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Historic settlement to end California’s indefinite solitary confinement finalized in court

January 27, 2016

by Claude Marks, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition

Oakland – On Tuesday, federal Judge Claudia Wilken approved the final agreement to end indefinite solitary confinement in California, calling it humane, innovative and fair. Prisoners celebrated the settlement agreement, whose terms were agreed on last September, claiming it as a victory that bolstered their struggle for human rights.

The artist, Jose Villarreal, calls this “Free at last … sort of” and writes, “So long as one of our loved ones remains back being tortured in SHU, none of us are free!” despite his joy at having himself been released from SHU to general population at Pelican Bay. The snowy egret, Jose’s favorite bird and the national bird of Aztlán, “sits looking at the SHU, still with its ankle shackled” to symbolize his comrades “left to rot” inside. The work was done with ballpoint pen, colored pencils and pastels. – Art: Jose Villarreal, H-84098, PBSP B4-210, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532

The artist, Jose Villarreal, calls this “Free at last … sort of” and writes, “So long as one of our loved ones remains back being tortured in SHU, none of us are free!” despite his joy at having himself been released from SHU to general population at Pelican Bay. The snowy egret, Jose’s favorite bird and the national bird of Aztlán, “sits looking at the SHU, still with its ankle shackled” to symbolize his comrades “left to rot” inside. The work was done with ballpoint pen, colored pencils and pastels. – Art: Jose Villarreal, H-84098, PBSP B4-210, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532

Anne Weills, one of the attorneys representing the prisoners, pointed out that “what was missing from the courtroom were all the prisoners who risked their lives in the hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013.” She went on to say: “Yes, our litigation team did the best we could to bring our clients out of indefinite solitary confinement and into the light of day – but there is no doubt that we could not have gotten where we have with this settlement without the leadership of the brilliant, courageous, fearless and enlightened men in the Short Corridor at Pelican Bay who in 2011 set this all in motion.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights released data showing the agreement has already led to the transfer of hundreds of prisoners from segregated housing units back to the state’s general prison population.

Between preliminary approval of the California settlement in October 2015 and Jan. 22, 2016, 686 out of a total of 1,813 prisoners entitled to reviews under the settlement have been reviewed for release into the general prisoner population; 546 of the prisoners reviewed, nearly 80 percent, have been cleared for release into general population, and 437 have actually been released from solitary confinement.

The vast majority of prisoners who have been reviewed but not cleared are awaiting a higher-level prison review; most are expected to be released into general population as well. The settlement requires all first-level reviews to be complete within one year.

Anne Weills went on to say, “There is no doubt that we could not have gotten where we have with this settlement without the leadership of the brilliant, courageous, fearless and enlightened men in the Short Corridor at Pelican Bay who in 2011 set this all in motion.”

Jules Lobel, the attorney representing the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “We look forward to the full implementation of all its terms.”

One of the longtime prisoner organizers, Mutope Duguma, cautions: “The power of the legal support and the family and community support is what literally humanized us prisoners to the rest of the world. The countless families and friends did a remarkable job in representing us from an emotional and human perspective and our legal support represented our civil and human rights, and together they both re-humanized us as men and women.

“This is what made it possible for us to be able to demand such a settlement. It is with this family, community and legal support that we demand accountable implementation of the settlement. We know what works, so let’s stay the course.”

A recently released letter written by one of the main representatives of the prisoners asks that prisoners “Monitor and report on the functional implementation of prison conditions and CDCr employees, holding their feet to the ground and letting CDCr employees know that they are not above the Ashker v. Brown Settlement Agreement.”

The settlement transforms California’s use of solitary confinement from a status-based system, in which prisoners were isolated indefinitely based on vague and unsubstantiated allegations of gang affiliation, to a behavior-based system, in which solitary confinement is used only as punishment for serious rule infractions and only for determinate periods of time. It also limits the total amount of time a prisoner can spend in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison. The settlement includes a two-year monitoring period, which may be extended if the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is found to be violating prisoners’ constitutional rights or the settlement terms.

The settlement transforms California’s use of solitary confinement from a status-based system to a behavior-based system, in which solitary confinement is used only as punishment for serious rule infractions and only for determinate periods of time.

When the case was filed in 2012 on behalf of prisoners in Pelican Bay, more than 500 of them had been isolated in the SHU for over 10 years, and 78 had been there for more than 20 years. They spent 22 ½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell and were denied telephone calls, physical contact with visitors, and vocational, recreational and educational programming. Hundreds of other prisoners throughout California have been held in similar SHU conditions, and the settlement applies to all of them.

Claude Marks, a spokesperson for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, is director of Freedom Archives, 522 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94110, (415) 863-9977, and can be reached at claude@freedomarchives.org.

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