On Thursday, September 27, Amnesty International published its report on the conditions of California’s supermax units, entitled The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units. The Security Housing Units (SHUs), which currently house over 3,000 inmates in predominantly single-cell isolation, hold inmates in small cells for at least 22 1/2 hours every day. The report notes that hundreds of inmates will spend over 10 years in these isolation units, where they are prohibited from participating in group activities including religious and rehabilitative programs. The report primarily focuses on the SHUs at Pelican Bay State Prison and California State Prison, Corcoran, though it also touches on the use of the SHU in women’s prisons.
The report covers the conditions of the standard SHU units, the long-term effects of isolation, the criterion used for SHU placement, mental health treatment, and offers recommendations.
The report also cites the October 24, 2011, suicide of Pelican Bay inmate Alex Machado, who was being housed in Pelican Bay’s Administrative Segregation Unit, an isolation unit that often serves as an overflow of the SHU pending SHU cell openings. Machado was put in the ASU despite exhibiting psychotic symptoms and previously attempting suicide. According to the report, between 2006 and 2010, 42 percent of California prison suicides occurred inside one of the many isolation units.
Among the recommendations are:
- Limiting the use of isolation in a SHU or similar environment so that is it imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners whose behaviour constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of others or the security of the institution.
- Improving conditions for all prisoners held in SHUs, including better exercise provision and an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even at the most restrictive custody levels.
- Allowing SHU prisoners to make regular phone calls to their families.
- Reducing the length of the Step Down Program and providing meaningful access to programs where prisoners have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at an earlier stage.
- Immediately removing from isolation of prisoners who have already spent years in the SHU under an indeterminate assignment.
The full 68-page report can be read here.
Solitary Watch’s extensive coverage of solitary confinement in California, including the voices of prisoners in isolation, can be accessed here.