Prison Solitary

Indefinite Solitary All But Eliminated in California Prisons

As a result of the settlement of Ashker v. Brown last year, only a handful of California prisoners remain in indefinite solitary confinement, according to data collected by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the non-profit legal advocacy organization who represented inmate plaintiffs in the suit.

When California settled Ashker last September, the state agreed to drastically limit the use of isolation in state prisons. CCR brought the lawsuit in 2012 on behalf of a group of ten Pelican Bay State Prison inmates who had each spent at least 10 years in solitary confinement.

The plaintiffs—who called themselves the “Short Corridor Collective”—led the prison hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, protesting the conditions of isolation. During the first five days of the 2013 strike, a staggering 30,000 prisoners refused food. The LA Review of Books has a great longread that tells the story of the Short Corridor Collective’s unlikely win against the state’s draconian use of long-term solitary confinement.

In Pelican Bay, home of the largest Security Housing Unit (SHU) program in CA, inmates spent 22-and-a-half hours each day in tiny, windowless cells, where they were denied visits and phone calls from family, as well as any programming offered to inmates in the general population.

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 this year. The last five prisoners in extended isolation are expected to be released from solitary soon.

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.

So far, the state has moved 1,512 inmates (97%) into a two-year step-down program, after which, the inmates will be reintroduced into the prisons’ general population.

“We are thrilled to report that new data shows that the settlement succeeded in moving virtually all prisoners out of indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement,” the Center for Constitutional Rights wrote.

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

One of CCR’s clients, Luis Esquivel, wrote about his transition into the general population after nearly two decades in solitary confinement. “It was like learning to walk for the first time,” said Esquivel. Here’s a clip:

I would never be able to give my Mom that hug she wanted back in 2000. The last time I saw her, she said, “Mijo, ask the C/O, if I can give you a hug.” Those were her words. The SHU has a lot of our memories, good and bad. I lost one of my sisters, my older brother, my Mom and Dad in the SHU.

Then, we prisoners, attorneys, outside support, families, friends, all the people—all as one, we beat CDCR and obtained one victory, our release from Pelican Bay SHU, any SHU, the right way. Walking with head held high.

So what were we able to do that we had not been able to in the SHU? Walking the yard, all seemed unreal, it was like learning how to walk for the first time. It felt, because of the size of the yard in the SHU, you get used to just walking a small yard.

Shaking someone’s hand, because for so many years we weren’t able to do that, just like on my first visit with my niece, Maribel, then with my sister. My first hug. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was just hard to feel their hug. I felt their arms around me, but that was it. I couldn’t feel it in my heart.

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