Lawsuit challenges California’s prolonged solitary confinement policy

Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit (SHU) SOURCE: California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

A class action lawsuit was filed in federal court today challenging California’s practice of holding prisoners in solitary confinement indefinitely. 

The lawsuit was brought by 11 inmates who have all spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement. Five of the plaintiffs have been placed in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay since the facility’s opening in 1989.

“California’s prolonged isolation of thousands of men is without equal in the United States. There is no other state in the country that consistently retains so many prisoners in solitary confinement for such lengthy periods of time,” the complaint stated.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s data from 2011, more than 500 prisoners have stayed in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 10 years. Of those, 222 prisoners have been detained in the SHU for more than 15 years and 78 have been held in extreme isolation for more than 20 years.

The Ruiz v. Brown suit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, argued that prolonged SHU confinement violate the Constitution’s Eight Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” and the Fourteenth Amendment’s “due process” clause.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order state prison officials to transfer SHU inmates who have been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years, conduct meaningful reviews of all current SHU inmates and their gang status, improve confinement conditions in the SHU, and put in place a “meaningful review” system that would prevent inmates from being held indefinitely in solitary confinement.

Plaintiffs allege prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture 

Opened in 1989, Pelican Bay is considered one of the “harshest maximum security facility in the U.S.” Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Facility was built to hold “validated” gang members in solitary confinement as a way to deal with the gang violence in California’s prisons during the 1970s and 1980s.

Inmates held in the SHU spend between 22.5 to 24 hours a day inside an 8-feet by 10-feet “cramped, concrete, windowless cell”. They are deprived of sunlight, communications, or any physical contact (with the exception of prison guards).

The complaint described the stark conditions at Pelican Bay:

“The cells have no window, so prisoners have no view of the outside world, nor any exposure to natural light…The doors to the cells consist of solid steel, rather than bars, and are perforated with small holes that allow for a partial view into a concrete hallway…Bedding consists of a hard, lumpy mattress, sheets, and two thin blankets…Concrete slabs projecting from the walls and floor serve as a desk and stool…

“‘Exercise’ occurs in a barren, solid concrete exercise pen, known as a ‘dog run.’ It is supposed to last for one and one-half hours, seven times weekly. However, prisoners often do not receive even this minimal amount of exercise due to staff shortages and training days, disruptions, inclement weather, or arbitrary staff decisions.

“Prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU are allowed one 15-minute shower in a single shower cell three times weekly.

“While prisoners in the SHU are supposed to be served the same meals as other prisoners in California, in practice it is common that the meals prisoners receive in the SHU are substandard in that they contain smaller portions, fewer calories, and often are served cold, rotten, or barely edible.”

In addition, the lawsuit alleged, SHU inmates are routinely denied “adequate” medical care for serious conditions – such as kidney failure, heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia, and glaucoma. The suit claimed the prison officials

One prisoner described SHU as “a living nightmare that does not end and will not end.”

The complaint alleged that many of the SHU inmates have developed mental illnesses and some have attempted suicides after being subjected to years of near-complete isolation in the “unduly harsh” conditions at Pelican Bay.

Flawed gang “validation” process and lack of meaningful review of SHU confinement violate due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment

California prison officials have long cited the security threat posed by prison gangs to justify placing “validated” gang members in extreme isolation in the SHU for years at a time.

“We had to protect inmates, the staff, and the public the tangible threats that gangs present today in our prisons. Murder, extortions, rape, drugs are examples of the criminal activity that require the department to do something,” said Scott Kernan, Undersecretary of Operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, at the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee hearing in August 2011.

But the plaintiffs alleged that California prison officials often transfer inmates to the SHU “merely on allegations that they have associated with a gang” instead of violation of prison rules or acts committed on behalf of a gang. The gang “validations” are frequently based on information provided by confidential informants without any supporting facts. Inmates have little recourse to defend themselves against such accusations.

“It is unjustified and a violation of the Constitution to place and retain for years prisoners in such conditions simply because they are allegedly associated or affiliated with a prison gang even if they have never engaged in any violent or other misconduct on behalf of that gang,” said Jules Lobel, President for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “A number of our plaintiffs have been retained simply because they have photographs in their cell or drawings in their cell, which California says has some relationship to a gang, or because they have spoken to people who they say are gang members or because their name appeared on some list of gang members in supposedly good standing in prison cells that they have no idea who it is.”

Once an inmate has been “validated” as a gang member or associate, he will be held in solitary confinement for at least 6-years before prison officials review his gang status and decide whether to release the inmate back to the prison’s general population or extend his stay at the SHU.

However, in practice prison officials would automatically extending the solitary confinement for almost all SHU inmates at their 6-year review unless they agree to “debrief” and become a government informant. In addition, inmates who have served their time and are eligible for parole are often denied parole while they are being held in the SHU.

“Prisoners who debrief incur a substantial risk of serious harm and retaliation to themselves and to their families,” the lawsuit stated. “The combination of the crushing conditions in the SHU, the policies designed to coerce prisoners to debrief, the lack of any effective means of obtaining release from the SHU without debriefing, and the substantial risk of serious harm if one does debrief, puts prisoners in an untenable position and constitutes an unconstitutional threat to the safety of prisoners confined in the SHU in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.”

2011 hunger strikes & CDCR’s SHU reforms

Prisoners staged two massive hunger strikes in 2011 to protest the harsh and inhumane confinement conditions and the lack of due process with the gang validation and status review.

In response, state prison officials have made two concessions – providing a handball in the recreation pen and allowing each SHU inmate to put up one calendar on his cell wall – and promised to propose reforms to CDCR’s gang validation and SHU policies.

In March, CDCR released a paper outlining some proposed gang validation and SHU reforms. The proposed reforms include a step-down program giving SHU inmates the ability to “earn their way out” of solitary confinement as an alternative to debriefing and a new tiered classification for suspected gang associates.

However, many prisoners and human rights group have criticized the proposals, saying that it makes “virtually no meaningful changes” to ensure due process and to improve solitary confinement conditions for inmates.

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10 Comments on “Lawsuit challenges California’s prolonged solitary confinement policy

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