Landmark Agreement Ends Indeterminate Long-Term Solitary Confinement in California

Settlement Reached in California Class Action Suit Moves Out of SHU Those There 10 Years or Longer, Ends Solitary Purely Due to Gang Validation

September 1, 2015, Oakland – Today, the parties have agreed on a landmark settlement in the federal class action Ashker v. Governor of California that will effectively end indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons. Subject to court approval, the agreement will result in a dramatic reduction in the number of people in solitary across the state and a new program that could be a model for other states going forward. The class action was brought in 2012 on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay prison, often without any violent conduct or serious rule infractions, often for more than a decade, and all without any meaningful process for transfer out of isolation and back to the general prison population. Ashker argued that California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and denies prisoners the right to due process.

“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,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement.  “California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action.  This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters.”

“Today’s victories are the result of the extraordinary organizing the prisoners managed to accomplish despite extreme conditions,” said Center for Constitutional Rights President and lead attorney Jules Lobel. “This far-reaching settlement represents a major change in California’s cruel and unconstitutional solitary confinement system. There is a mounting awareness across the nation of the devastating consequences of solitary – some key reforms California agreed to will hopefully be a model for other states.”

When the case was filed in 2012, more than 500 prisoners had been isolated in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay for over 10 years, and 78 had been there for more than 20 years. They spent 22 ½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell, and were denied telephone calls, physical contact with visitors, and vocational, recreational, and educational programming. Hundreds of other prisoners throughout California have been held in similar SHU conditions.

Today’s settlement transforms California’s use of solitary confinement from a status-based system to a behavior-based system; prisoners will no longer be sent to solitary based solely on gang affiliation, but rather based on infraction of specific serious rules violations. It also limits the amount of time a prisoner can spend in the Pelican Bay SHU and provides a two-year step-down program for transfer from SHU to general population.

The agreement creates a new non-solitary but high-security unit for the minority of prisoners who have been held in any SHU for more than 10 years and who have a recent serious rule violation. They will be able to interact with other prisoners, have small-group recreation and educational and vocational programming, and contact visits.

Extensive expert evidence in the case established severe physical and psychological harm among California SHU prisoners as a result of prolonged solitary confinement. Plaintiffs worked with 10 experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, medicine, prison security and classification, and international human rights law. The resulting reports provide an unprecedented and holistic analysis of the impact of prolonged solitary confinement on human beings and provided guidance in the construction of the settlement reforms.

Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas will oversee these reforms for two years, a term that may be extended if the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is found to be violating prisoners’ constitutional rights.

Representatives of the prisoners who brought this lawsuit and plaintiffs’ counsel will meet with CDCR regularly to ensure compliance. Plaintiffs’ counsel will receive extensive documentation of the new policies and practices and will meet frequently with Judge Vadas to oversee the agreement.

“The seeds of this victory are in the unity of the prisoners in their peaceful hunger strike of 2011. That courageous and principled protest galvanized support on both sides of the prison walls for a legal challenge to California's use of solitary confinement,” said Carol Strickman, staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which is co-counsel in the case.

Ashker v. Governor of California amended an earlier lawsuit filed by Pelican Bay SHU prisoners Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell representing themselves. In addition to Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, co-counsel in the case are California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Christensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC,  Ellenberg & Hull, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone. The case is before Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

Read the settlement submission here, and a comprehensive summary of the settlement terms here. All documents in the case are on CCR’s case page. Since they cannot speak from prison, CCR is making downloadable video clips from the plaintiffs’ depositions available 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.

Last modified 

August 26, 2016