Marking a significant victory in the struggle to end solitary confinement in the United States, a landmark legal settlement filed in federal court on Tuesday effectively ends the practice of indeterminate, long-term isolation of inmates in the state of California.
The settlement comes in Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit brought on behalf of prisoners held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California's Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent a decade or more in solitary confinement. Many were sent into isolation without any violent conduct or serious rule infractions, purely based on gang affiliation, and all without any meaningful process for transfer out of isolation and back to the general prison population.
"This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California, and across the country," those plaintiffs said in a statement following the settlement. "California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action."
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the settlement would "fundamentally alter... all aspects of this cruel and unconstitutional regime."
The New York Times noted that "the settlement is expected to sharply reduce the number of inmates held in the state’s isolation units, where inmates are often kept alone for more than 22 hours a day inside cells that sometimes have no windows, and cap the length of time prisoners can spend there."
Beyond that, the Times continued, the lawsuit's outcome "marks a major shift in corrections practices in the state, one that prison reform advocates hope can serve as a model for other states."
According to CCR, key reforms brought about by the settlement include:
- Prisoners will no longer be sent to solitary based solely on gang affiliation, but rather based on specific serious rules violations. The Ashker settlement ends California’s status-based practice of solitary confinement, transforming it into a behavior-based system.
- Under the settlement, California will generally no longer impose indeterminate SHU sentences. Instead, after serving a determinate sentence for a SHU offense, prisoners whose offense is related to gang activity will enter a two-year, four-step, step-down program to return to the general prisoner population.
- California will review all current gang-validated SHU prisoners within one year of the settlement to determine whether they should be released from solitary under the settlement terms. The vast majority of such prisoners are expected to be released.
- Virtually no prisoner will ever be held in the SHU for more than 10 continuous years.
- California will create a modified general-population unit for a very small number of prisoners who repeatedly violate prison rules or have been in solitary over 10 years but have recently committed a serious offense. As a high-security but non-isolation environment, this new unit allows prison administrators to begin to balance the humanity of the prisoners with the security of the prison, creating a realistic alternative to long-term solitary for the minority of "hard cases." Prisoners held in this unit will be allowed to move around the unit without restraints, will be afforded as much out-of-cell time as other general population prisoners, and can receive contact visits.
- Prisoners themselves will have a role in monitoring compliance with the settlement agreement. Prisoner representatives will meet regularly with California prison officials to review the progress of the settlement, discuss programming and step-down program improvements, and monitor prison conditions.
The San Jose Mercury News reported that families of the inmates and their lawyers "point to hunger strikes that began in 2012 as the catalyst for the agreement. In some instances inmates throughout the state prison system went two months without food to protest conditions in Pelican Bay's security housing unit."
Indeed, advocates were quick to praise and credit the inmates' perseverance.
"The struggle to end California’s extreme use of solitary confinement has always been led by people in prison and their families, organizing through the prison walls," CCR attorneys Alexis Agathocleous and Rachel Meeropol wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.
"Incarcerated activists first brought the case that became Ashker and organized the hunger strikes that made the barbaric reality of solitary a political and policy issue," they continued. "Throughout the lawsuit, our plaintiffs were involved at every step, and the settlement gives them an unprecedented role in monitoring compliance with its terms. Their organizing efforts—in the face of unimaginable obstacles—have been extraordinary."
And Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, a mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay, said: "From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocates, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls. This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight—it will only make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger."