Landmark Settlement Reached: Solitary Confinement to Be Dramatically Reduced in California Prisons

Hundreds may be moved out of windowless solitary confinement cells at Pelican Bay and other California prisons.

Hundreds may be moved out of windowless solitary confinement cells at Pelican Bay and other California prisons.

California prison officials have agreed to limit the practice of long-term solitary confinement, four years after the first hunger strike began in protest of the practice.

Under a historic agreement reached in the Ashker v. Brown suit between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of individuals in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, terms of 10 years or more, which have been common in California, will be virtually eliminated, as will solitary sentences of indeterminate length.

“Today is a historic day,” declared Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, on Tuesday morning.

Filed in May 2012, Ashker v. Brown reached class action status in 2014, representing all men held at Pelican Bay State Prison in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) for over a decade. Arguing that long-term isolation violated the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the lack of meaningful review of SHU placement violated due process rights, the case was set for trial in December.

Through the terms of the agreement, individuals will no longer be placed in the SHU for gang affiliation; with limited exceptions all prisoners currently held in the SHU for over 10 years will be released to general population; and all SHU terms would be finite rather than indeterminate.

“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,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.  “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.”

“The department was headed this way, anyway,” said CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard.

Under the terms of the agreement,  the only way anyone will be able to get in the SHU is if they commit an offense carrying that punishment, including assault and murder. If that offense is tied to gang activity, and if the offender is a validated prisoner, after the completion of a determinate SHU-term for the offense, they will be placed in the Step Down Program (SDP). Under the terms of this agreement, the SDP, which has been operational for two years, will be reduced from three to four years, to two years.

Individuals who refuse to participate in the SDP will be placed in a new Restrictive Custody General Population Housing Unit. According to Mr. Lobel, the new unit “will not be solitary, but a highly secured facility” that allows small-group recreation, programming, work assignments and contact visits.

Also eligible for placement in the new unit will be individuals who have been in the SHU for 10 or more years who have recently committed a SHU-able offense and individuals who cannot be released to general population due to threats to their safety.

The department will have to review all individuals in the SHU within the next year.

“As the plaintiffs recognize this is a step towards the larger goal of the prisoners human rights movement,” said Carol Strickman, staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

There are currently about 2,000 individuals in SHUs across the state, at Pelican Bay State Prison, Tehachapi State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, and California State Prison in Sacramento who will be impacted.

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