Thursday, June 5, 2014

Judge’s Decision to Hear Inmates’ Case Threatens Practice of Solitary Confinement

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Judge’s Decision to Hear Inmates’ Case Threatens Practice of Solitary Confinement

By Erica Goode

Wednesday, June 4, 2014
New York Times

More than 200 inmates at Pelican Bay [1], California’s toughest prison, have spent over a decade locked in windowless 8-foot-by-12-foot cells for 22 hours or more a day. Dozens more have been in solitary confinement for 15 years — or even longer.
But in a ruling this week, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., agreed to consider whether, as a lawsuit against the state’s corrections department maintains, holding prisoners in such prolonged isolation violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment.

Legal experts say that the ruling, which allows inmates at Pelican Bay who have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade to sue as a class, paves the way for a court case that could shape national policy on the use of long-term solitary confinement.

“It seems that the judge is going to decide the broad policy questions involved here,” said Jules Lobel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which originally brought the suit on behalf of 10 inmates in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay. Without class-action status, any decision in the lawsuit could have been restricted only to those plaintiffs and not the broader policy.

“This would really be the first case about whether the confinement itself is cruel and unusual punishment,” Mr. Lobel said, “and about who can be legitimately confined in this way, given the draconian nature of the confinement.”

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that the department was reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.

The judge’s action comes at a time of increasing scrutiny of the widespread reliance of American prisons on long-term isolation, a strategy that began three decades ago when prison systems began removing an ever-larger number of inmates from the general population in response to problems with gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” stance of legislators.

In the last two years, a number of states, propelled by budgetary concerns, lawsuits and public opinion, began to rethink their use of the practice; in February, New York agreed to sweeping changes [2] in its policies on solitary confinement, including curbing the use of isolation for youths under 18.

Legislators in Washington, too, have begun to take up the issue. In February, a Senate subcommittee held the second of two hearings on solitary confinement, taking testimony from prison experts, former inmates and other witnesses. And critics of the practice have pointed to a growing body of evidence that prolonged isolation can result in severe and long-lasting psychological damage, making inmates more dangerous once they are released to the streets.

The use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, the lawsuit contends, is so extreme that it “renders California an outlier in this country and in the civilized world.” Inmates at Pelican Bay, opened in 1989 with the specific goal of minimizing prisoners’ contact with other people, have staged two sustained hunger strikes since 2011 to protest the state’s policy of placing any inmate deemed to have gang affiliations in isolation for indefinite periods.

David Fathi [3], director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, said that while the judge’s ruling might seem like a technicality, it represented “a major step forward in this case.”

Officials in California fought against allowing the plaintiffs class-action status in the lawsuit, Mr. Fathi said.

“Now the state has to defend 10 to 20 years of solitary confinement on the merits, and that’s not going to be easy,” he said.

Of 1,192 inmates currently in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay — where inmates are held in cells with perforated steel doors; denied telephone calls, education and other privileges; and allowed out only for showers and brief exercise periods — 227 have been in solitary confinement for 10 to 20 years.

The lawsuit applies only to inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay; prisoners held in isolation at the state’s two other security housing units are not part of the lawsuit. In her ruling, Judge Claudia Wilken of Federal District Court in Oakland also excluded from class status inmates at Pelican Bay who have been placed in a transitional program that was instituted by the corrections department after the hunger strike in 2011.

Prison reform advocates in California have criticized the transition program and said that the department had failed to make many of the policy changes it promised after the strike.

Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who studies sentencing, said that Judge Wilken’s decision was one of several recent federal court actions — the Supreme Court’s order that California must shrink its prison population, for example — suggesting that federal judges might be more willing to intervene in how states run their prison systems, something they have avoided since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

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