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Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement

Keramet Reiter

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How America’s prisons turned a “brutal and inhumane” practice into standard procedure

Originally meant to be brief and exceptional, solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has become long-term and common. Prisoners spend twenty-three hours a day in featureless cells, with no visitors or human contact for years on end, and they are held entirely at administrators’ discretion. Keramet Reiter tells the history of one “supermax,” California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, whose extreme conditions recently sparked a statewide hunger strike by 30,000 prisoners. This book describes how Pelican Bay was created without legislative oversight, in fearful response to 1970s radicals; how easily prisoners slip into solitary; and the mental havoc and social costs of years and decades in isolation. The product of fifteen years of research in and about prisons, this book provides essential background to a subject now drawing national attention.

Keramet Reiter is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and at the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine. In 2017, she received the American Society of Criminology’s Ruth Shonle Cavan Young Scholar Award for outstanding scholarly contributions to the discipline.

“A chilling portrait of America’s ‘securest and most punitive’ prisons. . . . [Reiter’s] stories of the psychological impact of isolation—and the experiences of released Supermax prisoners—are both disturbing and moving. Essential reading.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Engaging, meticulously researched, and deeply disturbing, 23/7 is more than a history of Pelican Bay Prison. Keramet Reiter opens a window onto the secretive decisions that produced the contemporary supermax and sensitively explores the harmful results. This remarkable book is essential reading for anyone concerned about prisons in the United States."—Lorna A. Rhodes, author of Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison

"Keramet Reiter uncovers the history and consequences of California's unfortunate modern experiment with solitary confinement—a tale of public policy gone awry through ignorance, callousness, cruelty and self interest, inflicting untold psychological pain and emotional misery on thousands."—Jamie Fellner, Human Rights Watch

"23/7 is a convincing, heartbreaking, enraging explanation of how prison bureaucrats, empowered by a fearful electorate, gained the power to entomb human beings for five, ten, twenty years and more in small boxes without windows where the lights are never turned off. I have not read a book in recent years that has made me angrier than this or explained more about how, when it comes to prisons, Americans have dug ourselves such a very deep hole."—Ted Conover, author of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing

"23/7 tells a compelling story of the banality of evil in correctional planning and penal confinement."—Franklin E. Zimring, University of California, Berkeley

"Keramet Reiter has uncovered what should be a national scandal. . . . She does an excellent job of putting the story of Pelican Bay into the larger context of the rise of supermax prisons nationally . . . [and] gives life to those directly impacted by solitary confinement. . . . An important contribution."—Allan Mills, Truthout

"Excellent. . . . A first-rate examination of the rise of supermaxes."—New York Journal of Books

"[Reiter's] most important contribution . . . is her close attention to the tragic shortcomings of attempts to date at reforming the facility."—Peter C. Baker, Pacific Standard

"Eminently readable. . . . Refreshingly honest."—Ashley T. Rubin, Punishment and Society

"Reiter’s book, for all its sobriety and pessimism, is an effective counsel against despair."—David Glenn, Dissent

"23/7 speaks with clarity, coherence, and . . . a passionate voice."—James E. Robertson, Correctional Law Reporter

"An outstanding book; the author deserves to be commended."—Choice
ISBN: 9780300240191
Publication Date: October 9, 2018
312 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
11 b/w illus.
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