California’s Prisons are Terrible and Finally, Something Will Be Done

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.

Related posts:

Is Solitary Confinement Torture?

Mississippi Bans Solitary Confinement for Juveniles

California Prisoners Sue: “Solitary Confinement Is Torture”

Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass


Karen F.
Karen F4 years ago

"...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."
Well, I'm sorry, but welcome to the club. Never have I heard that adequate food and medical care is a Constitutional Right of anyone living and working outside of prison walls. If they are... we have poor working people out here that die for want of affordable and adequate food and medical care and yet, while alive, many of those are paying taxes into a system that feeds prisoners and apparently FIRST since the money is taken and never seen in pay checks. What's wrong with that whole scenario?? Two wrongs don't make a right, but let's prioritize here!

Jessie Rodriguez
Jessie Rodriguez4 years ago

These people are in prison not for a good time, but to be punished for what they did to other people. I do not think they should be given even as much rights as they have now. Those they harmed, killed and destroyed lives of are still suffering so let these people suffer also. They should be glad they are allowed tv, radios and healthcare. They get fed and housed and that is all they should get. I wish they could work their butts off in some way to accomplish something other than just being "housed" and having us hard working people end up stuck with the bill of taking care of them. To me, most of them should have been put to death if they kill another person, then this killing would stop. Tired of hearing of "rights" of those who took the rights of those they harmed and killed, what rights did they get. Kick these guys butts and may their years in jail be hell so they won't want to go back there anymore. Other countries are far worse, ours are like a vacation resort compared to theirs.

Patricia H.
Patricia H.4 years ago

thanks for sharing

Varcolac Veroscarius
Varcolac V4 years ago

As humans we are hypocrites!.... I support the PETA's suggestion, some people could say that a human life is up to the non human one!, but there are so many criminals who are not able to be restored (mentally) to take part of the society, people who would kill If they has a second chance...

What has a bunny done to be condemned for experimentations pro-human?.... this is a wide subject...

I support Cherry M. words!.

michaelann bewsee

And I thought this country didn't torture?

Jeanne Y.
Jeanne Young4 years ago

Several years ago I read that CA spends more than twice as much for its prison system than it does for its universities - - -Anything wrong with that picture?

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage s4 years ago


Mary C.
Mary C4 years ago

For non violent criminals, hard labor probation. The chance to NOT go to prison. But do NOT violate the probation. I want people who are a danger to society to be kept behind bars. Death to serial killers. Well, child molesters deserve a bullet to the skull too. We should never have to look at a map of the location of child molesters in your area, and see hundreds in one small area. That is pathetic. And I want to know WHO is a danger to my children. Not the guy who took a piss outside, or the 18 year old having sex with his 16 year old girlfriend. Identity thieves are another group of people, when caught, should spend life behind bars. Murderers and rapists go without saying.

Mark Donners
Mark Donner4 years ago

Steve N. Fine if you're referring to unreformable hard core criminals, which btw are at most 2% of the poulation. But the US "correction" and "justice" system, which incidentally is the largest and among the most brutal in the world, is run by hard core criminals..that class of criminals includes the whole gang of "correction officers", prison contractors, judges, attorneys, ec. It does even remotely emphasize "rehabiliation" or "honesty" since it is in the business of creating crime and recruiting indigents and juveniles to be career criminals with all kinds of tricks, including unlimited "counts" for minor or trumped up charges, prison "records" which destroys job and education rospects, horrific prison conditions, enforced drugging of kids, throwing supposed shopflifters in with murderers, etc. The reward for the "justice" criminals tor the crimes they encourage is multi billion dollar profits from prison slave labor, and money milked from the taxpayers

Winn Adams
Winn A4 years ago

If the people in prison are going to get out someday they must be prepared to be productive members in our society or they will continue to be criminals.