Experts say solitary confinement is “over-used” in California

California is holding too many people for far too long in solitary confinement, despite the lack of evidence that segregation reduces gang violence in prisons or improves public safety, according to two experts who recently testified before the joint Assembly and Senate public safety committee.

As of early October, there are 4,054 inmates being held in extreme isolation in security housing units (SHU) at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Tehachapi, and Sacramento state prisons.

“Solitary confinement is over-used in California,” said Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor of Criminology at UC Irvine. “The sheer number of people in solitary confinement is quite high in this state…Very few states compare with the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. Texas, New York, the federal prison system and California have these numbers in the thousands. Most states have a few hundred people in these conditions.”

Reiter also said California’s practice of imposing indeterminate SHU terms is “unusual.”

About 60% of the SHU inmates are serving indefinite terms in solitary confinement after being “validated” as a prison gang member or “associate”, and 984 of those inmates – or about a quarter of the SHU population – have spent more than 5 years in isolation.

(It’s important to note that a “validated” inmate does not have to commit a crime or engage in any gang activity to be sent to the SHU indefinitely.)

About 410 have served more than 10 years in the SHU, where they spend 22 to 23 hours a day isolated in an 8 feet by 10 feet cell. SHU inmates are also barred from having contact visits with family or friends and are severely restricted in their telephone and written communications as well as access to books and educational programming.

“In many states, only a few prisoners at a time serve these long sentences of a decade or more, and California has a few hundred,” said Reiter.

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said California’s exceptionally high number of inmates in prolonged solitary confinement raises questions whether prison authorities are properly evaluating the risk factors of the people being placed in the SHU.

“When you’re seeing these big numbers, there’s something terribly wrong. It’s extremely, extremely rare – the phenomenon of somebody who really needs to be isolated from other human beings,” said Winter. “That it just means that there is rote thinking going on. There is not an individualized examination of this person as a human being and taking a look at evidence-based risk factors.”

In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Mendez said that solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days amounts to torture because of the severe mental and physical harm such isolation inflicts, and earlier this month Mendez called for a ban on prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement in the United States.


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One Comment on “Experts say solitary confinement is “over-used” in California

  1. Pingback: Alternatives to long-term solitary confinement in California | What The Folly?!

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