California has ghost inmates. By ‘ghost inmates,’ we are referring to the inmates held in solitary confinement for years and even decades. For twenty-five years, California has outlawed personal photographs of inmates held in solitary confinement. The restrictions affected thousands of inmates in four prisons: California State Prison, Corcoran; California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi; California State Prison, Sacramento; and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. Families – mothers, wives, and children did not have a photo of their loved one incarcerated in isolation in special security units.
A group of civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the isolated conditions at Pelican Bay constituted cruel and unusual punishment resulting in severe physical and psychological damage. The federal complaint asserted that a faulty review process has left at least 500 inmates stranded in the security units for more than a decade. More than 70 inmates have been held in the solitary confinement units for 20 years, according to 2011 California state data. If an inmate had a visit, it was behind a glass window. Conditions in Pelican Bay are by far worse than the other prisons because of its isolated location in Northern California near the Oregon border. The prison’s location has been an obstacle to the families who do not have the economic resources or a car to visit their family member at Pelican Bay.
One mother in a news interview described the ban on photos; “It’s just a thin line between life and death. He’s alive, but you can’t touch him, you can’t hear him, you can’t see him,” she said.
The California prison system defended the ban on photos for security reasons. It was claimed that gang leaders used personal photos as calling cards to remind everyone that they were still in control of their gangs. Several Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials determined the ban was not justified after inmates raised the issue during a 2011 inmate hunger strike. Scott Kernan, former undersecretary of corrections in 2011, said the stories of calling cards were isolated examples. The photo ban and other restrictions targeted inmates who were not breaking any rules.
Kernan directed prison staff to remove the photo restrictions for inmates who did not have any disciplinary violations. Hundreds of families received photos from relatives incarcerated at Pelican Bay, some for the first time in decades. Now there is increasing pressure on the corrections department to lift other arbitrary and cruel restrictions and especially limit the amount of time inmates are locked up in solitary confinement.