A federal judge recently granted class action status to a lawsuit that claims being locked up for years in a windowless room smaller than many bathrooms causes physical and psychological damage to those imprisoned there.
The federal suit, Ashker v. Brown, was originally filed in September 2012 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of ten inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, and alleges that the prison’s practice of locking inmates in its controversial Security Housing Unit (SHU) — sometimes for more than two decades — amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“California’s uniquely harsh regime of prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay is inhumane and debilitating,” the plaintiff’s complaint reads. “Plaintiffs and class members languish, typically alone, in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell, for 22 and one-half to 24 hours a day. These tormenting and prolonged conditions of confinement have produced harmful and predictable psychological deterioration among Plaintiffs and class members.”
Also, the suit claims that the lack of a “meaningful review” process available to prisoners in the SHU, or any notice of how prisoners can earn their way back to general population status, is a violation of the prisoners’ right to due process, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Now that U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken granted the case class action status, any decision that would have been restricted to the original plaintiffs can now be applied to broader policy and, subsequently, might lead to broader change one day. The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in December 2015.
“We pose a fundamental question: Is it constitutional to hold someone in solitary confinement for over a decade?” Alexis Agathocleous, staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, told the Los Angeles Times.
The Center for Constitutional Rights didn’t immediately return calls to the Triplicate on Wednesday for further comment.
For its part, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which in February filed to have the case dismissed, states the practice is indeed constitutional.
“CDCR believes that its housing of inmates at the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison is constitutional and appropriate and intends to continue to take appropriate legal action to defend the State of California and its practices in managing the most dangerous of offenders,” Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for CDCR, wrote in an email to the Triplicate.
The motion for dismissal filed by CDCR — rejected by the court in April 2013 — goes further in rebutting the plaintiffs’ allegations, pointing out that the SHU exists to house inmates like the plaintiffs — “validated gang members and associates who wreak havoc within prison walls, even under the strict conditions of the SHU,” and that Ashker had previously been found by the court to be a validated member of the Aryan Brotherhood in 2009.
Additionally, in regard to the plaintiffs’ due process challenge, the rejected CDCR filing states that a program called the Security Threat Group pilot program, designed to transfer inmates assigned to the SHU to general population, addresses the due process charges in the complaint.
“We didn’t just revise the way we managed gangs — security threat groups — we started from scratch. We overhauled the whole thing,” Thornton said. “As part of that, for the last year and a half, we have been doing case by case reviews of every validated inmate in our system. As a result, hundreds of them are out of the SHU and living in general population yards.”
Five of the 10 plaintiffs in Ashker v. Brown were moved from the SHU to general population housing in 2013.
However, since the pilot program hasn’t been delivered to all inmates housed in the SHU, the court deemed it as insufficient grounds for dismissal.
The practice of keeping prisoners in the SHU’s 7.6- by 11.6-foot cells, mostly because of alleged gang associations, is what spurred the three hunger strikes that have taken place across the California prison system since 2011. The strikes — the most recent of which took place in July 2013 and which at its peak involved more than 3,500 inmates — led to increased public awareness through a barrage of media attention, as well as several lawsuits — including Ashker v. Brown — that were filed concerning the practice.
According to 2011 CDCR statistics, more than 500 prisoners — about half of the SHU population — have been locked in security housing for more than 10 years. Additionally, according to a 2013 CDCR Security Housing Unit “fact sheet,” the SHU isn’t intended as punishment for misbehavior, but as a place to “house offenders whose conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the prison.” The fact sheet goes on to point out that — contrary to the plaintiff’s complaint — “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California prisons and the SHU is not ‘solitary confinement.’ Many inmates in the SHU have cellmates.”