California overhauls use of solitary confinement in response to class action suit

California recently reached a settlement agreement in a lawsuit filed by prisoners who had been indefinitely placed in solitary confinement that aims at returning thousands of isolated prisoners to general population.

Photo by jmiller291 (Flicker).

On September 1, 2015, California agreed to overhaul the use of solitary confinement in their prison system, which will include strictly regulating the unlimited isolation of prisoners.

The settlement could potentially reduce the number of prisoners held in the state’s isolation units by nearly 2,000

California’s decision is the result of a settlement to a class-action lawsuit, Ashker v. Governor of California, filed by ten prisoners in California who claim that the practice of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  These claims are supported by the fact that prisoners in solitary confinement in California are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and any form of educational programing.  The lawsuit also alleges that those in solitary confinement are denied meaningful review of their placement.  The settlement could potentially reduce the number of prisoners held in the state’s isolation units by nearly 2,000.  Many of the prisoners who will be removed from solitary confinement were originally put into isolation due to being part of a security threat group, meaning they affiliate with a gang.

According to the settlement agreement, inmates will be sent to solitary confinement only if they commit new, serious crimes in prison.  In addition, California prison officials will have one year to review the files of all inmates currently in solitary confinement, with the aim of sending many of those inmates back into general population.  California prisons are already making quick work of this task.  In an interview with NPR, California’s Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary, Jeffrey Beard, stated that prison officials have already returned more than 1,000 prisoners into less restrictive custody.

The settlement agreement also deals with the overuse of solitary confinement to control the gang population in California’s prisons.  Inmates with gang affiliation who break rules can still be sent to solitary confinement, but prison officials are no longer allowed to keep them isolated indefinitely.  While they will still have stringent restrictions, inmates with gang affiliation who pose a high security threat will be given more contact with other prisoners as well as access to educational courses.

In recent years, public officials and psychologists have begun to criticize the use of such extreme measures of isolation

Solitary confinement has been a tool of prisons to isolate prisoners who they deem too dangerous to house with the general population, either due to violent behavior in prison or because they have been identified as gang members.  Many of those who are placed into solitary confinement are done so for indefinite periods of time, often resulting in severe psychological damage.

However, in recent years, public officials and psychologists have begun to criticize the use of such extreme measures of isolation.  In July, President Obama openly questioned the use of solitary confinement after becoming the first president to visit a federal prison.  After his visit, the President ordered the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement.  In a speech made in Philadelphia in a N.A.A.C.P convention, the President asked:

Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?  That is not going to make us safer.  That’s not going to make us stronger.  And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever doing to adapt? It’s not smart.

Craig Haney, a social psychologist who has studied the effects of solitary confinement, has also criticized its use in prisons.  In 1993, Haney first studied the effects of isolation on a group of inmates in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.  In 2013, Haney returned to Pelican Bay, where he found some of the same inmates he had originally interviewed in 1993, still in solitary confinement.  In an interview with the New York Times, Haney describes the effect of such extreme isolation on these inmates as “social death.”  According to Haney, many prisoners described the daily struggle to maintain their sanity and how prolonged isolation has caused them to withdraw their emotions and lessened their desire for social interaction. Haney’s research also uncovered the motivations behind placing certain prisoners in solitary confinement.  Most inmates were not placed in solitary confinement due to their original crimes, but instead because they were deemed to be associated with gangs.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy also denounced the use of solitary confinement in June.  Justice Kennedy condemned the practice in his concurring opinion of a capital punishment case, which, ironically, overturned the opinion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and reinstated a death sentence for the defendant, Hector Ayala.  While Justice Kennedy agreed that Ayala’s conviction was valid, he detailed in his concurring opinion how Ayala was held in isolation for most of his 25 years in prison and how approximately 25,000 inmates across the United States are serving substantial portions of their sentences in solitary confinement.  Justice Kennedy wrote:

If [Ayala’s] solitary confinement follows the usual pattern, it is likely respondent has been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day; and in the one hour when he leaves it, he likely is allowed little or no opportunity for conversation or interaction with anyone.

“It is a living tomb.”

 The Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit organization committed to protecting constitutional rights, has worked with the ten plaintiffs in Ashker v. Governor of California to understand the impact that solitary confinement has had on them.

Paul Redd, one of the plaintiffs in the settlement, has spent 33 years in solitary confinement.  In a deposition given in preparation for the lawsuit, Redd talked about the psychological effects of his prolonged confinement, and how death is almost preferable.  “It’s not to the point where you want to commit suicide but sometimes I be at the point where I be going right to jail and say just give me the death penalty, just give me the death penalty man,” Redd said.

Gabriel Reyes, another plaintiff to the settlement, has lived the last 16 years in complete isolation, spending only 1.5 hours per day outside his tiny, windowless cell.  About his stay in solitary confinement, Reyes says, “Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort – for years on end. It is a living tomb.”

Richard Johnson, who has also spent years in isolation in Pelican Bay prison, describes solitary confinement as “physical and mental torture.”  Despite being subject to this “torture,” Johnson describes his attempt to stay sane: “I struggle not to fuel the problem, to keep my wits about me even when I feel I may descend into madness. I hope this cruelty never shapes my ability to remain a human being.”

There has been a fundamental shift in how solitary confinement is viewed in our society, recognizing that the practice presents serious constitutional and psychological problems.  This recent settlement is a step towards redefining the use of the solitary confinement in the future.

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About Rachel Goodling, Senior Staff Writer (17 Articles)
Rachel Goodling is a 2016 graduate and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Cary, North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a Political Science minor. Following her first year of law school, Rachel worked at the NC Department of Justice, Medicaid Investigations Division as the criminal intern. Following her second year of law school, Rachel interned at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services handling post-conviction appeals as well as civil claims made by inmates across North Carolina. Rachel was also on Campbell's National moot court team.
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