• Sheet of paper Report

The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units


More than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units known as Security Housing Units (SHUs), where they are confined for at least 22 and a half hours a day in single or double cells, with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind. Over 1,000 are held in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, a remote facility where most prisoners are confined alone in cells which have no windows to the outside or direct access to natural light. SHU prisoners are isolated both within prison and from meaningful contacts with the outside world: contact with correctional staff is kept to a minimum, and consultations with medical, mental health and other staff routinely take place behind barriers; all visits, including family and legal visits, are also non-contact, with prisoners separated from their visitors behind a glass screen.  

Under California regulations, the SHU is intended for prisoners whose conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the institution. Around a third of the current population are serving fixed SHU terms of SHU confinement (ranging from a few months to several years) after being found guilty through the internal disciplinary system of specific offences while in custody. However, more than 2,000 prisoners are serving “indeterminate” (indefinite) SHU terms because they have been “validated” by the prison authorities as members or associates of prison gangs. According to figures provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2011, more than 500 prisoners serving indeterminate SHU terms had spent ten or more years in the Pelican Bay SHU; of this number, more than 200 had spent over 15 years in the SHU and 78 more than 20 years. Many had been in the SHU since it opened in 1989, held in conditions of extreme isolation and environmental deprivation.  

No other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.  The main route out of the SHU for prisoners with alleged gang connections has been to “debrief”, a process requiring them to provide information on other gang members which many decline to undertake because of the threat of retaliation. Although prisoners may also be released from the SHU if they have been “inactive” as a gang member or associate for six years, many prisoners have been held long beyond this period. Until now, these prisoners have had no means of leaving the SHU through their own positive behaviour or through participating in programs. Many prisoners have spent decades in isolation despite reportedly being free of any serious rule violations and – if they are serving a “term to life” sentence – without any means of earning parole. Prisoner advocates and others have criticized the gang validation process as unreliable and lacking adequate safeguards, allowing prisoners to be consigned to indefinite isolation without evidence of any specific illegal activity, or on the basis of tenuous gang associations, on evidence often provided by anonymous informants.    

In March 2012, the CDCR put forward proposals which, for the first time, would provide a “step-down program” (SDP) for prisoners serving indeterminate SHU terms, using what the department has called a “behaviour-based model” to enable them to earn their way back to the general prison population. Amnesty International welcomes in principle plans to provide a route out of isolation through prisoners’ own behaviour. However, the SDP – which would take place in four stages, each lasting a minimum of one-year – does not allow any group interaction for at least the first two years. No changes to the physical conditions of confinement are proposed for the Pelican Bay SHU, where prisoners would spend at least two years in the same isolated conditions of cellular confinement as they are now. Prisoners could still be held in indefinite isolation if they fail to meet the criteria for the SDP. In continuing to confine prisoners in prolonged isolation – albeit with shorter minimum terms than under the present system – California would still fall short of international law and standards for humane treatment and the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment.

Amnesty International does not seek to minimize the challenges faced by prison administrators in dealing with prison gangs and individuals who are a threat to institutional security and recognizes that it may sometimes be necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security purposes. However, all measures must be consistent with states’ obligation under international law and standards to treat all prisoners humanely. In recognition of the negative effects of such treatment, international and regional human rights bodies and experts have called on states to limit their use of solitary confinement, so that it is imposed only in exceptional circumstances for as short a period as possible. As described below, Amnesty International considers that the conditions of isolation and other deprivations imposed on prisoners in California’s SHU units breach international standards on humane treatment. The cumulative effects of such conditions, particularly when imposed for prolonged or indefinite periods, and the severe environmental deprivation in Pelican Bay SHU, in particular, amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law.