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Two years after historic settlement ending indefinite solitary confinement in California, CCR details ongoing violations, releases report showing lasting consequences of SHU post-release

November 21, 2017

New filing seeks one-year extension of court monitoring based on violations

by Center for Constitutional Rights

Formerly incarcerated activist and leader Jerry Elster speaks at a press conference announcing the Ashker settlement on Sept. 1, 2015. – Photo: Livestream screenshot

Nov. 20, 2017, New York, Palo Alto – Two years after the historic settlement of Ashker v. Governor of California marked the end of indefinite solitary confinement in California, the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel filed a motion to extend the terms of the settlement by one year, noting that substantial reforms are still needed and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to violate the constitutional rights of Ashker class members.

Concurrently, the legal team and researchers from the Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Lab at Stanford University (Stanford Lab) released a report detailing the ongoing negative health consequences Ashker class members have suffered following their release from long-term solitary confinement into the general population, the first-ever in-depth report on the subject.

Two years after the historic settlement of Ashker v. Governor of California marked the end of indefinite solitary confinement in California, the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel filed a motion to extend the terms of the settlement by one year, noting that substantial reforms are still needed and the CDCR continues to violate the constitutional rights of Ashker class members.

The Ashker litigation followed coordinated hunger strikes undertaken by thousands of prisoners statewide. The 2015 settlement resulted in nearly 1,600 prisoners being released into general population, but hundreds of class members were transferred to Level IV prisons, where conditions are similar to the SHU, with many spending the same or more time isolated in their cells than when they were in SHU.

Today’s motion details how, two years later, California has failed to make the requisite reforms to bring their prisons into compliance with due process. It asks the court to maintain its supervision and order CDCR to remedy various violations.

Among the violations: The settlement created a new “Restricted Custody General Population” unit, intended to temporarily house class members who would face a threat to their safety in the general population, until they could be safely transferred out. The RCGP was to provide increased recreation and interaction, akin to a GP unit, but, instead, it has become what one CDCR official called a “purgatory” where prisoners are indefinitely isolated from their families, denied jobs and educational programs, and have no way to earn release.

CDCR’s failure to properly administer the unit amounts to yet another constitutional violation. In addition, CDCR continues to use unreliable, fabricated or improperly disclosed confidential information to send class members back to solitary and is still using old, improper gang validations to bar people from the opportunity to get parole. The men who were in SHU continue to suffer severe psychological harms and are not receiving the care they need to recover.

Today’s motion details how, two years later, California has failed to make the requisite reforms to bring their prisons into compliance with due process. It asks the court to maintain its supervision and order CDCR to remedy various violations.

The Stanford Lab report released today, based on interviews at three maximum-security prisons, details severe and wide-ranging mental health consequences, further underscoring the need for CDCR reform.

“The torture of solitary confinement doesn’t end when the cell doors open,” said lead counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights Jules Lobel. “California’s continued violation of the Constitution and new evidence of the persistent impact of prolonged solitary confinement requires CDCR to make essential changes in their conduct and rehabilitative programs, and, more broadly, demonstrates the urgent need to end solitary confinement across the country.”

The severe mental health impact of solitary confinement has been thoroughly documented, but before now, little was known about how prisoners adjust after release to a GP unit. CCR approached the Stanford Lab – a multi-disciplinary collaboration among Stanford University’s School of Medicine, Law School and the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice – to investigate the open question of how and to what extent psychological harm caused in long-term, isolated imprisonment continues after transfer into general population.

The Stanford Lab report released today, based on interviews at three maximum-security prisons, details severe and wide-ranging mental health consequences, further underscoring the need for CDCR reform.

The interviews revealed a range of continued, and potentially permanent, adverse consequences, including mood deterioration and depression, intense anxiety, emotional numbing and dysregulation, cognitive impairments, modifications in perception of time, physical health ailments, distressful relational estrangement with family and/or friends and diminished capacity for socialization.

According to the report, the emotional numbing and desensitization that commonly results from prolonged solitary continues to be a problem long after release, and significant alterations in cognition, perception, concentration and memory not only persist, but worsen. Class members reported ongoing anxiety, paranoia and hypervigilance.

They emphasized the importance of jobs, mental health and psychological services and other rehabilitative program opportunities to ease this transition, but expressed dismay about the inadequate options offered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – in particular, they had reservations about programs run by correctional officers, and requested services and support from non-CDCR staff.

According to the report, the emotional numbing and desensitization that commonly results from prolonged solitary continues to be a problem long after release, and significant alterations in cognition, perception, concentration and memory not only persist, but worsen.

The report recommends an overhaul of occupational, educational and social programs as well as mental health services for former SHU prisoners after their release. The Stanford Lab recommends that class members be offered mental health and psychological services in the form of independent psychiatric care and/or peer-facilitated support groups, echoing the feedback of class members, one saying, “It feels good to relate your experience to others. You can help someone else by recognizing patterns in your own life and preventing that for them.”

The Stanford Lab report is being sent to corrections and government officials around the country.

The prisoner representatives in the Ashker case released a statement last month, which underscores the directives of both the extension motion and the report. They wrote, “We must stand together, not only for ourselves, but for future generations of prisoners, so that they don’t have to go through the years of torture that we had to.”

For more information, visit CCR’s case page. Read the full report from Stanford Lab here.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. Visit and contact CCR at https://ccrjustice.org/.

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