As per terms of the agreement, those who have been in solitary due to gang-affiliations will have to undergo a two-year program that allows for some privileges before entering the general population. The agreement also calls for restructuring of the SHU facilities for those who are deemed too dangerous to return to the general population. These include prisoners with histories of extreme violence including murder, narcotics possession, attempted escape, and those with severe mental health problems.
Thousands of prisoners who have been locked up in solitary confinement in the state of California will soon be released into the general population. As part of a comprehensive settlement with the state announced on Tuesday, the release affects nearly all prisoners who have been placed in “special housing units” (SHU) for over 10 years, including over 400 at the Pelican Bay State prison. Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) represented the Pelican Bay prisoners in an issue that has become increasingly contentious throughout the nation, and especially in California. CCR launched the lawsuit in Northern California U.S. District Court 2012. As forensic psychiatrist Terry Kupers, who aided in the Center’s research findings said about the agreement, “This is a game-changer. California had led the nation in keeping people in cold storage.” As per terms of the settlement, roughly 1,800 of the state’s 2,858 solitary inmates will be released from the solitary units into the general population. The agreement ends a nearly 30-year period of ramped-up SHU assignments, geared to keep prison gang-wars to a minimum. Many had been sent to solitary confinement due to having certain tattoos, or acting on advice from prison informants.
CCR argued the 22-plus hours in Pelican Bay’s windowless-cells led to the deterioration of the prisoner’s psyche. In 2013, over 30,000 California state prisoners staged a hunger strike protesting the SHU system. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez compared long-term solitary confinement to torture during the hunger strike, and urged the U.S. to abandon the practice. CCR announced as part of the settlement, inmate representatives will help to implement the terms of the agreement, writing “The struggle to reform California’s use of solitary confinement has always been a prisoner-led movement.” President Barack Obama has commented about changes to the SHU system, telling a crowd at an NAACP meeting in July that “The social science shows that an environment like that is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent.” Justice Anthony Kennedy also made pointed remarks about solitary confinement as well as other criticisms of the CJS in a rare off-topic monologue during a congressional hearing in April, saying “Solitary confinement literally drives men mad.”
The settlement will still need to be approved by Judge Claudia Wilken, which is expected. As per terms of the agreement, those who have been in solitary due to gang-affiliations will have to undergo a two-year program that allows for some privileges before entering the general population. The agreement also calls for restructuring of the SHU facilities for those who are deemed too dangerous to return to the general population. These include prisoners with histories of extreme violence including murder, narcotics possession, attempted escape, and those with severe mental health problems. Still, the new SHU structure will also allow for increased privileges like phone calls, more time outside of cells, and small-scale leisure and work opportunities. California, which has, by far, the most prisoners in SHUs and for the longest duration of time, will join several other states in modifying its solitary confinement policy. According to The Marshall Project, 10 states made solitary confinement reforms in 2014, and California joins Illinois, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, along with New York City in making policy changes this year.
Los Angeles Times – Paige St. John
New York Times – Ian Lovett
The Atlantic – Matt Ford