State is right to end limitless solitary confinement

Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City is surrounded by razor wire, tall fences and towers manned by guards with rifles.
Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City is surrounded by razor wire, tall fences and towers manned by guards with rifles. Los Angeles Times file

It took hunger strikes, pilot programs and years of litigation, but California agreed to alter its over-reliance on solitary confinement.

With a settlement in the class action lawsuit Ashker vs. Brown in hand, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Tuesday that it will stop its decades-old practice of holding gang leaders in isolated, soundproofed, windowless cells indefinitely.

Instead, California will go where many other states already have gone: Using solitary confinement based on prisoners’ actions, not on their gang affiliation.

Now only inmates who commit new, serious crimes behind bars will end up in isolation — and for specific, limited amounts of time. After that, prisoners will head to new high-security units, where they can interact with other prisoners, make phone calls, and engage in educational and vocational programs. But they’ll remain separate from the general population and won’t have the same freedoms.

Some might argue that this amounts to being soft on California’s worst criminals, that the new policies will make life easier for people who have committed heinous crimes. Murderers are behind bars for good reason.

The settlement doesn’t stop the state from punishing these men. Instead, it creates a framework for that punishment, one that is more humane than leaving people in concrete cells for 23 hours or more a day for decades.

“It’s a real sea change in how we handle gangs and gang behavior,” Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard said Tuesday in a conference call to discuss the settlement.

Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard says the policy shift away from solitary confinement is the right thing to do.

The state began looking at its prison policies in 2007, after other states changed they way they controlled gangs. By 2012, when the lawsuit filed by killer and white supremisist Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell was picking up steam, more than 500 prisoners had been in isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison for more than 10 years.

Corrections officials have said such tactics controlled violence, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, when prisons were crowded beyond their limits, inmates were killing other inmates at record rates, and officers were regularly assaulted.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is concerned those dark days could return with these policy changes. But Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan has reduced prison population, allowing the state to move more than 1,000 prisoners out of solitary without major problems.

If it can done safely, and recent evidence suggests it can, then California should do it, understanding that authorities retain the power to punish felons who commit crimes behind bars. If nothing else, the shift shows some of the worst inmates how civil society operates.

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