New Filing Seeks One-Year Extension of Court Monitoring Based on Violations
November 20, 2017, New York, Palo Alto – Two years after the historic settlement of Ashker v. Governor of California marked the end of indefinite solitary confinement in California, the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel filed a motion to extend the terms of the settlement by one year, noting that substantial reforms are still needed and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to violate the constitutional rights of Ashker class members. Concurrently, the legal team and researchers from the Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Lab at Stanford University (Stanford Lab) released a report detailing the ongoing negative health consequences Ashker class members have suffered following their release from long-term solitary confinement into the general population, the first-ever in-depth report on the subject.
The Ashker litigation followed coordinated hunger strikes undertaken by thousands of prisoners statewide. The 2015 settlement resulted in nearly 1,600 prisoners being released into general population, but hundreds of class members were transferred to Level IV prisons, where conditions are similar to the SHU, with many spending the same or more time isolated in their cells than when they were in SHU. Today’s motion details how, two years later, California has failed to make the requisite reforms to bring their prisons into compliance with due process. It asks the court to maintain its supervision and order CDCR to remedy various violations.
Among the violations: the settlement created a new “Restricted Custody General Population” unit, intended to temporarily house class members who would face a threat to their safety in the general population, until they could be safely transferred out. The RCGP was to provide increased recreation and interaction, akin to a GP unit, but, instead, it has become what one CDCR official called a “purgatory” where prisoners are indefinitely isolated from their families, denied jobs and educational programs, and have no way to earn release. CDCR’s failure to properly administer the unit amounts to yet another constitutional violation. In addition, CDCR continues to use unreliable, fabricated, or improperly disclosed confidential information to send class members back to solitary and is still using old, improper gang validations to bar people from the opportunity to get parole. The men who were in SHU continue to suffer severe psychological harms and are not receiving the care they need to recover.
The Stanford Lab report released today, based on interviews at three maximum-security prisons, details severe and wide-ranging mental health consequences, further underscoring the need for CDCR reform.
“The torture of solitary confinement doesn’t end when the cell doors open,” said lead counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights Jules Lobel. “California’s continued violation of the Constitution and new evidence of the persistent impact of prolonged solitary confinement requires CDCR to make essential changes in their conduct and rehabilitative programs, and, more broadly, demonstrates the urgent need to end solitary confinement across the country.”
The severe mental health impact of solitary confinement has been thoroughly documented, but before now, little was known about how prisoners adjust after release to a GP unit. CCR approached the Stanford Lab—a multi-disciplinary collaboration among Stanford University’s School of Medicine, Law School, and the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice—to investigate the open question of how and to what extent psychological harm caused in long-term, isolated imprisonment continues after transfer into general population.
The interviews revealed a range of continued, and potentially permanent, adverse consequences, including: mood deterioration and depression, intense anxiety, emotional numbing and dysregulation, cognitive impairments, modifications in perception of time, physical health ailments, distressful relational estrangement with family and/or friends, and diminished capacity for socialization.
According to the report, the emotional numbing and desensitization that commonly results from prolonged solitary continues to be a problem long after release, and significant alterations in cognition, perception, concentration, and memory not only persist, but worsen. Class members reported ongoing anxiety, paranoia, and hypervigilance. They emphasized the importance of jobs, mental health and psychological services, and other rehabilitative program opportunities to ease this transition, but expressed dismay about the inadequate options offered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—in particular, they had reservations about programs run by correctional officers, and requested services and support from non-CDCR staff.
The report recommends an overhaul of occupational, educational, and social programs as well as mental health services for former SHU prisoners after their release. The Stanford Lab recommends that class members be offered mental health and psychological services in the form of independent psychiatric care and/or peer-facilitated support groups, echoing the feedback of class members, one saying, “It feels good to relate your experience to others. You can help someone else by recognizing patterns in your own life and preventing that for them.”
The Stanford Lab report is being sent to corrections and government officials around the country.
The prisoner representatives in the Ashker case released a statement last month, which underscores the directives of both the extension motion and the report. They wrote, “We must stand together, not only for ourselves, but for future generations of prisoners, so that they don’t have to go through the years of torture that we had to.”
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.