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California to Release Thousands of Prison Inmates from Solitary Confinement

Pelican Bay Special Housing Unit (Photo: Julie Small, KPCC)

Pelican Bay Special Housing Unit (Photo: Julie Small, KPCC)

In a major victory for the prison reform movement, California agreed on Tuesday to end the indefinite solitary confinement of imprisoned gang members.

The Los Angeles Times reports state correctional authorities will move thousands of inmates under the terms of a settlement in Ashker v. Brown, a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison. Under the terms of the settlement, nearly 2,000 inmates will be moved from solitary into the general prison population. Some prisoners have been locked away in isolation, without significant human contact, for more than three decades.

California prison officials have long used solitary confinement as a way to control violent gangs. The state isolated prisoners based solely on their gang affiliation—which is often necessary for survival behind bars—rather than for bad behavior. Some of the controversial criteria used by prison officials to determine who is sent to solitary include artwork and tattoos deemed ‘gang-related,’ and informants’ statements.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the advocacy group that filed the suit in 2012:

SHU prisoners spend 22 ½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational, or educational programming. Hundreds of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these conditions for over 10 years and dozens for more than 20 years, causing harmful and predictable psychological deterioration. In fact, solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage and can constitute torture under international law.

Solitary confinement is banned during wartime under the Geneva Conventions. The practice is widely acknowledged as a form of torture; Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who was brutally abused by his captors after being shot down during the Vietnam War, later said solitary “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Commenting on the case of ‘Angola 3’ prisoner Albert Woodfox, who spent more than 43 years in solitary confinement for the murder of a Louisiana prison guard before a federal court overturned his conviction last November, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez asserted that “the circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called Angola 3 clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law.”

Under the terms of the California settlement, solitary confinement will be limited to inmates who commit serious offenses such as murder, extortion, or assault. The agreement also calls for state prison officials to create high-security units in which prisoners deemed too dangerous to be housed in general population can still engage in limited group activities.

“[The settlement] will move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system, but do so in a way where we rely less on the use of segregation,” Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Associated Press.

“This is a game-changer. California had led the nation in keeping people in cold storage,” Terry Kupers, a forensic psychiatrist who filed research findings in the case, told the Los Angeles Times.

Marie Levin read a statement from her 57-year-old brother, alleged gang leader Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, and other inmates, calling the settlement a “monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California and across the country.”

Still, some 4,600 California inmates will remain in solitary confinement, albeit for shorter periods. Nearly 1,000 additional prisoners, many of them mentally ill, remain in modified isolation.

Tens of thousands of California prisoners have staged hunger strikes in recent years to protest solitary confinement. Their plight has drawn the attention of President Barack Obama.

“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Obama asked in a July speech at an NAACP convention in Philadelphia, where he called for prison reform. “That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”

Nichol Gomez, a spokeswoman for the union representing most prison guards, told the AP that it was disappointing that “the people that actually have to do the work” weren’t involved in the negotiations. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association had argued that transferring prisoners from solitary to general population could place the lives of correctional officers at risk.

While the exact number of inmates being held in solitary confinement across America is not known, most estimates suggest between 70,000 and 80,000 people are kept in isolation at any given time.

Center for Constitutional Rights president Jules Lobel, who was also the lead attorney in Ashker v. Brown, said he hoped the case would set a precedent that other states would follow.

“I would get rid of [solitary] totally,” Lobel told the Los Angeles Times. “I think it is inhumane.”

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