California prisoners win victory against solitary confinement

On 1 September 2015 prisoners in California who had since 2011 been waging a sustained struggle against the oppressive and torturous use of solitary confinement won a significant victory, as a legal agreement was reached between prisoners and the state. Nicki Jameson reports.

In 2011 FRFI reported how on 1 July that year prisoners in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay prison, California began an indefinite hunger strike in protest at their prolonged detention in conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. By the following week, at least 6,600 prisoners in 13 prisons across the state had joined the protest. On 15 July the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) responded to pressure from the prisoners and their supporters by commencing negotiations, but these quickly broke down as it became clear that the CDCR was not interested in meeting any of the prisoners’ demands. 

On 26 September 2011, hundreds of SHU prisoners resumed hunger striking. As a result there were further negotiations, which again broke down, followed by further protests in July 2013. All the protests focused around Five Core Demands:

1. End group punishment and administrative abuse.

2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.

3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.

4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.

5. Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.

At the time of the 2013 protest, more than 500 of Pelican Bay’s SHU prisoners had been held in solitary confinement in windowless cells for over ten years. Around 80 had been in solitary for more than 20 years. Over half were held on the basis of ‘gang validation’. Evidence of ‘gang membership’ could be pretty much anything, including a tattoo, a chance conversation with someone already perceived to be in a gang, or the word of another prisoner, himself trading this information for a passage out of the SHU.

In addition to protesting inside the SHUs and publicising their struggle via sympathetic media and by supporters holding demonstrations in the US and around the world, the SHU prisoners also took action through the courts. In 2012 the Center for Constitutional Rights took over and amended litigation begun in 2009 by prisoners Todd Asker and Danny Troxell, who had initially represented themselves. By 2014 the legal challenge had become a class action, in which all men held at Pelican Bay State Prison in the SHU for over a decade were represented. The case argued that long-term isolation violated the US Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the lack of any meaningful review of SHU placement violated due process rights. A full hearing was scheduled to take place in December 2015.

Under the terms of the settlement which has now been reached, prisoners will no longer be placed in the SHU for gang affiliation, and, with a few exceptions, all prisoners currently held in the SHU for over 10 years will be put back into the general prison population. From now on, all terms of confinement in a SHU will be finite rather than indeterminate. Approximately 2,000 Californian prisoners will benefit from this outcome.

A statement issued by the prisoners on the eve of the legal victory says:

‘This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California, and across the country. California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action. This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers and outside supporters.

‘Our movement rests on a foundation of unity: our Agreement to End Hostilities. It is our hope that this groundbreaking agreement to end the violence between the various ethnic groups in California prisons will inspire not only state prisoners, but also jail detainees, county prisoners and our communities on the street to oppose ethnic and racial violence.

‘From this foundation, the prisoners’ human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognise that we are fellow human beings. As the recent statements of President Obama and of Justice Kennedy illustrate, the nation is turning against solitary confinement.

‘We celebrate this victory while, at the same time, we recognise that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle. We are fully committed to that effort, and invite you to join us.’

Todd Ashker, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, Luis Esquivel,

George Franco, Richard Johnson, Paul Redd, Gabriel Reyes,

George Ruiz, Danny Troxell

Across the US, there are an estimated 100,000 prisoners held in solitary confinement. However, consistent prison protest, legal action and outside solidarity, combined with the work of groups such as Solitary Watch, have begun to turn the tide against this form of extrajudicial punishment.

For the first time, a partially state sponsored report has both catalogued and criticised the repeated and prolonged use of solitary confinement. The report, Time-in-cell, co-produced by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Yale Law School Liman Program, found that of the jurisdictions surveyed, Arkansas had the highest percentage of men being held in solitary: 7.5% of Arkansas’ nearly 14,000 male prisoners are held in isolation for 30 days or more.

Black and Hispanic people were over-represented in administrative segregation, making up, on average, 47% and 14% of the administrative segregation population versus 39% and 12% of the total male prison population.

In many jurisdictions, prisoners spent 23 hours per day in their cells and were often locked up 24 hours a day at weekends. In general, the amount of time prisoners spent out of their cells ranged from three to seven hours per week. Reading materials were limited in most jurisdictions: for example, people in segregation in the District of Columbia are only allowed one book in their possession at a time. The report found that some jurisdictions located in hot, humid climates, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, have no air conditioning in their solitary confinement units. In several jurisdictions only one phone call and one social visit per month were allowed.

In most jurisdictions, administrative segregation had no fixed endpoint. The report found that only two states – Colorado and Georgia – impose any time limit on solitary confinement. In a substantial number of jurisdictions, people remained in segregation for more than three years, while many jurisdictions don’t even track the number of continuous days that individuals are held in solitary.

FRFI readers will not be at all surprised to know that the growing consensus across the US that the massive use and abuse of solitary confinement within the prison system needs to change drastically does not extend to representatives of prison guards. The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association told the New York Times: ‘Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis. It is a fact that many of our corrections facilities have become more overcrowded with a higher proportion of violent offenders than ever before, and any policy changes must prioritise the safety and security of everyone who works or resides in these institutions.’

Victory to the California prisoners!

Solitary confinement is torture – end it now!

Unlawful segregation in Britain

In Britain, neither mass imprisonment nor such extreme use of solitary confinement is on the same scale as in the US; the prison population is nonetheless the highest in Western Europe and continues to grow, while unregulated use of segregation continues to be used, especially in high security prisons. At the end of July the Supreme Court ruled that two prisoners serving life sentences for terrorism offences had been unlawfully segregated for periods of up to six months.

FRFI 247 October/November 2015


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