Locked Up and Locked Down: California’s inhumane practice of solitary confinement challenged

On June 2, a federal judge granted a group of people incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison permission to pursue a class action against the State of California over its use of solitary confinement. More than five hundred of these inmates have lived in extreme isolation for at least ten years—some for as many as 28 years. 

“Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort - for years on end,” said Gabriel Reyes, one of the plaintiffs to the lawsuit, in a collection of stories compiled by the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It is a living tomb.”

At the heart of the class action, Askher v. Brown, is the assertion that the State of California has denied its prisoners certain constitutional rights—specifically the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process (the right to be heard before life, liberty or property can be taken away).

Established in 1989 as a “supermax” prison, Pelican Bay operates for the primary purpose of isolating inmates whom the state deems too dangerous to reside in general prison populations. These prisoners subsist in small, windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day with few privileges to speak with family members and virtually no access to rehabilitation programs. Meals are delivered through a slot in a perforated steel door.

Some might argue this degree of deprivation is the necessary cost of ensuring the safety of prison personnel and other prisoners. However, for the majority of inmates assigned to “Security Housing Units,” solitary confinement has less to do with harmful behavior and more to do with alleged gang ties.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the original lawsuit on the plaintiffs’ behalf, says that “Gang affiliation is assessed without considering whether a prisoner has ever undertaken an act on behalf of a gang or whether he is—or ever was—actually involved in gang activity.” Mere possession of material such as a book on Marxism can serve as sufficient evidence for “validating” such gang ties, according to a 2012 investigative report in Mother Jones.

Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman punishment, has stated that spending more than fifteen days in solitary confinement can lead to permanent harmful psychological effects that may even amount to torture. For some prisoners at Pelican Bay, the number of days in solitary confinement has exceeded 10,000.

Pelican Bay prisoners have launched three hunger strikes in protest, the last of which in 2013 grew to include as many as 30,000 inmates throughout the California prison system—an incredible accomplishment given their limited ability to communicate.

As a result of these high-profile strikes, two bills are now working their way through the California state legislature that seek to limit the use of solitary confinement. Representative Tom Ammiano’s bill, AB 1652, would limit the amount of time in solitary to 36 months.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” said Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in South African prisons. “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Call to Action

Learn more about California Assembly Bill 1652 and sign an online petition in support.

Learn more about proposed reforms at the federal level. Contact your congressional representative to voice your support for the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act, introduced by Rep. Cedric Richmond from Louisiana. This legislation which would create a commission to study the use of solitary confinement, and would eventually establish federal guidelines on the conditions under which solitary could be used.