Solitary confinement may be activists’ most successful battlefront in the growing war against mass incarceration. They scored another victory on Tuesday when they reached a “far-reaching settlement” with the state of California that “fundamentally alters all aspects” of the state’s solitary-confinement system, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which led the lawsuit.
By almost any conceivable measure, Tuesday’s announcement was a resounding victory for plaintiffs in Ashker v. Brown, for California inmates, and for the criminal-justice-reform movement as a whole. The settlement includes a raft of changes to the state’s corrections system, including the end of indeterminate-length sentences in the SHU, or “special housing units,” a common internal term for solitary. Almost all prisoners who spent more than 10 years in prolonged isolation, including more than 400 inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison, will be immediately released into the general inmate population. California prisons will also no longer place inmates in solitary for their gang affiliations without other causes.
The settlement requires speedy review of all prisoners currently held in a California SHU based on gang affiliation. With very limited exceptions … those who have not been found guilty of a SHU-eligible offense within the last two years will be immediately released to a general-population unit … It is currently estimated that only a small minority of those currently held in a SHU based on gang affiliation have a recent SHU-eligible offense, so that the overwhelming majority of prisoners should be released into general population under this settlement.
The Center for Constitutional Rights filed the case in 2012 on behalf of a group of Pelican Bay inmates who spent more than a decade in isolation. The plaintiffs represented extreme examples of the broad use of solitary confinement which has raised tensions throughout the system. In June 2013, over 30,000 state prisoners launched a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary, among other alleged abuses. Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, urged the United States to abolish long-term solitary during the strike; he had previously compared the practice to torture. According to CCR, inmate representatives will play a role in implementing the announced settlement.
The struggle to reform California’s use of solitary confinement has always been a prisoner-led movement. Indeed, the settlement was negotiated with the active participation of the prisoner representatives, who met as a group several times with counsel via conference phone calls, and who ultimately decided as a group to ratify the agreement. Under this settlement, prisoner representatives will retain their hard-won seat at the table to regularly meet with California prison officials to review the progress of the settlement, discuss programming and step-down program improvements, and monitor prison conditions.
No one knows how many prisoners are in solitary confinement in the U.S. right now. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics does not comprehensively track the practice’s usage, but most estimates suggest between 70,000 and 80,000 people are kept in isolation at any given time. About 6,400 Californian prisoners are currently held in solitary confinement, according to The Los Angeles Times. Thousands of them will soon be moved into the general population.