Last September, in Ashker v. Governor of California, California prisoners reached an historic settlement agreement with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) that is bringing an end to indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons. The Settlement Agreement includes hard-won (and unprecedented) periodic meetings between the CDCR and the prisoners who initiated the lawsuit and led the protests against long term solitary confinement. Below is a report back from the first of these meetings, from lead plaintiff in the case and prisoner representative, Todd Ashker.
I was very pleased to participate in this historic meeting with CDCR officials, which we negotiated in our Settlement Agreement. I think it is the first time that representatives of prisoners have had this kind of discussion with leaders of any correction department; it is certainly the only time it has happened here in California, the world’s largest prison system. We were especially pleased that high-ranking prison officials were at the meeting.
At the beginning of this first meeting, it became clear that there was a misunderstanding about its function. CDCR thought the meeting was for us to listen to them. Why would we put a term into our Settlement that would have us listen to them? We listen to them every second of our lives. We see the purpose of these calls as an opportunity for us to be heard and to have a discussion with people in authority.
Despite this initial confusion, we were able to lead the meeting. CDCR got unfiltered information from prisoners who know what is going on in their prison cells and yards. We are a leadership group the CDCR knows. They know we have integrity. The information we shared at the meeting came not only from the experiences of us four main reps, but also from the other veterans of the SHU, members of our class who have written and met with our attorneys.
We raised in strong terms that some of us who have made it to General Population yards are essentially in modified SHUs (Security Housing Units), in some respects worse than Pelican Bay SHU, although in some respects better. Conditions, policies and practices that we are experiencing in some of the General Population yards are not what we expected when we settled our case. After spending decades in solitary we cannot accept many of these conditions. Too many prisoners are simply warehoused, and there are not enough jobs or programs to give us skills, engage our minds and prepare us to return to our communities. Guards need training in ‘professional’ behavior. Bullying and humiliation should never be tolerated.
CDCR may have been surprised at the tenor, strength and substance of our approach. We expect at the next meeting, we will all understand the agenda and purpose well ahead of time. We also think a longer meeting will allow for a full discussion and useful interaction. We hope CDCR officials come to welcome these historic meetings as useful because they will be if prisoners’ perspectives are heard, used and received by them.