5 things you should know about solitary confinement in California state prisons

Recidivism rate of SHU inmates. SOURCE: CDCR.ca.gov

1. There is no limit as to how long an inmate can be held in solitary confinement.

In fact, 2,400 inmates currently held in isolation are serving “indeterminate” terms in Security Housing Units (SHU), where they are barred from virtually any contact with other inmates or their family or friends.

“We now that in Pelican Bay [SHU] alone, we have 248 who’ve been there for 5 to 10 years; 218 who’ve been there for 10 to 20 years; and almost 100 prisoners in California who have been in isolation for more than 20 years,” said Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights attorney based in San Francisco.

Prior to 2012, “validated” gang members or “associates” placed in the SHU must serve a minimum of 6 years in solitary confinement before they can be considered for release back into a prison’s general population. An inmate will only be released from the SHU if the prisoner can prove his or her “inactive” gang status during that entire 6-year period.

The only other option to leave solitary confinement is to debrief or provide investigators with information on other prison gang members and associates. Many SHU inmates choose not to debrief out of concern for their safety, and some object to debriefing out of principle because they’re not involved in gangs and refuse to subject other inmates to extreme isolation by providing false information.

“Inmates are saying the only way out of the SHU is to grow old, die, go insane, debrief” said Irene Huerta, whose husband has been held in solitary confinement for 28 years.

In October 2012, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in response to the July 2011 massive prison hunger strike launched a 2-year pilot program to allow SHU inmates to “earn their way” out of solitary confinement. The step-down program (SDP) consists of 5 phases and would take at least 4 years to complete. However, Michael Stainer, CDCR’s Deputy Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, confirmed at public hearing on Feb. 25th that there aren’t any limitations to how long an inmate can remain in the step-down program.

“If an inmate refuses to participate in a step-down program or if they exhibit behaviors that have a tie or nexus to gang activities, they will not be permitted to progress [and be released from solitary confinement],” said Stainer.


2. Prolonged solitary confinement is considered torture.

Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, has called for a ban on solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days. “Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” said Mendez. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period…”

About half of the suicides in U.S. prisons are committed by the 2% to 8% of prisoners held in insolation, according Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist, a faculty member at the Wright Institute, and an expert on solitary confinement.

One prisoner held in segregation while awaiting his transfer to Pelican Bay SHU wrote: “Being in prison is hard enough but solitary confinement is simply cruelty. Everyday spent in isolation is a slow torturous day that chips at your humanity and crushes your soul. So far, my worst experience…has been watching…how this place can break a person’s will to live and cause them to take their own life.”

3. There are 5,000 prisoners being held in solitary confinement in California, and about 2,400 of those inmates are serving indeterminate terms in the SHU.

California prison officials argue that the Secure Housing Units are needed to segregate the “most dangerous, predatory, sophisticated criminal” gang members and associates.

“Placement in the SHU of these [gang] affiliates is necessary to protect the 97% of other members who wish to safely program with the general population, with the staff, as well as with the communities in California,” said Stainer. 

Although California prison officials say only 3% of the male inmate population are currently held in isolation, Dr. Kupers estimates the figure to be closer to 6% if the number of prisoners held in lockdown (as “group punishment”) and those who are held in SHU for “protection” are counted.

Currently, there are more than 80,000 prisoners held in solitary confinement or restricting housing in U.S. prisons. In February, the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to conduct a “comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons”.

“The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

4. In 2011, thousands of inmates in California state prisons held two hunger strikes to protest the tough conditions in the Secure Housing Units (SHU), the indefinite nature of California’s solitary confinement, and the use of confidential sources and lack of due process in CDCR’s gang validation system.

Between 5,300 to 6,500 inmates in 9 prisons participated in the first hunger strike, which took place from July 1 through July 20, 2011.

A second hunger strike was held by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison (arguably the toughest super max prison in the state) and took place from Sept. 26 through Oct. 11, 2011. About 4,252 inmates participated in the second hunger strike.

5. If the Governor’s 2013-14 budget is approved, California would spend about $8.8 billion on incarceration (accounting for 9% of the entire state budget), just a little bit less than the $11 billion (or 11% of the entire state budget) being sought to fund state universities during the same period. 

In 2011-12, CDCR received about $10 billion in funding. Most of the money – 43% – went to administration, overtime, and general security purposes. Inmate support, adult education, and inmate activities accounted for only 16% of the entire CDCR budget.

According to Brown’s budget released in January, the state would spend $60,032 per inmate in fiscal year 2013-14. (There are close to 122,000 inmates incarcerated in state prisons.) To put this amount in perspective, Stanford’s undergraduate tuition and fees for the 2013-14 academic year is $60,749.

But despite the huge amount of money Californian taxpayers are spending on incarceration, the state boasts one of the nation’s worst recidivism rates. According to a CDCR report released in October 2012, 63.7% of Californian parolees return to state prison within 3 years of release. Even CDCR’s own data show that the recidivism rate for prisoners held in the SHU (68.2%) is about 5% higher compared to inmates who served their time in general population (63.4%).

“With the exception of SHU re-releases whose rates remain exactly the same, the recidivism rates decreased between 1.1 and 2.7 percentage points,” the CDCR report stated.


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  1. Pingback: Special Report: Solitary Confinement in California | What The Folly?!

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