Worst Features of Solitary Confinement Persist in California Prisons, Attorneys Argue

 CDCR in Violation of Settlement

June 3, 2019, Oakland, CA – The Center for Constitutional Rights has asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold two district court rulings that found the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in violation of the terms of a landmark settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit that was intended to effectively end indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons. Under the 2015 agreement, CDCR agreed to transfer the nearly 1,500 prisoners held in indefinite solitary confinement in Security Housing Units (SHU) to General Population. But prisoners in so-called “Level IV” General Population facilities are being forced to spend even more time isolated in their cells than when they were in the SHU.

In July 2018, the district court agreed that CDCR had violated the settlement, by transferring the class to a different form of restricted housing, rather than a true general population unit. The Agreement also requires that prisoners held for their own safety in the “Restricted Custody General Population Unit” (RCGP) must be allowed group yard and recreation.  Instead, CDCR put half of the prisoners on “walk alone status” where they are denied all group activities. The district court agreed this was a second violation of the settlement. Friday evening’s filing documents those conditions and urges the appellate court to affirm lower court rulings. 

Luis Esquivel, a plaintiff who described his mistreatment in a declaration supporting the legal filing, reported spending most of the day confined in his cell every day. He told the court, "The conditions in ‘general population’… are similar to SHU, and my experience is likewise similar. I have limited social interaction and intellectual stimulation. I rarely go outside. It is difficult to find productive uses for my time. I have difficulty maintaining relationships with my family, especially since my ability to use the telephone is so infrequent and irregular. I suffer from insomnia. I suffer from anxiety that I feel is directly linked to the irregular programming: I am anxious because I do not know what will happen next.” 

A survey distributed by the Center for Constitutional Rights to a random sample of prisoners in Level IV facilities revealed that many spend under an hour out of their cells each day—even less time than when in solitary confinement. Further, prisoners on “walk alone status” spend their yard time confined to small cages with dirt floors and are afforded virtually no social interaction. 

Sam Miller, cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “We are asking the appeals court to recognize what the lower court – and common sense – dictates: that locking someone up alone for 23 hours a day and cutting off all social interaction is indefinite solitary confinement, no matter what you call it.” 

The district court found both the excessive restriction in Level IV facilities and the social isolation of “walk alone” status to be violations of the settlement agreement and ordered the CDCR to work with the Center for Constitutional Rights to design a remedy or to submit one on their own. CDCR did neither. 

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. 

A second appeal by CDCR in the Ashker case will be briefed separately this summer, challenging the district court’s finding that CDCR is systemically violating the due process rights of California prisoners, and extending the settlement agreement to remedy those constitutional violations.   

Read the filing on 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.


Last modified 

June 3, 2019