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Easing of solitary confinement brings hope

Inmates are walked from their cells in the Secure Housing Units in Pelican Bay State Prison to the medical unit in 2013. A September 2015 settlement in a class-action lawsuit limited long-term solitary confinement in California prisons.
Inmates are walked from their cells in the Secure Housing Units in Pelican Bay State Prison to the medical unit in 2013. A September 2015 settlement in a class-action lawsuit limited long-term solitary confinement in California prisons. Los Angeles Times file

It seems like only yesterday I was preparing for a news conference to give a statement on behalf of California Families Against Solitary Confinement announcing a landmark settlement in the case challenging long-term solitary confinement in California prisons, including the one where my son had been held in isolation for 15 years.

We were full of hope. At the same time, we couldn’t help but think of the windowless cells that held our loved ones captive for so many decades and the many family members who had passed away while our sons, brothers, fathers and friends had been locked in Security Housing Units.

That was one year ago. I am in awe of how much has changed since the settlement in Ashker v. Governor of California, litigated by the Center for Constitutional Rights and its allies.

On New Year’s Day, I had my first contact visit with my son in 15 years. Until then, I had visited him behind thick panes of glass, watching him being escorted by officers, chained and handcuffed and then locked in a small metal cage as if he was too dangerous to be among other human beings.

Now our visits are very different; we hug, laugh and share meals together. There is a spark of life in his eyes that illuminates his smile; it wasn’t there when he was in the SHU. Every time I hug him I pinch his cheek, what Mexicans refer to as “carino,” and he laughs every time. He looks so healthy. I stare at him and just smile and think to myself, “Never again, please, God, never again.”

I have seen pictures from other families in the visiting room, no doubt feeling the same joy I do. I have even met some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who have become my extended family.

On Aug. 19, a group of family members were given a tour of Salinas Valley State Prison. As I walked the yard and looked into the faces of inmates, they were the same ones who had been faceless for so long, locked in SHUs throughout California. Many of them introduced themselves, including the number of years they had spent in isolation. Their names were familiar from letters, but their faces were new.

Much has changed, and there remains much to be done. But through the work of advocates, the families of inmates and, most important, prisoners who organized behind the physical and psychological walls of decades-long solitary confinement, there is no going back.

Dolores Canales of San Francisco is an organizer at Legal Services for Prisoners With Children. She can be contacted at dolores@prisonerswithchildren.org.

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