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Ongoing isolation in California prisons not governed by settlement, judge rules

April 2, 2018

Activism needed to remedy solitary conditions in prisons, civil rights attorneys say

by the Center for Constitutional Rights

Here’s how it all began, how the public first learned of the new California Prison Movement. At a rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall to end the war on drugs, fearless freedom fighter and proud member of the San Quentin 6 Bato Talamantez announced on June 17, 2011, that a multi-racial leadership group in the Pelican Bay SHU, which came to be know as the “main reps,” was planning a mass hunger strike to begin July 1. In those days, severe reprisals followed use of such terms as hunger strike, solitary confinement or torture, so this banner leaves a lot unsaid. But prisoners up and down the state got the message, and 6,600 joined that first strike. Emboldened, everyone began to speak out more clearly and forcefully. It’s time to do it again. In the California prison system, merciless retaliation against movement leaders can be passed down for generations by well paid “professional” guards who have their own gang they call the Green Line. Consider the fate of the person longest held in solitary, Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, also a member of the San Quentin 6. In politics, the guards’ union is known as California’s most powerful lobbying group.

Oakland – A federal judge in a March 28 ruling declined to order the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to move prisoners previously held in Security Housing Units (SHU) into legitimate general population conditions. Under a landmark class action settlement that was intended to effectively end indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons, nearly 1,500 prisoners were released into the general prison population, many to Level IV prisons, which is the highest security level in general population.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that, because these facilities are so restrictive, transfer to highly restrictive conditions in Level IV prisons does not satisfy requirements under the settlement that the prisoners be moved to the general population.

“The court did not dispute the extent of the restriction and isolation in Level IV facilities but did conclude that the matter is not governed by the settlement agreement,” said lead counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights Jules Lobel. “Fortunately, there is a powerful coalition in California working to end solitary confinement and unconstitutional prison conditions. The court may have declined to intervene. Now the people must get the job done.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that, because these facilities are so restrictive, transfer to highly restrictive conditions in Level IV prisons does not satisfy requirements under the settlement that the prisoners be moved to the general population.

Prisoners report that the conditions in Level IV prisons mirror those in the Security Housing Units (SHUs) from which they were released, with comparably restricted social interaction, outdoor time, programming, and contact with family and friends. Many prisoners transferred to Level IV facilities spend the same or even more time isolated in their cells than they did in the SHU – often 22-24 hours per day.

The men have also reported similar levels of anxiety, insomnia and other psychological conditions. According to expert witness and former Washington State Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail, many prisoners who were transferred out of the SHU into Level IV “general population” units receive the “lowest amount of out-of-cell time I have seen in my career as a corrections administrator and as a consultant and expert witness.”

Prisoners report that the conditions in Level IV prisons mirror those in the Security Housing Units (SHUs) from which they were released, with comparably restricted social interaction, outdoor time, programming, and contact with family and friends.

CCR and co-counsel also have asked the court to extend the terms of the settlement agreement by an additional year because substantial reforms are still needed and the CDCR continues to violate the constitutional rights of class members. The requested extension came concurrently with the release of the first-ever in-depth report, by researchers from the Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Lab at Stanford University, detailing the ongoing negative health consequences prisoners have suffered following their release from long-term solitary confinement. Argument on the extension request will be held in the summer.

For more information, visit CCR’s case page.

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. Contact CCR online via https://ccrjustice.org/home/who-we-are/contacting-center-constitutional-rights, by phone at 212-614-6464 or by mail to The Center for Constitutional Rights, 666 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10012.

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