Today marks the one-year anniversary of the historic settlement in the federal class action lawsuit Ashker v. Governor of California. The case was filed in 2012 on behalf of prisoners in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, who were held there for years – some for decades – without any meaningful way out. Originally filed by prisoners in solitary confinement on behalf of themselves, Ashker confronted California’s use of indefinite solitary confinement and transformed the system state-wide, making it far more difficult to submit prisoners to the torture of prolonged isolation.
The settlement is the result of the remarkable organizing efforts of thousands of prisoners across California. That they were able to achieve this victory in spite of their isolation is extraordinary. As the plaintiffs said in a joint statement released when the settlement was signed:
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. 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.
Under California’s pre-settlement regulations, prisoners identified as gang affiliated were sent to solitary in Security Housing Units (SHU) for indefinite periods, regardless of whether they had ever violated a prison rule. Even a prisoner with a spotless disciplinary record could be put in isolation, simply on the basis of his alleged gang affiliation. Under these regulations, being in solitary meant not only being isolated in a cement box, but also being deprived of privileges and programs, including phone calls and contact visits with loved ones, and access to vocational, recreational, and educational classes. The little “yard” time they did get was spent in a completely enclosed pen, with very little natural sunlight. Deprived for so long of those basic human needs that most of us take for granted, these prisoners have suffered unimaginable psychological and physical harms, as documented by experts in the case.
As a result of the settlement, California has overhauled its procedures for SHU placement, raising the standard so that only prisoners who have committed the most serious rule violations may be placed there. In addition, the settlement requires that by next month California is to complete its individual reviews of the approximately 1,560 prisoners indefinitely placed in SHU for purported gang affiliation. As of mid-August, about 1,290 prisoners – 83 percent of those reviewed – have been, or will soon be, transferred to general population units. A few of these prisoners and their family members have beautifully described some of the “firsts” they have had since their release from isolation, including hugging their mothers, seeing the sunrise, walking without shackles, feeling the wind on their bodies as they run, and rediscovering and relishing in simple pleasures like sipping a soda.
From now on, those who are found guilty of a SHU-eligible offense are assessed a determinate term and have increased privileges in SHU. No prisoner may be involuntarily held in SHU for longer than five years. California has also created a Restricted Custody General Population (RCGP) unit designed to facilitate meaningful social interactions and programming for prisoners about whom California has serious safety concerns. A minority of prisoners are held here, and have small-group recreation, educational and vocational programming, as well as phone calls and contact visits with loved ones.
Also as a result of the settlement, prisoners now have a seat at the negotiating table. This past April, prisoner representatives sat down with officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to discuss progress towards implementation of the agreement, as well as California’s prison management and treatment of prisoners. There will be another such meeting in the coming months.
Over the past year, CCR and our partner lawyers have been busy monitoring implementation of the settlement reforms. At monthly meetings with CDCR and Magistrate Judge Vadas, who is overseeing implementation, we’ve been holding CDCR’s feet to the fire. Monitoring has entailed both prisoner-specific advocacy, and addressing some of CDCR’s broader practices that are contrary to the settlement. For example, we’ve challenged CDCR’s decision to keep certain prisoners in the SHU, or to place them in RCGP, when they should be released to general population. We’ve also been making sure CDCR promptly transfers those prisoners who are entitled to release to general population. Pursuant to the settlement, we will continue to monitor CDCR’s implementation over the next year, and possibly extend our monitorship if constitutional violations continue.
Though much work remains to be done to end solitary confinement, let’s take today to savor the victory of the Ashker settlement and to draw inspiration from the prisoners who have led this movement. Their courage has galvanized support on both sides of the prison walls, and has demonstrated the power of peaceful protest. Let’s stand together to support their efforts and to carry on this powerful movement.
You can 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. To capture the experiences of those recently released to general population from prolonged isolation, the CCR blog is featuring a series of accounts written by those released. A new blog is posted on the 23rd of each month, to signify the 23 hours a day prisoners are held in solitary confinement. Please check back regularly for more voices formerly from solitary!