SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge tentatively granted a motion by the Center for Constitutional Rights to file a supplementary complaint to its class action on behalf of hundreds of prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement at California’s Pelican Bay prison.
The May 2012 lawsuit claims that prolonged solitary confinement in state prisons Security Housing Units 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.
The Center for Constitutional Rights defined prolonged solitary confinement as lasting more than 10 years.
CCR president Jules Lobel said in the Thursday hearing that 240 Pelican Bay prisoners fall into this category.
Lobel asked U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken for permission to amend the complaint to add a class of prisoners recently transferred under the state’s Step Down Program from solitary confinement at Pelican Bay to solitary confinement at the state prison at Tehachapi.
Adriano Hrvatin, of the state’s justice department, represented the prison. He argued that the CCR’s proposed class definition did not meet requirements of commonality and typicality, since “inmates are going to fall in and out of the class with the passage of time.”
Lobel responded that though prolonged solitary confinement is not always a permanent state, it “causes lasting, permanent damage to the person,” and there must be a “procedural mechanism” to make prisoners’ claims heard, even if they are transferred or released.
He also argued that the class representatives, once designated, should be allowed to continue to represent the class even if they cease to be one of the class’s members.
Wilken responded that attorneys in similar past situations have simply found new class representatives.
Wilken proposed that the trial be bifurcated – a trial in December to determine whether the Pelican Bay prisoners’ confinement was cruel and unusual, and if it was found to be so, the CCR would then file the supplementary complaint.
The CCR intends to file for summary judgment on July 2.
Pelican Bay is a “supermax” prison in Crescent City.
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