California Prisons Can No Longer Lock Offenders in Solitary Confinement for Decades

By Kenrya Rankin Sep 01, 2015

Asettlement was reached yesterday in Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit that challenged California’s use of long-term solitary confinement. The result, pending court approval, is that the state’s prisons will no longer be able to lock offenders in solitary confinement for long periods of time with no plan to reintroduce them into the general population.

The suit was filed in 2012 on behalf of 500+ offenders who had been in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison for more than 10 years, 78 of whom hade been there for more than 20 years. They spent at least 22.5 hours each day in a concrete windowless cell the size of a parking space with no phone or in-person contact with visitors, nor any vocational, educational or recreational programming—all with no established process for transferring them out of isolation. Many of them were there for suspected gang affiliation and not for actual rule infractions. Attorneys argued that this treatment constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

“Today’s victories are the result of the extraordinary organizing the prisoners managed to accomplish despite extreme conditions,” said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the lead attorney on the case in a statement. “This far-reaching settlement represents a major change in California’s cruel and unconstitutional solitary confinement system. There is a mounting awareness across the nation of the devastating consequences of solitary—some key reforms California agreed to will hopefully be a model for other states.”

Those reforms include:

  • Offenders can only be sent to solitary confinement for serious rule violations.
  • Offenders who are placed in SHU due to gang activity will be moved back to general population via a two-year, four-step process that restores their privileges as they go.
  • The state will review the cases of those who are currently in SHU within a year to determine if they can be released from solitary.
  • Offender representatives will regularly meet with prison officials to review settlement progress and monitor conditions. 
  • Virtually no offender can be held in isolation for more than 10 continuous years.
  • The state will create a modified general population unit to house repeat offenders and those who have been in solitary more than 10 years and have also committed recent offenses. It will be high-security, but not an isolation environment.

Men of color account for 60 percent of California’s adult male population, but they are 77 percent of the prison population – Latinos account for 42 percent, while 29 percent are black men.

Watch the powerful video above to learn about the long road to this settlement directly from the men involved.