California Agrees to End Solitary Confinement Abuses in Prison

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 02, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California will strictly limit its use of solitary confinement in prisons, the state announced on Tuesday. The changes are expected to greatly reduce the number of inmates held in isolation. Currently, inmates are often kept in small, windowless cells for 22 hours a day, often suffering severe psychological distress as a result.

The changes come as part of a settlement to a landmark class action lawsuit brought by prisoners. Those prisoners had been held in solitary confinement for 10 years or longer in Pelican Bay State Prison, near the Oregon border.

One of the Most Extreme Systems in the Nation

The use of solitary confinement is common in California prisons and, advocates argue, extreme. More than 1,000 prisoners are in solitary at Pelican Bay. In 2011 and 2013, conditions in Pelican Bay led to extended hunger strikes among the inmates. Many of those hunger-striking inmates were held for years in cramped, concrete cells, with little to no interaction with others or even views of the outside world. They were denied access to telephone calls and couldn't participate in recreational, vocational, or educational training.

California is unique among state prison systems in that it allows prolonged solitary confinement based on a prisoner's alleged association with gangs. That leaves thousands of inmates in solitary for years. The Pelican Bay prisoners, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, brought suit alleging that the system is cruel and unusual punishment. Further, since there is no meaningful review of one's placement in solitary, the system also violated due process, the suit alleged.

Such extended use of solitary has been condemned by both President Obama and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

California Embraces New Limits on Solitary

California's settlement agreement will result in significant changes to the state's use of solitary confinement. The state will no longer place inmates in solitary based solely on suspected or alleged gang affiliation. Individuals will only be segregated from the general population if they commit new crimes behind bars. The settlement will also limit the amount of time inmates can spend in isolation and create new "restricted custody" units for those who cannot be safely kept in the general prison population.

Though state officials and civil rights advocates have both praised the settlement, California originally resisted the lawsuit, saying that solitary confinement was necessary to prevent violence and ensure safety. Now, however, Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard says the settlement will "move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system."

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