LOS ANGELES – Thousands of California prison inmates who have been in solitary confinement – some for more than 30 years – will be released into the general prison population under a legal settlement announced Tuesday.
The agreement follows several hunger strikes over the past decade to protest the use of indefinite solitary confinement to control prison gangs.
“Today is a historic day,” said Jules Lobel, lead counsel in the case and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “When we started this lawsuit, California was housing thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement often for no more than possessing art work or literature believed to be gang related.”
Now, all prisoners held in indefinite solitary confinement will be transferred to the general population, unless there is misconduct. Those still confined to solitary will no longer face an indefinite sentence but will serve a set term, depending on the offense.
“This will affect 1,500 to 2,000 people immediately,” Lobel said. “Only a small percentage will remain in the SHU (Solitary Housing Unit). They will no longer be in solitary simply because of gang affiliation.”
Marie Levin, sister of one of the plaintiffs in the federal class action lawsuit Ashker v. Brown, called the settlement “a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step in our goal of ending indefinite solitary confinement in California and the rest of the country”
Her brother, Satawa Nantambu Jamaa, has been in solitary for 31 years.
“He’s still in there,” Levin said. She said it will be “a blessing to be able to hold him and give him a hug.”
Dolores Canales, founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, said she can’t help but feel a sense of sadness for relatives of inmates who have died before they could see their loved ones.
“They went to their death without ever being able to hold their loved ones’ hands,” Canales said. “I can’t help but wonder how they would be feeling at this moment. They would probably be thinking this is just the beginning.”
Jeff Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitations , conceded that the lawsuit, protests and hunger strikes did work to speed up the process of ending the 30-year-old policy.
But he said that the state had already been moving in that direction, starting a Step Down pilot program two years ago to release inmates in solitary to the general population.
Now, “an actual gang-related behavior has to occur, not just membership,” Beard said.
Small, high-security units will be formed within three or four months to keep dangerous inmates away from the general population but not in solitary. They would have many of the same privileges as other inmates, including contact with family, religious services, phone calls and various educational programs.
The majority of the prisoners who have been isolated for at least 10 years and haven’t had a major violation in at least two years, will be moved back into the general prison population.
Correctional officers groups warn that the settlement may result in more homicides behind prison walls.
“The Department of Correction has been reviewing and releasing hundreds of them to the general population under its new policies and they agree there has been very little negative results,” said Carol Strickman, co-counsel and staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “We recognize we need to keep the peace. Prisoners recognize that.”
The lawsuit was initially filed in December 2009 by plaintiffs Todd Ashker and Danny Troxwell, who were both in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. There were a series of hunger strikes – the largest in 2013, when more than 30,000 inmates participated in the 60-day protest.
Beard said that California was the only state that kept inmates in solitary strictly because of gang affiliation.
“We’re moving to a behavior-based system,” he said. “A few years ago, it was upwards of 4,500. Now, we’re down to 3,000. … We’re looking for that number to fall.”
A statement read by Levin said, “The prisoners’ human rights movement is awakening the conscience of this nation to recognize that we are fellow human beings.”
Lobel said this settlement will “hopefully serve as a model in other states to end solitary for gang affiliation.”