California must introduce radical changes to prison isolation

News
February 10, 2014

California must introduce radical changes to prison isolation

The authorities in California must introduce radical changes to the cruel conditions of the state’s solitary confinement units, said Amnesty International.

Tomorrow, 11 February, a representative of the human rights organization will give an oral submission before the California Assembly Public Safety Committee. It is currently considering a series of reforms to its Security Housing Units (SHUs), proposed by the the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“The authorities in California have an historic opportunity to end the inhumane conditions of detention of the hundreds of prisoners held in isolation across the state,” said Tessa Murphy, USA campaigner at Amnesty International.

Many of the inmates are held in isolation units in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

They are confined to their windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day. Exercise is limited to one and a half hours a day five days a week, alone, in a bare, concrete yard, with 20 foot high walls and only a patch of sky visible through a partially meshed plastic roof. 

“Holding prisoners in such restrictive conditions for prolonged periods of isolation is cruel and inhumane. Urgent reforms are needed to bring conditions in line with legal and human rights standards,” said Tessa Murphy.

Among the reforms proposed by the the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is a five-year step down program that would allow prisoners to earn their way back to the general prison population.

“The proposed reforms are a positive step. However, the prisoners would still have to spend at least the first two years of the program in the same inhumane conditions as before,” said Tessa Murphy.

Unlike most other states, individuals held in California’s isolation units are denied regular phone calls with their families. 

Some inmates are only allowed to send their relatives one photo a year.

Dozens of prisoners have spent more than 20 years in isolation.

Many prisoners have suffered from long-term physical and psychological issues arising from the extreme conditions they were held in, even after being released.

“We understand that it is sometimes necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security reasons. But the process for deciding who should be sent to solitary confinement appears to be unfair, with no clearly established criteria. This must change,” said Tessa Murphy.

When an Amnesty International delegation visited California in 2012, there were around 4,000 individuals held in solitary confinement – more than in any other state in the USA. Since then, hundreds of prisoners have been recommended for release from isolation or placed in various stages of the step down program. Other cases are pending review. However, the review process has been slow to date and most prisoners held in secure housing units still have to endure severe conditions.