If, like us, you missed this week’s episode of 60 Minutes on CBS, here’s your chance to see Oprah Winfrey’s segment on reforming solitary confinement at Del Norte County’s infamous Pelican Bay State Prison.
Winfrey’s report focuses on recent efforts to reform and drastically reduce the use of special housing units, aka “the SHU” — tiny, windowless cells where prisoners spend up to 23 1/2 hours alone every day, sometimes for decades.
Intended as a means to reduce gang activities in California’s prison system, confinement in the SHU was described by many prison reform advocates (and prisoners themselves) as torture. The conditions led to a hunger strike that began in Pelican Bay’s SHU and soon spread throughout the state.
The hunger strike and ensuing national attention led to reforms as legislators, activists and even prison officials recognized that conditions in the SHU were counterproductive to the stated goal of rehabilitation.
In this 60 Minutes segment, even the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Scott Kernan, acknowledges that solitary confinement, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once put it, “literally drives men mad.” And with more than 90 percent of inmates eventually bound for release, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a societal standpoint.
“Do you want somebody with no hope, that’s involved themselves in criminal activities, doing dope, stabbing people?” Kernan asks. “Or would you want a guy that comes out that has an AA degree? Has addressed a substance abuse program? Has— went to domestic violence classes? What would you want as a taxpayer and a citizen of this State?”