District Court Found CDCR Had Violated Settlement, but Appellate Panel Reversed
August 31, 2020, San Francisco – Today, men who sued the state of California for imprisoning them in solitary confinement for over a decade asked the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review a panel ruling that reversed a decision that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had violated the terms of a settlement agreement in the case. The district court had ruled that CDCR violated the settlement when it transferred men imprisoned in Security Housing Units (SHU) for over 22 hours-per-day to units in which they receive less out-of-cell time than they did in the SHU, as well as when it deprived certain people any social interaction with other prisoners. But a three-judge appellate panel reversed that decision. The petition filed today requests that the full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hear the appeal.
“Keeping prisoners, who have not violated any disciplinary rules, in their cells nearly all day long is cruel, contrary to California law and federal standards, and represents terrible management of a prison system costing over $13 billion per year,” said Sam Miller, cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The 2015 landmark settlement agreement in the class action case was intended to effectively end indefinite solitary confinement throughout California prisons, and explicitly stated that it settled claims regarding “the conditions of confinement” under which those imprisoned in the SHU had long been held. Under the agreement, the CDCR agreed to transfer nearly 1,500 people held in the SHU to General Population. But hundreds of men have been transferred to Level IV facilities where they spend even more time isolated in their cells than when they were in the SHU. By contrast, attorneys say people in General Population in California prisons are entitled to more than 10 hours per week out of their cells, and that continuing to confine these men for more than 22 hours per day repeats the constitutional violations the settlement agreement was intended to remedy. The district court found that CDCR had violated the agreement. However, the appellate panel held that, because the settlement agreement did not specify that those in General Population should receive more time out-of-cell than they did in the SHU, CDCR had not violated the agreement. Attorneys say that 22-hours-per-day locked in one’s cell is not consistent with any professional or reasonable definition of “General Population.”
The appellate panel also reversed the district court’s ruling that CDCR had violated the settlement agreement in a second way: by denying people held for their own safety in “Restricted Custody General Population Unit” (RCGP) any group yard and recreation at all, despite the settlement requiring that they be able to participate in “group yards” and “activity groups.” Instead, CDCR put half of the RCGP prisoners on “walk alone status,” where they are denied all group activities. In reversing the district court’s ruling that this violated the settlement requirement, the appellate panel concluded that, as long as the men receive time in “small group yards,” it does not matter “how many, or if any, other prisoners [are] in the same group yard.”
“A group of one is not, under any definition, a group. It is the opposite,” said Miller. “Allowing such an absurd interpretation of the plain meaning of a word not only condemns these men to the same deprivation they fought so hard to alleviate, it will sanction re-interpreting any agreement to undercut the entire purpose it was intended to serve.”
Since 1989, California held thousands of prisoners--disproportionately Black and Latino men--in extremely prolonged solitary confinement in the state’s Security Housing Units (SHU) at Pelican Bay and other prisons, based solely upon gang validations--determinations that a federal district court found had been made in violation of due process. Many of these men were in the SHU for more than twenty eight years. People imprisoned in the SHU are held in cramped, concrete, windowless cells, and denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational, and educational programming. In an evaluation of men held indefinitely in the SHU, the Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Lab at Stanford University found they experienced “psychological symptoms during their time in SHU  which have persisted or even worsened while in [General Population]” including “hypersensitivity to stimuli, anger/irritability, anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, emotional numbing and/or dysregulation, obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviors, and problems with concentration, attention, and memory.”
Ashker v. Governor of California amended an earlier lawsuit filed by then-Pelican Bay SHU prisoners Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell representing themselves. Co-counsel in the case with the Center for Constitutional Rights are Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Bremer Law Group PLLC, Ellenberg & Hull, the Law Offices of Charles Carbone, and the Law Office of Matthew Strugar.
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.