CA settles prison suit, curbing solitary

Thomas Hawk / flickr

Thomas Hawk / flickr

A momentous court settlement has given new shape to California’s multi-year struggle with the courts over its criminal justice system, rolling back the state’s reliance on solitary confinement as a way of dealing with gangs and violence in prison. “Many such prisoners are left in solitary confinement indefinitely, with severe psychological effects,” The New York Times observed; “over the years, hundreds have spent more than a decade in isolation.”

A sudden shift

The practice had come under special scrutiny as Gov. Jerry Brown ameliorated overcrowding through his controversial strategy of “realigning” inmates with lesser sentences to county jails. “Under the terms of the settlement, state authorities will only send inmates to solitary if they commit new and serious crimes in prison, like murders or violent assaults,” NPR reported. “California prison officials have a year to review files of inmates in isolation now. The process is designed to send many of those prisoners back into the general prison population.”

California’s secretary of corrections and rehabilitation Jeffrey Beard said that over 1,000 inmates had been released from solitary, telling the Los Angeles Times that “the prison system was largely unable to make the case for change, and show solitary confinement could work, until dealing with overcrowding problems that had inmates sleeping in bunks set up in prison gyms and day rooms.”

Filed three years ago, the now-settled lawsuit took shape as a class action “brought on behalf of thousands of inmates who had filled the Pelican Bay State Prison isolation wing for alleged gang affiliation,” the Huffington Post noted. According to one of the plaintiffs, the Center for Constitutional Rights, over 500 inmates “had spent more than a decade locked in solitary at the time the lawsuit was filed,” reported the Huffington Post, with 78 prisoners locked in the so-called Security Housing Unit for over two decades.

Legal shifts

Solitary confinement has earned the ire of California’s criminal justice activists for years on end, and with the state’s legal woes surrounding its prison system, some in Sacramento took up the cause. In collaboration with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, authored Senate Bill 124, focusing on the extension of solitary to state and county juvenile detention centers. The bill “would ban the use of solitary confinement for longer than four hours at a time,” East Bay Express reported, barring facilities from doling out stints in solitary to punish young offenders and authorizing the practice only “when juveniles pose an immediate, substantial risk to themselves or others.” Inmates whose mental illness factored into their behavior would also be safe from solitary confinement.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, which had angrily mandated a reduction in California’s crowded state prison population, also seemed to be circling around the state’s use of solitary. Considering an appeal this summer from one of the state’s prisoners on death row, Justice Anthony Kennedy “had his law clerks dig up an 1890 case in which the Supreme Court had decided that even for those prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement contained a ‘particular terror and a peculiar mark of infamy,'” Benjamin Wallace-Wells noted in New York magazine.

A spate of prisoner protests in California fueled a growing sense that solitary confinement had become too routine and too ineffective around the country. As the New York Times observed, “a number of corrections officials across the country have increasingly come 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.”

Although the state’s agreement will remove gang affiliation from its list of offenses punishable by isolation, few have speculated what was likely to happen once thousands of formerly solitary inmates were returned to prisons’ general populations.

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