After years of legal fights and mass hunger strikes among California prison inmates, state officials and inmate advocates announced sweeping changes Tuesday aimed at curbing the use of solitary confinement for nearly 2,000 prisoners.
The proposed settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit is designed to end a system in place for more than 30 years that left some inmates in solitary confinement for decades, sometimes on evidence that inmate advocates say was as minor as a tattoo or poem deemed to signal they were prison gang members.
“The movement we’re making here is a real sea change,” said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard, who has overseen a revamping of prison policies in recent years that has dramatically reduced inmate overcrowding.
The proposed settlement, which still must be approved by a federal court judge, affects about 2,000 inmates held in solitary because they are considered to be gang members, most of them housed in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City.
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Inmates and their advocates have complained for years that prisoners were held in isolation for decades, denied phone calls or contact with visitors and confined to their cells for 23 hours a day.
The settlement announced Tuesday stems from a handwritten, 97-page federal lawsuit filed in 2009 by two Pelican Bay inmates who claimed they were being held in conditions so severe that they were unconstitutional.
The suit by inmates Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell became part of a class-action suit in 2012 by additional plaintiffs and lawyers for the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based group co-founded by acclaimed civil rights attorney William Kunstler.
“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,” the plaintiffs said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday.
The agreement comes after months of intense negotiations between prison officials and the plaintiffs to resolve the case, although the union for the state’s 30,000 correctional officers said it did not receive details of the proposed settlement.
Nicole Gomez-Pryde, spokeswoman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the union would not comment on the deal because it had not been received before Tuesday morning.
The agreement ends a long-standing practice of allowing inmates to be confined to solitary units solely based on the fact that they were “validated” by prison officials as gang members, something that could lead to decades of confinement.
“I think we were the only state that was locking up so many people solely based on validation and not based on behavior,” Beard said.
Instead, such confinement now must be based on serious rules violations or offenses – assaulting a correctional officer or another inmate, for instance.
The settlement states that no prisoner can be held involuntarily in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit for more than five consecutive years, and that inmates who have served 10 years in an SHU be removed and allowed to spend time in a new, less restrictive setting.
The corrections secretary said the agreement affects about 1,800 inmates now held in solitary as gang members, who can enter a “step-down” program that will allow them to steadily progress toward release to the general population.
Under policies begun in 2013, that process could take three to four years but now will take no more than two years.
“We believe two years is enough time to determine if an inmate is amenable to change,” Beard said. “If not, there is no need to continue to waste resources until they are in fact ready to change.
“Those who do change will be released to general population. Those that don’t will be released from segregation but kept in a more restrictive general population unit until they decide they want to change.”
Before Tuesday’s settlement, Beard said, officials had conducted 1,478 reviews of inmates and released 1,110 of them into the general population, a 75.1 percent release rate. Those moves have been made with minimal problems, he said, and such reviews of inmates in solitary now will be accelerated.
The state has about 3,000 inmates now held in SHU housing, and Beard said he expected “that number to fall substantially as we move forward.”
Beard said the prison system will create new restricted housing units designed to hold inmates who have been released from security housing units but who are not considered eligible or safe to be released to the general population.
Those restricted units will allow for inmates to be moved in small groups and to exercise with others at least 10 hours a week.
“The key, however, is that they will no longer be in segregation,” Beard said.
The policy changes follow years of activism, legislative hearings and court fights by inmates and their supporters who contended that California’s solitary confinement policies violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.
Beard said the original polices were put into place at a time when the state’s prisons were woefully overcrowded and much more violent.
“We have to remember that 35, 40 years ago, there was a lot of violence within the system,” Beard said. “There were over nine staff murders in a two- to three-year period of time, there were a lot of inmate murders. ...You had to do something to stop the violence, to really get control of things.”
Prison officials began exploring changes to the system years ago. Massive hunger strikes in 2011 that began among Pelican Bay inmates and spread to prisons statewide and even to lockups in other states helped speed up the process.
The proposed settlement comes two weeks after the murder of the inmate who served a longer stretch in an SHU than any other prisoner.
Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, 71, served 43 years in solitary before taking part in the step-down program and being released to the general population on July 29 at California State Prison, Sacramento, which is also known as “New Folsom.”
Pinell was stabbed to death Aug. 12 in the New Folsom yard. The attack sparked a full-scale riot involving as many as 70 prisoners. Pinell’s attorney complained after his client was killed that he should have been kept in more secure housing, essentially the same restricted housing unit being created under the new policies.
Beard said Pinell had agreed to be released to the general population and that there was no information that he might be in danger.
The settlement over solitary confinement is one of a series of changes in the state prison system in recent years. Prison officials have succeeded after years of legal fights in reducing overcrowding in prisons and revamping policies on the use of force against mentally ill inmates.
The state’s realignment program, which turned over responsibility for many lower-level repeat offenders to county jails, and the passage of Proposition 47, which converted some felonies to misdemeanors, helped state officials meet court-ordered goals for reducing prison populations.