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California Agrees To Restrict Use of Long-Term Solitary Confinement

California has agreed to restrict the use of long-term solitary confinement in a settlement agreement filed in federal court this week.

The agreement [PDF] comes in response to a class action lawsuit brought by ten inmates at the Pelican Bay State Prison, represented by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), against Governor Jerry Brown, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Matthew Cate, Office of Correctional Safety Chief Anthony Chaus and Warden G.D. Lewis.

Restrictions are expected to reduce the number of inmates in isolation, cap the number of continuous years an inmate can spend in solitary confinement to five, and establish measures by which inmates can more easily achieve release back to general population.

The Pelican Bay super-maximum security facility is one of the most restrictive prisons in the country, located on California’s northern border. Its isolation units were designed to hold inmates for up to eighteen months, not a decade or more. CDCR reported that five hundred (roughly half) of the inmates in Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit or SHU have been in isolation for more than ten years. Seventy eight of them have been there for more than twenty years.

The inmates at the center of the lawsuit [PDF] have been held in the SHU for periods of between eleven and twenty two years.

Some of them came to Pelican Bay when it opened in December 1989, directly from isolation units at other prisons. They were placed in the SHU because prison officials claim they have active gang associations, often without meaningful evidence. They are routinely denied meaningful due process procedures to secure their release back to general population.

In most cases, officials told inmates the only way out of the SHU is through “debriefing,” in which an inmate is expected to divulge all of the information on gang activity and the identities of gang members that they supposedly know. If an inmate cannot or will not debrief, they are continuously housed in the SHU.

One plaintiff, 69-year-old George Ruiz, has been in the SHU for 22 years “based on nothing more than his appearance on lists of alleged gang members discovered in some unnamed prisoners’ cells and his possession of allegedly gang-related drawings.” The elderly inmate has not had a disciplinary violation since 1986, and despite being eligible for parole since the early 1990s, “Multiple parole boards have indicated that he will never be paroled while he is housed in the SHU.”

Under the terms of the settlement, CDCR will end its practice of confining inmates in the SHU “solely because of gang validation status,” instead basing placement decisions “on a conviction of a SHU-eligible offense following a disciplinary due process hearing.”

CDCR has also agreed to review all current SHU placements, with the goal of releasing any inmate who has not had a SHU-eligible violation in the last twenty four months back to general population.

Inmates, who have spent over ten years in the SHU, will “generally” be released back to the general population, regardless of whether they have a recent violation. These individuals will be placed in new housing, dubbed the Restrictive Custody General Population (RCGP), which is a high-security unit with “increased opportunities for programming and social interaction.”

There is an exception for situations in which “overwhelming evidence shows that a prisoner presents an immediate threat and cannot be assigned to less-restrictive housing.” Such inmates will be placed in the “Administrative SHU” indefinitely, where CDCR expects only a “small number” of prisoners will be kept. These placements are subject to review by Magistrate Judge Nador Vadas.

Implementation of the settlement terms will be overseen by the plaintiffs’ attorneys as well as Judge Vadas. The court will retain jurisdiction over the case for two years.

Experiencing the SHU

In painstaking detail, the lawsuit described the conditions of confinement in Pelican Bay’s SHU.

Luis Esquivel, a 43-year-old inmate who has spent the last 13 years in the SHU and never had a serious disciplinary violation, said he “has not shaken another person’s hand in 13 years and fears that he has forgotten the feel of human contact. He spends a lot of time wondering what it would feel like to shake the hand of another person.”

Inmates spend the vast majority of their time in small, concrete windowless cells outfitted with stainless steel doors perforated with a few small holes. There is a meal slot in the door, which is also used to handcuff the inmates before they are removed from their cells. They sleep on hard and lumpy mats atop small cement beds with one or two sheets.

The prison is ventilated with recycled air. It is unbearably hot in the summer and similarly cold in the winter. There are no distress buttons in the cells. If an inmate needs help, they must scream or hope a passing guard notices them. Mental and physical healthcare is often delayed, inadequate, or non-existent.

Face-to-face human contact for inmates in Pelican Bay’s SHU is almost totally restricted to that which involves guards.

Inmates communicate with one another by shouting to their neighbors. Sometimes they speak to each other in passing, as they are led down the cell block, but they can, and often do, face punishment for such interactions.

Some SHU inmates had cell-mates, meaning two people were confined to a room barely large enough for one for twenty two hours or more per day.

Most of the inmates’ families live impossible distances from the prison, making visitation rare if at all possible. When they do get visitors, their brief interactions are separated by plexiglass and spoken through telephones. Despite the total lack of human contact, prisoners are strip searched before and after visits.

Inmates are allowed few possessions. They can have TVs with a few channels if they can afford it. There is virtually no therapeutic or social programming provided and access to the law library is extremely limited.

When recreation is provided, it takes place in a small concrete room called “the dog run,” with high walls and a partial opening to the sky. The walls are covered in mold and mildew, aggravating some inmates’ respiratory conditions. When it rains, water pools on the floor and the room cannot be used.

Inmates reported a range of symptoms and illnesses, from thyroid disorders and back problems to deteriorated vision and capacity for thought, to violent nightmares and a complete inability to feel or identify emotions.

Hunger Strikes at Pelican Bay

Pelican Bay was the site of two hunger strikes in recent years that garnered national attention. In 2002, a hunger strike against living conditions lasted one week until it was halted when CDCR officials promised to look into inmate complaints, specifically the debriefing policy. No action was taken.

The second began in July 2011, and over 6,600 prisoners participated at thirteen prisons across the state. It stopped momentarily when CDCR officials again promised to investigate complaints, but resumed in September of that year when no visible actions were taken by the department. At that point, over 12,000 inmates participated in the hunger strike.

That strike ended on October 12, 2011, with another promise of reform, but again, no meaningful actions were taken by the department.

While the actions were immensely successful at shedding light on the conditions of confinement facing inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU and stirred a national conversation on the use of solitary confinement, the actual changes that came from it were relatively sparse: inmate gains mentioned in the suit include one handball for the recreation area, art supplies, and permission to put up one wall calendar in their cells.

The CDCR has since issued disciplinary violations against inmates who participated in the hunger strikes. The lawsuit states there were “particularly serious rule violations against those it alleged were its leaders.”

Last year, a federal judge ordered the CDCR to restrict the use of force and solitary confinement against inmates suffering from mental illness following reports of abuse, medical neglect, and a high rate of suicide.

*Further reading: Vera Institute of Justice’s report on common misconceptions about solitary confinement: PDF.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.