New Amnesty International Report Exposes Severe, Inhumane Solitary Confinement Conditions for 3,000 California Prisoners

Press Release
September 27, 2012

New Amnesty International Report Exposes Severe, Inhumane Solitary Confinement Conditions for 3,000 California Prisoners

Human Rights Group Urges California to Amend Brutal Conditions

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, strimel@aiusa.org, 212-633-4150, @strimel

(New York) – Three thousand prisoners in two California prisons are being held in solitary confinement under “cruel, degrading and inhuman” conditions that violate international standards, Amnesty International said today based on exclusive access to Pelican Bay and Corcoran state prisons. In a new report, the human rights organization said California is holding prisoners in extreme isolation – with no fresh air, natural light, direct human contact or programs – for years and even decades, and leaving them with little hope of ever emerging from the confinement.

Amnesty International researchers interviewed prisoners in solitary confinement in the two prisons, many former prisoners held in isolation, as well as parents, wives and siblings of current prisoners, including one who staged a hunger strike to protest conditions.

A former prisoner who was convicted of armed robbery at age 16 and spent seven years in solitary confinement told Amnesty International the experience amounted to “torture.”

“After being in solitary confinement for almost seven years, that rush of loneliness still vibrates through me,” he said.

Another prisoner told Amnesty International that he felt like he was “silently screaming 24 hours a day.”

The report, The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units, said many prisoners are suffering from physical and psychological problems due to isolation, which will make it difficult for them to function outside prison once released, especially because there are no pre-release or transition programs. Prisoners are confined for relatively minor infractions of rules or disruptive behavior, despite the fact that isolation is intended only for extreme cases.

Suzanne Nossel, executive director, Amnesty International USA, said: “This report is a wake-up call about the forms of brutal treatment to which prisoners right here in the United States are subjected through the pervasive and unregulated use of solitary confinement documented in California. The prospect of people spending years or decades of their lives with virtually no human contact, sunlight or stimulation is terrifying, and amounts to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. That some of these prisoners are later eligible for release means that human beings subject to these psychologically brutalizing conditions are then expected to reenter society, with no provision to help overcome the traumatic legacy of this inhumane treatment. This system is an affront to our values, and could pose a very real danger to society because of the damage it can inflict on both those subjected to it and the communities they later join."

Amnesty International is calling on the state to place prisoners in isolation only as a last resort when dangerous behavior threatens the safety of other prisoners, and to improve conditions for all prisoners held in isolation units.

One prisoner told Amnesty International he was placed in isolation because he was seen speaking to a gang member. Another asked for ten years to be transferred closer to his elderly mother, who was too frail to visit, but the request was repeatedly denied. She passed away without the son ever seeing her again.

Seventy-eight of the prisoners have spent more than 20 years in isolation while 500 prisoners have been isolated for ten or more years and 200 for more than 15 years, according to 2011 figures from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. No other U.S. state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation, Amnesty International said.

One prisoner who had been in an isolation unit for 22 years told Amnesty International researchers during a visit to Pelican Bay that they were the first outsiders he had seen in the cell block for years.

Amnesty International said while it sometimes may be necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security purposes, isolation currently is too widely imposed and for too long a period. Prisoners should be isolated only in exceptional circumstances and only for as short a period as possible, the organization said.

To deprive prisoners of natural light, adequate exercise or meaningful human contact is unnecessarily punitive and unjustifiable in all circumstances, the organization said. Access to natural light and exercise are basic needs, essential for physical and mental health.

Over 2,000 prisoners are being held in isolation after being “validated” as members or associates of prison gangs.

Prisoners in isolation are confined to cells at least 22 hours and 30 minutes a day in cells measuring roughly 9 feet by 9 feet. In Pelican Bay State Prison, over 1,000 inmates are confined alone in these windowless cells. Exercise is limited to an hour and a half a day, alone in a bare, concrete yard with walls 20 feet high with only a tiny patch of sky visible through a partially meshed plastic roof.

Prisoners in isolation are not allowed to work, go to religious services or participate in rehabilitation programs or group activities on any kind. They are prevented from direct contact with the outside world; consultations with medical staff take place behind barriers and visits from family or lawyers take place behind a glass screen. Prisoners have no regular telephone contact with relatives.

One relative said: “The hardest thing to bear is the lack of human contact. In the SHU {Security Housing Unit}, you can't touch people, you lack sunlight, even noise. It is total sensory deprivation.”

Even though isolation is intended for extreme cases only, many prisoners who end up in such units have mental illness or behavioral problems and have sometimes been confined for repeated, relatively minor rule infractions and disruptive behavior.

The severe negative psychological consequences of isolation are reflected in data from various jurisdictions showing that suicides occur more frequently in isolation units than in the general prison population. In California, over a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the number of prison suicides averaged 34 a year, with 42 percent occurring in administrative segregation or isolation units.

Devastating physical problems include vitamin D deficiency because prisoners are deprived of exercise and sunlight for so many years. Prisoners’ eyesight deteriorates and they develop photophobia and vision loss. In addition, prisoners develop balance problems, chronic asthma, severe insomnia and memory loss, all of which are permanent afflictions that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Studies have found that negative effects from prolonged isolation can continue long after release, and that the lack of pre-release or transitional programming for inmates who may have spent years or even decades in isolation makes successful reintegration into society much harder.

Recent reform proposals do not go far enough to address Amnesty International’s many serious concerns with California’s long-term isolation units. Even if these reforms are made, the state would still fall short of international law and standards for humane treatment of prisoners and the prohibition against torture and other ill-treatment.

Amnesty International urges authorities in California to:

  • Limit the use of isolation units so that solitary confinement is imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners whose behavior constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of others.
  • Improve conditions for all prisoners held in isolation units, including better exercise provision and an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even at the most restrictive custody levels.
  • Allow prisoners in isolation units to make regular phone calls to their families.
  • Reduce the length of the Step Down Program to allow prisoners to emerge from isolation, and provide meaningful access to programs where prisoners have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at an earlier stage.
  • Immediately remove from isolation of prisoners who have already spent years in Security Housing Units.

Note to Editors

Media materials available under embargo include:

  • Report: “The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units”
  • Fact sheet
  • Photos of isolation units in California
  • Contact information for relatives of prisoners, former inmates

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.