CDCR Mental Health Prison Solitary

Two Years After End of Indefinite Solitary in CA, CDCR Violating Terms of Settlement, and Inmates Experiencing Lasting Psychological Effects, Says Center for Constitutional Rights

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

In 2015, California settled Ashker v. Governor, a historic class-action lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of a group of Pelican Bay State prison inmates who had each spent at least a decade in isolation. The settlement resulted in an end to the use of indefinite solitary confinement in CA prisons.

On Monday, CCR filed a motion accusing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation of violating the rights of inmates freed from indefinite solitary by finding ways to send them back to long-term isolation without due process.

In addition, last week CCR and Stanford Lab released a report revealing that inmates held in long-term solitary confinement experience serious and possibly permanent mental health consequences even after they have returned to the general prison population.


The Backstory

In 2011 and 2013, the Ashker plaintiffs organized massive hunger strikes protesting conditions of isolation. During the first five days of the 2013 strike, 30,000 California inmates refused food.

CCR filed Ashker in 2012, at which time there were 1100 inmates isolated in Security Housing Units (SHUs)—more than 500 of whom had been there for more than 10 years.

Back in 1993, a social psychologist named Craig Haney studied the effects of isolation on mental health by conducting interviews with prisoners locked in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison.

When Dr. Haney returned to Pelican Bay to interview inmates as part of a report for the 2012 class action lawsuit, he was shocked to find some of the same inmates that he had met 20 years before still languishing in solitary confinement.

In 2012, seventy-eight prisoners had been in the SHU for more than two decades, spending 22.5 hours in tiny, windowless cells without the ability to have visits or phone calls or participate in programs.

According to CCR’s data, between 2011 and 2016, the number of men held in Pelican Bay’s SHUs for more than 10 years dropped 99%—from 513 inmates to five inmates.

Of the 1,557 total inmates whose indeterminate confinement was reviewed by prison officials between October 2015 and October 2016, the state approved 1,532 for transfer out of isolation.

And from December 2012 to August 2016, California’s total SHU population dropped 65 percent, from 9,870 to 3,471.

The Motion

However, in a new motion to extend the court’s monitoring of the Ashker settlement by one year, CCR has accused the CDCR of misusing “unreliable confidential information” to send members of the class-action lawsuit back into isolation.

In addition, part of the settlement, the CDCR created a “Restricted Custody General Population Unit” to be used to temporarily house members of the lawsuit for whom a return to the general population would be a danger to their safety. Inmates in the RCGP unit were to receive increases in socialization and programs, similar to the general population. Instead, the unit has served as a “purgatory” according to one CA prison official. Inmates in the unit are still indefinitely blocked from family visits, prison jobs, and education programs. And there is no way for them to earn their release.

The CDCR’s current use of the unit amounts to a constitutional violation, according to CCR.

The motion also challenges the CDCR’s use of “old, constitutionally infirm, gang validations” used to keep inmates from a fair chance at parole.

“Each of these three, distinct violations requires extension of the court’s jurisdiction over this matter,” the motion states.

Moreover, after the lawsuit was settled, hundreds of the class members were transferred to Level IV security prisons, where they are held in conditions similar to the solitary confinement they experienced before. In fact, many of the men are spending just as many hours per day—or even more time—in isolation than when they were in the SHU.


Effects of Prolonged Isolation Devastating, Even After Return to Gen Pop

This year, CCR also invited members of the Stanford Lab to again interview inmates represented in the class action suit, in order to determine if (and what) negative psychological effects remain after release from indefinite solitary.

Standford randomly selected 45 class members housed in California State Prison, Sacramento, Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), and Kern Valley State Prison. Thirty inmates accepted the invitation. Twenty-nine were interviewed during the prison’s visiting hours using a semi-structured survey.

The interviews revealed that most of the inmates suffered “severe psychological disturbances with lasting detrimental consequences as a result of their experience in SHU.”

Most of the men showed signs of Major Depressive Disorder, including “depressed mood, hopelessness, anger, irritability, anhedonia, anger, fatigue, feelings of guilt, loss of appetite, and insomnia.”

Almost all of the interviewees reported symptoms characteristic of traumatic stress disorders, panic disorder, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorders, symptoms of which include “nervousness, worry, increased heart rate and respiration, sweating, muscle tension, hyperarousal, paranoia, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and fear of losing control.”

Those interviewed also reported serious problems with socialization, as well as cognitive issues, including difficulty concentrating, and impaired memory.

Inmates reported anxiety and paranoia in response to the “chaotic” environment of general population, overwhelmed by activities, noises, and interactions with other people after spending more than a decade alone.

One inmate said the return to gen. pop. was “like going to Mars.”

The experience was like “taking a kid from a baby pool and throwing him into the ocean,” another inmate said.

“Color was overloaded at first,” said a third prisoner. “I had to readjust. [It’s a] joy and pleasre to be outside, to see color again.”

In addition, inmates reported lasting medical problems after their time in SHU. The report attributes the problems, like joint problems, chronic pain, and vitiglio, to the conditions of the SHU, including minimal exercise and confinement to a small space.

“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 report also pointed to an “absence of effective transition program” for inmates leaving indefinite isolation.

Just under half of the inmates pulled from solitary were chosen to participate in the CDCR’s “Step Down Program,” which intends to lead participants out of gang-involvement. These inmates had to complete the four-part program in order to leave the SHU. Participants told researchers that the program was “unhelpful and disingenuous,” according to the report. Some class members said they benefited from the tools like “cognitive restructuring,” as part of the step down program.

But prisoners also said they did not receive supportive services to help them mitigate “distress related to the overwhelming nature of the transition to GP from SHU.”

The report recommends that the CDCR offer former SHU inmates occupational, educational, and social programs, as well as emotional and psychological services “in the form of independent psychiatric care and/or peer-led or peer-facilitated support groups.”

The report also recommends psychoeducation to teach inmates about trauma and to help them “normalize distress,” and manage their post-SHU symptoms.


Image Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison

6 Comments

  • Pelican Bay. Not exactly your community of outstanding citizens. Whatever it is that gets you into the SHU will likely keep you there if you insist on displaying that behavior. Letting you out would likely result in someone else suffering long-term consequences, like ceasing to live.

    Inmates love to be interviewed like this. It’s when they put on their best performance. We then read these oh-how-terrible articles.

  • It is amazing how certain people in this world are either so naive, gullible, stubborn or just so anti-incarceration they don’t believe anyone should be in jails/prison at all. These folks totally ignore the fact these human predators are operating on a belief system devoid of respect for rules, laws and other people. Many folks in prison and jail are just where they belong in order to protect society and serve their time. Some folks are bad, evil and can not be rehabilitated how matter how hard you try.

    The recent case involving the little boy from the Antelope Valley always comes to mind. The boyfriend was found guilty and will now serve the rest of his pathetic life in prison at taxpayers expense. Which I’m sure this will cost in the tens of millions over his pathetic lifetime. How can anyone think this monster has any humanity left.

    I’m glad Charles Manson was locked away, although an efficiently carried out death penalty devoid of endless appeals would have saved a lot of time, victim grief and taxpayer money.

    • Dear Free Rider and Conspiracy: Your comments show that you don’t understand the circumstances of the Ashker case and the CDCR’s 30-year indeterminate lock-up program. The prisoners who were released under the case were not prisoners whose behavior merits them being called the “worst of the worst.” Don’t worry, bad behavior still gets you a term in SHU. Many of the prisoners released from SHU in this case spent up to three decades there without a single rule violation. For three decades, a prisoner with lots of violations and terrible in-prison behavior could get out of SHU easily – all he had to do was become a snitch. The policy for 30 years was “snitch or die in SHU.” CDCR was not picky about the information they got – people made up whatever came to mind to get out of SHU, and that’s all CDCR required. Those “bad, evil” people you refer to didn’t have to be rehabilitated to get to lower custody and get the opportunity to be paroled, perhaps to your neighborhood. All they had to do was lie about other people. Charlie Manson wasn’t in Pelican Bay – he was down in protective housing in Corcoran with many privileges these men couldn’t get, in spite of years of good behavior. And by the way, locking up a bunch of people unnecessarily in solitary cost the taxpayers millions and even billions of dollars over those years, because SHU requires twice as many guards and lots of extra pay and building costs. The policies that ended with the Ashker case were bad for the public and contrary to any accepted correctional goals. Get your facts straight.

  • It dismays me that a certain segment of the public apparently feels that the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment should be tossed out the window. It equally dismays me that a certain segment of the population seems to equate the fact that a person has been criminally convicted with a judgment from the Almighty that the person is worthless, less than human and irredeemable. However, for inquisitive readers who are concerned about human rights, and who do not regard prisoners as irredeemable or worthless by definition, I recommend taking a look at the complaint filed in Ashker v. Brown (It is available at: https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/assets/Ruiz-Amended-Complaint-May-31-2012.pdf). The merits of the complaint are reflected in the fact that the case settled, and thousands of people were consequently released from SHU. In a nutshell, the complaint asserts that some five hundred people or more were put and retained in Pelican Bay’s SHU for up to decades on end merely on the basis of “gang validation”—regardless of any actual misconduct, or lack there of. Being validated as a “gang” or “security threat group” affiliate requires no actual misconduct or criminal activity and involves no court of law. It occurs on the basis of prison officials’ subject evaluation of often flimsy and/or irrelevant “evidence,” including but not limited to items including: greeting cards; tattoos or materials that contain culturally significant iconography, like a Huelga bird or an Aztec pyramid; reading materials in a person’s possession, such as materials with political content; information confidentially supplied by other prisoners (who themselves may be in the SHU, hence highly motivated to earn point with prison administrators). A person subject to validation can never see, hence contest, information that is confidentially suplied: Only a generalized description of such “evidence” is provided.

  • Pegasus and Kim, thanks so much for enlightening. These poor, misunderstood individuals probably should have never been sentenced to Pelican Bay in the first place, let alone long enough to have spent decades in the SHU. Dear, oh dear.

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