The Center for Constitutional Rights yesterday filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a group of California prisoners, challenging the practice of long-term isolation in the state’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. The lawsuit was filed May 31st on behalf of Security Housing Unit (SHU) inmates who have spent 10-28 years in solitary confinement. They are among the 500 inmates at Pelican Bay who have been segregated from general population inmates for at least ten years, and among the state of California’s over three thousand SHU inmates.
Arguing that long-term solitary confinement (at least 10 years) is a violation of the 8th amendment, the lawsuit cites research finding that the practice of solitary confinement has negative effects on the mental health of inmates subjected to it. Included in the text of the official complaint are anecdotal reports from SHU inmates indicating significant psychological problems stemming in part from the conditions of isolation. Among the examples cited are an inmate who “feels that he is ‘silently screaming’ 24 hours a day” and another who reports feeling “like a caged animal.”
The lawsuit comes nearly a year after the first of two large-scale hunger strikes launched in protest of long-term solitary confinement in California prisons. The first of these hunger strikes lasted three weeks in July and prompted a hearing by the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee to publicly discuss the situation in the SHU. A second, larger strike involving over 6000 inmates launched in October also lasted approximately three weeks. A later, smaller hunger strike at Corcoran State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit resulted in the death of inmate Christian Gomez in February.
The lawsuit claims that most of the plaintiffs in the case participated in the first two hunger strikes. This, they claim, “provide[s] additional evidence of the severe psychological distress, desperation, and hopelessness that they experience from languishing in the SHU for decades.” Further, the complaint points out that hunger strike participants “reported viewing the possibility of death by starvation as a worthwhile risk in light of their current situation.”
The lawsuit also challenges the current use of the gang validation process which results in most SHU placements. Of the 1,128 inmates in the SHU, all but 66 are there for prison gang activity, the rest being there for behavioral issues. SHU inmates at Pelican Bay have argued that placement in segregation should be based on behavior, rather than suspected prison gang activity.
The suit claims that the current gang validation system denies inmates “meaningful review of their confinement, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The gang validation system is a point system that, among other things, allow seemingly innocuous violations–for example,a Mexican inmate possessing Aztec artwork was revalidated as a member of the Mexican Mafia–to serve as a basis for continued isolation, while many inmates part of the lawsuit haven’t had serious rule violations for sometimes decades.
The California Department of Corrections responded to claims of torture, saying: “”We do not torture in California prisons and we believe that the conditions in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) satisfy the Constitution, so they are not unconstitutional,’ [CDCR Spokesman Jeffrey] Callison said.”
For more on the lawsuit, check out the Center for Constitutional Rights website.