OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge gave final approval to the settlement of a class action filed on behalf of hundreds of prisoners held in solitary confinement, sometimes for years, at California's Pelican Bay prison.
Under the terms of the settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken on Tuesday, the state will continue the process of reviewing the cases of prisoners placed in indefinite solitary confinement.
Since September, when the preliminary settlement was originally announced, 686 of the total 1,813 prisoners entitled to review have begun that process and 437 have already been returned to the general prison population.
Another 109 prisoners have been approved for release into the general prison population.
One hundred and forty inmates not immediately approved for release from solitary confinement will have their cases reconsidered after their cases are subjected to a higher level of scrutiny by prison officials.
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.
The settlement requires all first-level reviews to be complete within one year.
The Center for Constitutional Rights sued Governor Jerry Brown on behalf of the plaintiffs in May 2012, claiming that prolonged and indeterminate solitary confinement in state prisons' Security Housing Units known as "SHUs" violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
The suit also alleged that the prisons' lack of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process.
At the original announcement of the agreement, the Center's president, Jules Lobel, said that under the settlement's terms, California "will dramatically change the way it retains alleged gang members and will drastically reduce the SHU population."
"While there is still much work to be done, these early numbers are an encouraging indication of the transformative effect this settlement is having on California's solitary confinement population," Lobel continued.
"Hundreds of men who have not had any meaningful contact with another human being in years often in decades have finally been able to hug their loved ones and to interact with other prisoners."
The terms of the settlement change California's use of solitary confinement from a status-based system to a behavior-based one, in which solitary confinement may be used only as a punishment for serious rule infractions and only for determinate periods of time. Many prisoners placed in SHUs had been placed there on "vague and unsubstantiated" allegations of gang affiliation, the CCR says.
The settlement also limits the total amount of time a prisoner can spend in the SHU at Pelican Bay. It also includes a two-year monitoring period.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.