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California moves toward more humane prisons

Speaking in front of a life-size replica of a Secure Housing Unit cell, then-Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, speaks at an August 2013 rally calling for the end of solitary confinement in California prisons.
Speaking in front of a life-size replica of a Secure Housing Unit cell, then-Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, speaks at an August 2013 rally calling for the end of solitary confinement in California prisons. Associated Press file

Criticism of the widespread practice in the United States of keeping prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement is growing because advocates and prisoners themselves have made it an issue. No place have the conditions been harsher than in California, and nowhere has there been as much organizing to end it, including what is believed to be the largest prison hunger strike in history and a lawsuit at the notorious Pelican Bay prison.

Prison officials claim that for really dangerous prisoners who have assaulted or killed other prisoners or staff while in prison, there is no alternative to isolating them. The “no alternative” argument, though, is built on false premises. For starters, it is not mainly people who have assaulted or killed someone in prison who are sent to solitary. Just as we have over-incarcerated poor people and people of color for minor crimes, once incarcerated, they are all too often thrown into solitary for minor offenses, or because they are mentally ill.

The key is creating an environment that is restrictive without being isolating. California has agreed to create a new unit that will do that in a settlement announced Tuesday.

Prison officials will establish a restrictive general population unit to those who had spent a long time in solitary and had committed a recent serious offense. The unit would allow small group recreation, educational and other small group leisure activities, significantly more out-of-cell time and contact visits with family – but in a controlled high-security setting.

It’s a groundbreaking agreement with potentially far-reaching effect, precisely because it begins to address the challenging question of how to end prolonged solitary even in “hard cases.” If California’s unit works, it could be a model for other states.

Keeping people in solitary is very costly; if California significantly reduces the number of prisoners in solitary, it can spend some of the savings to improve conditions for the small number of prisoners who truly require segregation.

There is an alternative to the “terrible price” we exact from people in solitary confinement, one that balances the humanity of the prisoners with the security of the prison. To make it work requires a cultural change in the way we treat prisoners in this country.

Jules Lobel is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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