SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California agreed to a “landmark” settlement of a federal class action filed on behalf of hundreds of prisoners held in solitary confinement for more than a decade at the state’s prison in Pelican Bay.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, who sued Governor Jerry Brown on behalf of the plaintiffs, announced the settlement in a press call Tuesday morning.
The May 2012 lawsuit claimed that prolonged and indeterminate solitary confinement in state prisons’ Security Housing Units – known as “SHUs” – violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the prisons’ lack of meaningful review for such placement violates Fifth Amendment guarantees of due process.
CCR president Jules Lobel said that under the terms of the settlement, California “will dramatically change the way it retains alleged gang members and will drastically reduce the SHU population.”
He said the settlement achieves four main goals for the plaintiffs, which the state must enact within a year.
First, he said, all prisoners statewide held in indefinite SHU confinement will be transferred to the prison’s general population unless found guilty of recent serious misconduct.
Additionally, the state will no longer place prisoners in solitary confinement simply for gang affiliation but only after convicted of serious misconduct following a disciplinary due-process hearing.
Third, the settlement will “virtually end indeterminate SHU sentences in California.”
And finally, state prisoners now in indefinite solitary confinement for over 10 years will be moved to general-population units, even if they have been convicted of recent serious misconduct – meaning that basically everyone with over a decade in a California SHU will be getting out of isolation, he said.
Lobel said the agreement is “a product of litigation, but primarily of the prisoners’ own struggle and own ideas and demands.” The plaintiffs went on three hunger strikes to protest their solitary confinement prior to the settlement.
There are currently 3,000 people in state SHUs, Lobel said, and the settlement will affect between 1,500 and 2,000 people – so more than half will get out of isolation.
Marie Levin, whose brother has been incarcerated for 34 years and has been held in a Pelican Bay SHU for more than a decade, read a statement written by the plaintiffs.
“This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California,” the prisoners wrote. “California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action.”
The prisoners also wrote that they hope the settlement can end ethnicity- and race-based violence in California prisons.
“From this foundation, the prisoners’ human-rights movement is awakening the conscience of this nation to recognize that we are fellow human beings,” they said.
“Stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle. We are fully committed to that effort, and we invite you to join us.”
Dolores Canales, who founded the organization California Families Against Solitary Confinement and whose son has been held in SHU for 14 years, said she hopes “this is just the beginning of an end to a system and practice.”
“We are now experiencing history in the making,” she said.
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