February 12, 2015, Oakland – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged a federal judge to expand a class action lawsuit challenging prolonged solitary confinement in California prisons to include prisoners who were moved from the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison to the SHU at the California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi, or any other SHU in the state. In June, the court granted class action status to the case, Ashker v. Brown, which was originally filed on behalf of 10 prisoners who had spent between 10 and 29 years in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the California Department of Corrections launched what they termed a step-down program that resulted in the transfer of many plaintiffs to Tehachapi, where their solitary confinement continued. CCR argued that the conditions at Tehachapi combined with over ten years of isolation in the Pelican Bay SHU amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution, and asked the court to prevent defendants from avoiding these plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment challenge “simply by changing the location of class members’ abuse.”
“Merely changing the location of their solitary confinement does nothing to change the constitutional and human rights violations these men suffer,” said Center for Constitutional Rights President Jules Lobel, who argued the motion to expand the lawsuit to include the men who were transferred. “Prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement is torture, and the conditions at their new prisons are essentially the same as they were at Pelican Bay. The Department of Corrections is just shuffling people around and moving them out of the lawsuit’s class.”
Prisoners held in the SHU at both Pelican Bay and Tehachapi are confined to their cells for an average of 22 to 23 hours a day, with virtually no opportunity for normal social interaction, no regular telephone contact, no contact visits, and no communal recreation. When the lawsuit began, close to 500 prisoners had been isolated at the Pelican Bay SHU for over 10 years with no hope of getting out. Because of the pressure brought by three prisoner hunger strikes, this lawsuit, and community protest, the State announced it was instituting reforms. But the reality, the attorneys charge, is continued isolation at a new location. The expanded complaint seeks an end to their decades of solitary confinement, not simply a transfer to another SHU.
"The Pelican Bay SHU may have been the epicenter of our clients' torment for the past decade or longer," said Carmen Bremer, co-counsel at Christensen O'Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, "but those who have been transferred to the SHU at Tehachapi are subjected to the same inhumane conditions that are challenged in the lawsuit and are still living out their lives in isolation. We are hopeful that Judge Wilken will grant these transferred prisoners an opportunity to have their claims heard notwithstanding defendants' efforts to chip away at the case through largely meaningless 'reforms.'"
According to psychological experts who submitted declarations in the case and have interviewed the plaintiffs and other Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, long-term solitary confinement is “well-known to cause severe psychiatric morbidity, disability, suffering, and mortality.” Further, “[t]he magnitude of the suffering that [these prisoners] have endured… is difficult to fathom.… [They] have lost a connection to the basic sense of who they ‘were.’”
Prisoners are routinely placed and held in the SHU without any violent conduct, or serious rule infractions, but because of alleged gang affiliation. SHU assignments disproportionately affect Black and Latino prisoners. In 2011, 85 percent of the prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU were Latino, a far higher number than their representation in the general prison population, which was 41 percent.
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children; Christensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC; Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP; Ellenberg & Hull; California Prison Focus; Siegel & Yee; and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone are co-counsel on the case.
The case is before Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.