California Agrees to Overhaul Use of Solitary Confinement

Pelican Bay SHU

Dinner at the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison. The suit settled was brought by inmates held in isolation there for at least 10 years. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

California has agreed to an overhaul of the use of solitary confinement in its prisons, including strict limits on the prolonged isolation of inmates, as part of a landmark legal settlement filed in federal court on Tuesday.

The settlement is expected to sharply reduce the number of inmates held in the state’s isolation units, where nearly 3,000 inmates are often kept alone for more than 22 hours a day in cells that sometimes have no windows, and cap the length of time prisoners can spend there. Prison reform advocates say they hope the settlement will serve as a model for other states.

But President Obama, who in July became the first president to visit a federal prison, has questioned solitary confinement, as has Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court. Craig Haney, a psychologist who studied the effects of isolation on prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California — the prisoners at the heart of this settlement — used the term “social death” to describe the impact on their psyche.

A number of corrections officials across the country are also coming to see locking up inmates for years at a time as ineffective. Some human rights groups have assailed it as torture, and tens of thousands of inmates across California have participated in hunger strikes since 2011 to protest the state’s use of solitary confinement.

As of Monday, 2,858 prisoners were in solitary housing units across the state. Under the agreement, that figure could fall by as many as 1,800 inmates, bringing it “more in line with other states,” Jeffrey Beard, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday.

More than 1,100 remain in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison, the state’s toughest prison, where the isolation cells do not have windows.

More than 1,100 remain in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison, the state’s toughest prison, where the isolation cells do not have windows.

The agreement filed Tuesday, which settles a lawsuit brought by inmates held in isolation for at least 10 years at Pelican Bay, near the Oregon border, signifies a major shift in corrections practices in the state.

“This brings California in line with more modern national prison practices,” said Jules Lobel, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who was the lead lawyer for the inmates in their suit against the state. “People have been kept in solitary confinement for outrageously long periods of time. That’s one of the problems in the U.S. — people are warehoused in these places, and now that’s going to change.”

Under the settlement, prisoners will no longer be sent to isolation indefinitely. And gang members will no longer be sent to solitary confinement based solely on their gang affiliation; only inmates found guilty of serious prison infractions like violence, weapons, narcotics possession or escape will be sent to isolation.

The state will create a new unit for prisoners who are deemed too dangerous to return to the general population. There, they will have more privileges than in solitary, including more time out of their cells, small group leisure activities, and some job opportunities and phone calls.

Gang members who have served their sentences in solitary will enter a two-year program that will allow them some privileges, like phone calls, before they are placed back in the general prison population.

Mr. Beard, the corrections department head, said the settlement was part of an effort the state had already been making to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. More than 1,000 inmates who had been held in isolation units because of gang affiliations have already been released over the past several years, and few have caused problems in the general population, he said.

Three or four decades ago, Mr. Beard said, “there was a lot of violence in the system,” and “you had to do something to stop the violence.”

But, he said, “the problem was you had a system that was so overcrowded over the years that they just went from one crisis to another.”

Now, prison officials are letting gang members who have been kept in solitary back into the population.

“We moved slow at first, because this represented a big change,” Mr. Beard said. “Any time when you try to change something that you’ve been doing for over 30 years, there is the risk of having problems.”<

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a union representing prison guards, tried to intervene earlier in the case, arguing that the transfer of prisoners out of the security housing units could endanger correctional officers. But the judge denied the motion. The union declined to comment on Tuesday’s settlement.

Mr. Beard said the department now had “the tools to deal with those people when they emerge” from the solitary units.

“We don’t believe it’s good for anybody to keep them locked up for 10, 20, 30 years,” Mr. Beard added, referring to long-term stays in isolation.

Solitary confinement has come under increasing scrutiny across the country as research has revealed the effects of long-term isolation on the psyche.

The suicide of Kalief Browder in June, after nearly two years in isolation at Rikers Island in New York City, brought renewed attention to young people in solitary confinement. That same month, Justice Kennedy seemed to invite a constitutional challenge to prolonged solitary confinement.

No state has housed more prisoners in solitary confinement, or kept them there for longer, than California, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.

David Marcial, a corrections consultant and a former regional director with the Connecticut Department of Correction, praised the settlement for offering nonviolent inmates a way to get out of isolation, while giving the state options for keeping dangerous ones apart from the general population.

“The problem is that it’s a settlement and not a summary judgment, so there’s no case law that can be used to pressure other states,” Mr. Marcial said. “But it can be used as a guideline for states that are not as progressive that are struggling with what to do.”

The lawsuit argued that the long-term isolation constituted a form of cruel and unusual punishment and violated the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights.

Since the hunger strikes began in 2011, inmates in long-term isolation have already won several concessions, like calendars for the walls in their cells. And the number of those held for over a decade in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay has dropped to 62 from more than 300 in 2012.

The settlement will probably push those numbers down even more.

All inmates who were sent to solitary confinement because of gang affiliations will have their cases reviewed within a year; unless they have committed another offense, they will be released to the general population. Prisoners who have been held in solitary for at least 10 years are expected to be released immediately with few exceptions, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.

And no one will be held in isolation units for more than 10 consecutive years, except in rare cases, which will be subject to review by a magistrate judge, the lawyers said.

“This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California, and across the country,” the inmates who brought the lawsuit said in a written statement released by their lawyers. “The prisoners’ human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognize that we are fellow human beings.”

Prison officials have used solitary confinement to separate prisoners who they say are too dangerous to house with the general population, either because they have been violent in prison or because they have been identified as gang members. Many such prisoners are left in solitary confinement indefinitely, with severe psychological effects; over the years, hundreds have spent more than a decade in isolation.

Ian Lovett
New York Times

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