Conditions in California’s prisons have been attracting international headlines since 2011, when a dramatic hunger strike that started at the notorious Pelican Bay facility in Northern California spread throughout the prison system. While the hunger strikers were demanding changes to a number of key policies and procedures at Pelican Bay and other prisons in the state, one of the most significant issues on the agenda was the use of solitary confinement; at Pelican Bay’s “Special Housing Unit,” prisoners spend 22 to 24 hours a day in utter isolation, cut off from contact with friends, family and other prisoners.
Just 15 days in solitary confinement is considered grounds for serious lasting psychological harm, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) notes that 78 prisoners in California have been held in solitary confinement for more than 20 years. This and other human rights abuses in the California prison system were the grounds for a suit filed last year by the CCR and other organizations on behalf of California prisoners; the suit argues that keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for such extended periods of time without meaningful review and policy is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
For prisoners in the SHU, who are disproportionately Latino, the only way out is often to “debrief,” a euphemism for informing on other prisoners. Many people are placed in SHU in the first place on the grounds of alleged gang affiliations, using an interrogation process that is often highly suspect, and thus are pressured to inform on other gang members even if it exposes them and their families to the risk of retaliation. The atmosphere of pressure and fear in the SHU is made even more intense by the provision of inadequate food and denial of medical care, additional points to bolster the suit’s claim that prisoners in California are not receiving their full rights under the Constitution.
Last week, Chief Judge Claudia Wilken firmly smacked down the state’s attempt to dismiss the suit, indicating that solitary confinement, and related practices, would have their day in court whether the state liked it or not. Deputy Attorney General Adriano Hrvatin attempted to have the case delayed or dismissed altogether while the state enacts a pilot program to consider reclassifying prisoners currently held in solitary confinement, pressuring Judge Wilken to defer to other pending suits specifically addressing health issues within the California prison system.
His arguments failed to convince the judge, who said she had no intention of delaying the case for the pilot program. Instead, she informed Hrvatin, the case would be moving forward, and both sides should prepare their motions and legal arguments as the CCR and its cohorts prepare to attempt a class action certification, which would allow for a suit of a much broader scope. Judge Wilken’s commentary on the case indicated a clear commitment to prisoner and human rights in California, and a blow for the state, which has been struggling with the conditions in its prison system for decades; the federal justice system has become involved in the management of the state’s prisons on numerous occasions, including in a landmark decision pressuring the state to radically reduce the prison population in order to address overcrowding.
As the deep fault lines within California’s troubled prison system become more and more apparent, there’s hope for significant changes within the system, thanks to a number of human rights organizations leaning on the state in courts, advocacy work and policymaking circles. Advocates would like to see an end to the outdated and horrific practice of solitary confinement in California prisons, and Judge Wilken’s decision is a beacon of hope in a sometimes dark fight for justice.
Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass