January 26, 2016, Oakland – As a federal judge prepared to hold a hearing for the final approval of a landmark settlement agreement to end indefinite solitary confinement in California, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) today released data showing the agreement has already led to the transfer of hundreds of prisoners from segregated housing units back to the state's general prison population. The news came on the heels of President Obama’s announcement that he would adopt the recommendations of the Department of Justice’s new review of the practice in federal prisons, including, “banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.”
Between preliminary approval of the California settlement in October 2015 and January 22, 2016, 686 out of a total of 1,813 prisoners entitled to reviews under the settlement have been reviewed for release into the general prisoner population; 546 of the prisoners reviewed, nearly 80 percent, have been cleared for release into general population; and 437 have actually been released from solitary confinement. The vast majority of prisoners who have been reviewed but not cleared are awaiting a higher-level prison review; most are expected to be released into general population as well. The settlement requires all first-level reviews to be complete within one year.
Today’s hearing is the last step before final approval of the settlement. The parties will be before Judge Claudia Wilken at 2:30 PST to discuss any concerns she may have.
“While there is still much work to be done, these early numbers are an encouraging indication of the transformative effect this settlement is having on California’s solitary confinement population,” said Center for Constitutional Rights President Jules Lobel. “Hundreds of men who have not had any meaningful contact with another human being in years – often in decades – have finally been able to hug their loved ones and to interact with other prisoners.”
Recently, Febe Baca shared the experience of having her first contact visit with her husband, Darryl Baca, one of the prisoners released into the general prisoner population. A video includes photos from the visit and her emotional description of what it meant to both of them: “It was amazing, absolutely amazing,” she said. “This was the first time I was actually going to be able to touch his face, touch his hands, really hear his voice, because we talked through a phone... It was just a life-changing event. Now it’s no glass, no phone, and it was face to face. We can whisper. We can laugh.” She goes on to describe how the first thing he wanted to do was to feel the sun on his face. For most men released into general population, it is the first time in years they are able to experience being outside.
The settlement transforms California’s use of solitary confinement from a status-based system, in which prisoners were isolated indefinitely based on vague and unsubstantiated allegations of gang affiliation, to a behavior-based system, in which solitary confinement is used only as punishment for serious rule infractions and only for determinate periods of time. It also limits the total amount of time a prisoner can spend in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison. The settlement includes a two-year monitoring period, which may be extended if the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is found to be violating prisoners’ constitutional rights or the settlement terms.
When the case was filed in 2012 on behalf of prisoners at the Pelican Bay Prison, more than 500 of them had been isolated in the SHU 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, and the settlement applies to all of them.
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, Bremer Law Group 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.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.