisoners? the next thing i know, we've got hunger strikes in this state.

    >> yes. so the supreme court ruling happened in 2011 , that stated extreme overcrowding in california prisons violated the eighth amendment against cruel and unusual punishment . and instead of making plans to release people, california started shifting people around, so now they're transferring people in state prisons to county jails . so they are no longer in the state prison system. earlier this year, they converted the valley state prison for women into a men's prison to shift the men's overcrowded population into their. and subsequently crammed the, roughly a thousand women into the remaining two women state prisons , and then opened the smaller women's prison. women who had been transferred from valley state prison for women , who were in the shu in valley state were transferred to the shu at the california institution for women . they were in the shu for determinant sentences, meaning they had an end date for a similar violation, like having too much toilet paper or owning tweezers or, you know, having too many books in their cell. and when they got to the california constitution for women, they were told that because there is no place else to put them in the prison, because it is so overcrowded, they will remain in the prison, in the shu, until they are released. but in the meantime, they have to continue being under all the same restrictions that people in the shu are in.

    >> and at this point, it could be small things. having too much toilet paper , having too many books. i think that's the other thing in your piece that just stunned me, that people are being put into this for prison infractions, not because they're the murderers, child killers, you know, like that's not what's happening, right? it's prison infractions against prison rules, not crimes against society.

    >> and it's not even that, a lot of the times. a lot of inmates that have indeterminant terms in california have not actually committed rules violations. they're deemed to be gang affiliates. and when you look at the evidence of what is considered, you know, evidence of gang affiliation, it can be quite arbitrary. i've seen possession of academic books about the black panthers used as evidence, "the art of war ," journal writings about african- american history that is called afro-centric ideology, is considered to be indicative of gang activity, using words like tio and hermano can indicate gang activity. you don't have to actually hurt somebody. and most of the people that have arbitrary terms are considered associates, not even gang members.

    >> so if you read my syllabus for afro-am 101, you can end up in a 7 x 11 cell.

    >> if you were teaching that syllabus in prison, it would definitely increase your chances.

    >> stay right there. i want to talk more about this and push a little more on the particular role of women . and i want to talk to you, glen, about alternatives the for incarceration. what are the other things we can be doing here when we come back? remember when


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