A federal judge on Monday gave class action status to lawsuit brought forth by men at a notorious California prison who are challenging their prolonged solitary confinement.
The inmates, who have spent over a decade in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit (SHU), charge that the treatment violates their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment, and, because their SHU placement is not subject to meaningful review, their rights to due process are violated as well. The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
SHU inmates are locked in windowless, 11'7" x 7'7" cells for 22 ½ to 24 hours a day. They are allowed no phone calls nor contact visits. They may be denied medical care.
Gabriel Reyes described his SHU confinement as "a living tomb":
Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort — for years on end. It is a living tomb.
Over 500 men have in solitary at Pelican Bay for over a decade, and nearly 80 have spent over two decades there.
A Mother Jones series included "Pelican Bay, the state's first and most notorious supermax," as among the nation's 10 worst prisons, and a 2012 investigation for the magazine by Shane Bauer — who was held in solitary in an Iranian prison — detailed how evidence that could be used to send inmates into solitary at the prison has included possession of Machiavelli's The Prince or "[a]ppearing in a group picture with one validated gang associate. . . even if that person wasn't validated at the time."
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"Since their 2011 hunger strikes, hundreds of prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU – and across California – have stood together in solidarity to protest inhumane conditions and broken policies they’ve been subjected to for decades," CCR Staff Attorney Alexis Agathocleous said in a statement. "This case has always been about the constitutional violations suffered by all prisoners at the SHU, so it is only appropriate that it proceed as a class action."
The class action status allows the suit to cover hundreds of inmates at the prison who have been in solitary for over 10 years, and could have broader implications.
"This would really be the first case about whether the confinement itself is cruel and unusual punishment and about who can be legitimately confined in this way, given the draconian nature of the confinement," Jules Lobel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of CCR, told the New York Times.
Amidst last year's California-wide prisoner hunger strike against the cruelty of solitary, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, decried the practice as torture.
"Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture," Méndez stated.
"I urge the U.S. Government to adopt concrete measures to eliminate the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement under all circumstances," Méndez added.