A big step forward on solitary confinement

On September 1st an historic settlement was reached in California on the use of long-term isolation or solitary confinement. This win came after years of organizing in which AFSC staff were actively participating. This is a summary of the agreement reached and of all the work and actions that went into making the agreement possible by incarcerated men, their families, and other allies working together persistently and faithfully for change. - Lucy

Victories don’t come along every day when you work on prison issues – or restorative justice issues for that matter. But earlier this month in California, we took a big step forward in the movement to end the use of long-term isolation. 

On September 1st, a settlement was reached in a lawsuit challenging the practice of long-term isolation and placement of people in security housing units (SHU) based on assumed “gang affiliation or membership.” If properly implemented, there will be no more indeterminate SHU placement. Placement in the SHU will be based on commission of specified offenses with fixed terms. 

We don’t know yet if this really will end the torture of solitary confinement, since people could still go there for 5-to-7 years for the most egregious acts despite the fact that the U.N. Rapporteur on torture declared that longer than 15 days in such isolation constituted torture. But this settlement is still a victory, especially for the over 500 people that have been held in these facilities for more than 10 years and some for more than 40 years. 

Marie Levin, a family member, at the press conference reading a statement from the prisoners

One family member had this to say about the settlement: “This amazing settlement victory gives them back their dignity and their humanity, which is what they had sought from the first hunger strike: to not be treated like animals. To be seen as human beings. Love and compassion are still the greatest powers in the universe. So I want to thank everyone for keeping the light turned on.” 

How did this come about? 

For the answer, we need to rewind to 2011 when prisoners at Pelican Bay, working across all ethnic groups, decided to go on a hunger strike to protest their conditions. They chose a nonviolent tactic, worked as closely as they could shouting across closed doors or through drain pipes or ventilation systems, and agreed on five core demands. The demands asked for individual accountability, as opposed to the group punishments that are very common, where entire yards, or all prisoners of a particular ethnic group are locked down for a rule violation by a single person. They called for abolishing the “debriefing policy” which has required prisoners to become informants in order to be transferred out of SHU. They asked that placement in the SHU to be behavior related rather than based on alleged “gang association.” Finally, they called for constructive programming for everyone in isolation. 

The court settlement addressed a number of these demands: 

  • Eliminates indeterminate SHU sentences; prisoners will only go into segregation with a set time for release. 
  • Cuts the Step Down Program to 2 years from 4. 
  • CDCR shall no longer place prisoners into any SHU, Administrative Segregation, or the Step Down Program solely because of gang validation status. Instead, such placement will only happen after a conviction through a due process hearing of a serious behavior offense. 
  • Anyone who has spent 10 or more years in the SHU will be released to a Level IV prison unless they have a “SHUable” offense within the last 24 months, and even then they will be placed in the new unit that CDCR is setting up at Pelican Bay. 
  • That new unit is a Restricted Custody General Population (RCGP) Unit for a few categories of prisoners who the department decides need more long-term separation in a restrictive custody general population setting. The RCGP will have substantially more out of cell recreation and programming than the SHU. The cells have windows and the yard will be outside where you can experience fresh air, sunshine, see other men face to face, although in separated cages. We hope this will be a model for other states to move away from the use of solitary. 
  • There is a commitment for training the prison staff to work for a change in the prison culture. 
  • For the next two years, the conditions in California’s isolation units will be under a court monitor by Magistrate Judge Nandor J. Vadas, to see that the settlement agreement is being implemented. If there is a pattern of continued 8th or 14th Amendment violations, the monitoring can be extended beyond the two years. The lawyers for the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs themselves will play a continuing role in that monitoring process just as they did in the defining the terms of this settlement. 

AFSC staff Jerry Elster reading the statement from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition at the press conference about the settlement. Laura Magnani holds the banner to the left.

Years of organizing and sacrifice preceded this outcome. There were two previous hunger strikes in 2011 that lasted three weeks each, and another strike in 2013 that lasted 60 days in which 30,000 people refused food in the initial week. The 2013 strike is believed to be the largest prisoner hunger strike in history. We estimate that around 100 people refrained from eating for the entire 60 days. 

Although many CDCR officials have admitted that the core demands were not unreasonable, progress for change seemed slow and shaky. Still, the coalition and the men inside kept working at many levels – legislative, public education, legal. 

Four legislative hearings were held by key committees, one of them jointly between the houses. Legislation was introduced, but stalled both last year and this year. Huge rallies, vigils, and demonstrations of all kinds have occurred around the state and much media work is being done. Family members have become the backbone of the movement as they began to realize the dire conditions of their loved ones. They formed the group California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC) and quickly became the key spokespeople on the outside. The Center for Constitutional Rights agreed to challenge the practices in a class action lawsuit, begun in 2012, joined by other lawyers around the country. 

AFSC staff Jerry Elster reading the prisoner hunger strike coalition statement at the press conference about the settlement.

Also, in 2012, the prisoners took an unprecedented step: they issued a “Call to End Hostilities” between rival gang groups, hoping to remove the number one excuse for this form of torture. The call was intended for prisoners around the state, but also hoped to extend to the streets, to stop violence before people became part of the system. Jerry Elster, AFSC’s program associate for healing justice in the S.F. office, talked recently to a prisoner in general population at Pelican Bay who he once mentored inside. This man spoke very highly about the collective harmony amongst the different races there. He told Jerry, “Man it is so cool here, everyone is getting along and it’s all because of the Call to End Hostilities.” 

As a result of the battle against solitary confinement there is now a questioning and broadening critique from the White House and at least one justice on the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy, about the usefulness and impact, the harm of putting human beings in the “hole.” People are organizing all over the country, Congressional hearings are being held, and federal limitations are being proposed. The public is beginning to ask questions. 

In terms of the settlement itself, the prisoner plaintiffs had this to say: “This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California, and across the country...” 

They ended with an acknowledgement that this historic settlement is just one part of a longer struggle against solitary confinement and the system of imprisonment in general. It reads: “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle. We recommit to that fight, and invite you to join us.”

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