23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement

By LaChance, Daniel | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement


LaChance, Daniel, Law & Society Review


23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement. 584 By Keramet Reiter. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

In 1996, The Los Angeles Times revealed that guards in California's 588 maximum-security prisons had been staging gladiatorial contests 589 between inmates. What's more, the contests often occurred in the 590 state's "secure housing units," solitary confinement facilities 591 designed to keep the most dangerous inmates in continuous isola- 592 tion. The guards would remotely unlock the cells of rival gang 593 members at the same time, intentionally releasing them into the 594 same space. Five men died when the fights got out of control and 595 guards shot them. 596

Scandals like this one erupted with startling regularity in the state's secure housing units. But while inmates' lawsuits led to some modest reforms, the units themselves were not declared unconstitu- tional by the courts or deemed inhumane by the state legislature. Indeed, at Pelican Bay Prison, the state's first "supermax" facility, prison administrators spent the better part of the 1990s transform- ing what was once an extraordinary practice-round-the-clock iso- lation in an 80 square foot space-into a common one that some inmates would endure for decades. Pelican Bay's construction in 1988 represented an unprecedented expansion and modernization of the state's secure housing infrastructure, all in the name of secu- rity. Inmates' dangerousness, prison administrators argued, war- ranted both the extreme measure and the enormous discretion judges and legislators had given to corrections personnel about how to implement it.

The power of that unchecked administrative discretion hovers over the entirety of Keramet Reiter's 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement, a brilliant and path-breaking biography of a prison that critics called a "high-tech dungeon." Studying everything from the creation of the prison's blueprints in the 1980s to the response to the appalling scandals that erupted within it after it opened, Reiter finds that legislators elected to rep- resent the people and judges charged with protecting inmates' con- stitutional rights failed to meaningfully monitor the dramatic expansion of an extreme sanction.

Drawing on a wide array of legislative, judicial, and journalistic sources, correspondence with prisoners confined in long-term soli- tary, and-most compellingly-oral histories she conducted with prisoners and prison administrators, Reiter offers an engrossing account of the history of Pelican Bay. Without compromising her scholarly orientation, she writes with the clarity, intensity, and acces- sibility of an investigative journalist.

The modern history of solitary confinement in California, Reiter argues, begins with the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s and their infiltration into the prison. In corrections adminis- trators' minds, prisoners like George Jackson, a Black Panther whose Soledad Brother had made him a hero to the radical left, were responsible for the spiraling violence in California's prisons. Solitary confinement became a way to isolate ringleaders and prevent the conflicts they created.

But reactionary backlash against the radical prison movement only did so much. It is not chiefly to blame for the massive expan- sion of solitary confinement, Reiter finds. Hannah Arendt's famous account of the "banality of evil" in Nazi Germany is a more apt point of reference (and one she explicitly invokes). "The ongoing imposition of solitary confinement is not deliberate or malicious," she explains. "[R]ather, it is the culmination of everyday bureau- cratic functioning and path dependency, in which one day of iso- lation becomes thirty days, and thirty days becomes thirty years" (p. 5).

Importantly, though, evidence in 23/7 and other studies of hyper-modern punishment suggest that banal evil does not stay banal for long (Dayan 2011; Lynch 2000; Smith 2008). …

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