SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Hundreds of California inmates who stay isolated in jail cells for 23 hours a day can’t make the state give them more out-of-cell time under the terms of a previously reached settlement, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
In September 2015, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to stop keeping inmates isolated in solitary confinement based solely on their alleged gang affiliations.
Since then, hundreds of inmates were transferred to general population prisons, where many have been forced to spend “the same or more time isolated in their cells,” according to a motion to enforce the settlement filed in December.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Illman denied the prisoners’ motion to enforce the agreement, finding the settlement did not stipulate conditions for confinement in general population prisons.
“Not only does the settlement agreement not specify details as to the conditions of confinement for class members transferred to a general population level IV 180-design facility, it provides no requirements regarding the conditions of such a facility as compared with general population facilities nation-wide, or as compared with other inmates in the CDCR systems,” Illman wrote in his 5-page ruling.
The inmates argued that by keeping them locked in cells 23 hours a day, the state is violating the spirit of the agreement. The inmates were previously confined in windowless security housing units, commonly called SHUs.
“Placement in these conditions definitely deprives these prisoners of the benefit of the agreement,” attorney Samuel Miller, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a phone interview Thursday.
“The agreement was if you’ve been put into SHU based solely on gang validation then you should go to general population and get more time out of cell, more privileges, all the kinds of things you wouldn’t’ have with SHU,” Miller said.
The plaintiffs submitted a survey of 55 inmates and sworn declarations by eight prisoners, which showed they were “spending days on end in their cells with virtually no time for yard, day room, or other activities out-of-cell,” according to the Dec. 7 motion to enforce the settlement.
The state argued the survey results were “scientifically unreliable,” but Miller said the corrections department offered no evidence to challenge the testimony of prisoners, who said they ate every meal in their cells and spent several days in a row locked inside the units.
“The judge didn’t address the facts, and the defendants didn’t contend them,” Miller said.
Miller said the plaintiffs are considering their legal options, including a potential appeal, but that he is hopeful the problem might also get solved outside of court.
“There is movement in the state among family members, members of the public and hopefully among politicians to bring some resolution to the problem,” Miller said. “Hopefully when people understand what’s actually happening beyond the prison walls, when the problem is exposed, I think the people will be outraged and hopefully we can still make some positive changes.”
A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Illman’s ruling “speaks for itself” and declined further comment.