Monday, July 18, 2011

New York Times Misleads on the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

With the hunger strike in its isolation units stretching into its third week, things are grim at the Supermax Pelican Bay State Prison, up near the Oregon border. While there are no winners in this sorry story, it's even more disheartening to see lefty pundits using it to score political points. The latest example being this editorial in the New York Times by, of all people, Vanderbilt English professor Colin Dayan. In a classic illustration of a humanities PhD feeling qualified to speak on any subject, Dayan's complaint goes as follows: prisoners sent to isolation do nothing to earn it ("Their treatment is simply a matter of administrative convenience"), which makes the practice morally equivalent to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. As such, "[h]unger strikes are the only weapon these prisoners have left. Legal avenues are closed."

First of all, equating the Pelican Bay isolation prisoners to Guantanamo detainees is preposterous. The scandal of Guantanamo is the denial of due process to those being held there; at Pelican Bay, in contrast, everyone there has either pled or been found guilty in a civilian court. More importantly, though, it's hard to have a civilized society without an option for removing its most dangerous citizens from the rest of the population and, if necessary, confining them to their own property. In spite of what Dayan would have you believe, Pelican Bay is not the county lock-up downtown; you have to do something very, very serious to end up there. The editorial paints the strikers in isolation as the victims of heartless prison policy ("often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation"), but is this really true? For one thing, it makes no sense. Whether you're a prisoner or a guard, Pelican is not a safe place to spend your day; are prison staff really going to use the isolation units for inmates they don't like, while letting the most dangerous prisoners run wild? Assuming that the prison officials indeed use these units for housing the worst of the worst, then the accusation of "barbarous confinement" becomes harder to defend. We don't doubt that stays in isolation are a really, really horrible experience, but at some point the ethical question becomes how to protect the guards and other prisoners from those who present a danger to them behind Pelican's walls.

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