Federal appeals court weighs bid by California corrections department to remove oversight, end accountability
May 18, 2023, San Diego – Today, a class of incarcerated people urged the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to continue court jurisdiction over the landmark 2015 settlement ending indefinite solitary confinement in California. At issue are district court decisions to extend the settlement’s monitoring period. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is challenging those decisions. A ruling entirely in its favor would remove oversight, halting efforts by the court and plaintiffs to ensure that CDCR is complying with the settlement, which the lower court ruled it had failed to do on multiple occasions.
Class representative Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa said, “The settlement is something that has to be continued because some of the things CDCR agreed to, they haven’t accomplished. It’s a constant struggle for our rights.” He continued, “I have to give a shoutout to my co-reps: Castellano, Franco, and Ashker. If it wasn’t for the four of us coming together, this settlement wouldn’t have been possible. We had one mission in common. It was all centered around freedom.”
The settlement resulted from Ashker v. Governor of California, a class action case that began as a lawsuit brought by people held for at least a decade in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. The case argued that prolonged solitary violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for placement in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) violated the right to due process.
During the mandated two-year monitoring period, an investigation by the plaintiffs’ attorneys revealed that CDCR was violating both the terms of the settlement and the constitutional rights of Ashker class members. A district judge granted the plaintiffs two extensions of the settlement and monitoring, finding continued due process violations. If the Court of Appeals sides with the plaintiffs, they may be able to seek further extensions.
“CDCR’s ongoing violations of class members’ due process rights impact their access to programming, visitation, and parole eligibility in very real ways every day. Our ability to continue oversight to ensure CDCR remedies these violations is crucial,” said Carmen Bremer of Bremer Law Group, one of the attorneys who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs before the Ninth Circuit today.
The lawsuit emerged from a movement led by people held in SHUs who carried out mass hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013; the named plaintiffs in Ashker include several leaders of the strikes. When the case was filed in 2012, more than 500 people had been in the SHU at Pelican Bay for more than 10 years, and 78 had been there for more than 20 years. They spent 22 ½ to 24 hours a day in cramped, concrete, windowless cells. The case relied on extensive evidence of the severe physical and psychological harm that long-term solitary had inflicted on people in the SHU.
The settlement required CDCR to release nearly 1600 people from the SHU, limit the amount of time people can spend there, and stop sending people there solely on the basis of gang affiliation. It also established a two-year monitoring period and allowed for extensions if CDCR continued to commit constitutional violations.
Oversight had repeatedly revealed continued due process violations. Most recently, as she granted a second one-year extension, District Judge Claudia Wilken reported that CDCR was relying on inaccurate and even fabricated confidential information to place people in solitary confinement, using dubious gang affiliations to deny them a fair opportunity for parole, and holding them in a restricted unit at Pelican Bay without adequate procedural safeguards.
Jules Lobel, cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who also argued before the Ninth Circuit today, said, “We are asking the appeals court to recognize what the district court has twice found: that CDCR is continuing to violate Ashker class members’ constitutional rights.”
Co-counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights are the American Civil Liberties Union, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Bremer Law Group, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone, Siegel, Yee & Brunner, Matthew Strugar, and Rebecca Rabkin.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
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.