Thousands of California inmates who have spent years in solitary confinement will move back into the general prison population as part of a lawsuit settlement with the state.
The settlement, announced Tuesday, ends the class-action suit brought on behalf of thousands of inmates who had filled the Pelican Bay State Prison isolation wing for alleged gang affiliation. Confinement in windowless, soundproof cells remains a possible punishment for prisoners who commit crimes behind bars, but it's no longer a tool for indefinitely segregating rival gang members.
More than 500 prisoners had spent more than a decade locked in solitary at the time the lawsuit was filed in 2012, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the groups suing the state. Seventy-eight had been in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU, for more than 20 years.
“This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California, and across the country,” said a statement from the plaintiffs.
Read the settlement below.
There are 6,400 inmates in isolation cells and other segregated units around the state, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The solitary cells became widely used about 35 years ago when gang violence plagued the prison system, spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.
The agreement bans indefinite confinement in solitary and instead limits sentences to up to five years of solitary with some exceptions for two additional years for gang members.
The state will also create a non-solitary, high-security area for prisoners who have been held in isolation for more than 10 years and also have a "recent serious rule violation," according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. This new unit will give inmates access to things such as phone calls, visits from family and educational classes.
Studies have shown that prolonged isolation in prison can have debilitating mental health effects including suicidal tendencies, panic attacks and paranoia.
Inmates in California's solitary units had limited means to appeal their separation from the general population. To protest, prisoners sometimes waged hunger strikes to draw attention to conditions in isolation. The lawsuit alleged that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and was a violation of due process.
"It will move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system, but do so in a way where we rely less on the use of segregation," Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Associated Press.
The lawsuit was known as Ashker v. Governor of California. Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell were inmates of Pelican Bay's SHU who represented themselves in an earlier attempt to reform solitary confinement through a lawsuit.
UPDATE: This article has been revised with information from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton.