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California: Federal Judge Certifies Class-Action Over SHU Placement, Conditions

California: Federal Judge Certifies Class-Action Over SHU Placement, Conditions

by Derek Gilna

California state prison officials could be forgiven for complaining that the federal courts spend a lot of time monitoring their activities, but the facts indicate that such attention is warranted. California’s prison system, already singled out by the U.S. Supreme Court for overcrowding and court-ordered population reductions, is currently under additional scrutiny for constitutional violations in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison.

A lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of ten prisoners who have spent at least ten years in the SHU at Pelican Bay alleges that prolonged SHU confinement constitutes cruel and inhumane punishment.

According to Alexis Agathocleous, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, “Since their 2011 hunger strikes, hundreds of prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU – and across California – have stood together in solidarity to protest inhumane conditions and broken policies they’ve been subjected to for decades. This case has always been about the constitutional violations suffered by all prisoners at the SHU....”

The federal judge hearing the case of Ashker v. Brown apparently agreed, and on June 2, 2014 certified the lawsuit as a class-action for all similarly situated prisoners held in Pelican Bay’s SHU.

The prisoners’ tactic of engaging in hunger strikes, uncommon in U.S. prisons, has focused attention on what prisoners’ rights advocates argue have been long-term problems in California’s prison system. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.18; July 2012, p.32].

Following an expansive investigation, Amnesty International (AI) issued a 63-page report in September 2012, concluding that SHU conditions “breach international standards on humane treatment.” The SHU at Pelican Bay is intentionally designed to “minimize human contact and reduce visual stimulation,” the report stated.

The district court noted that “Plaintiffs allege that SHU inmates live in almost total isolation. They spend at least twenty-two and a half hours per day in windowless, concrete cells with perforated steel doors and typically leave only to shower or exercise alone in an enclosed pen.”

According to the AI report, “Under California regulations, SHU is intended for prisoners whose conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the institution.” Yet two-thirds of SHU prisoners are serving “indeterminate” terms in segregation – not due to violent behavior but because they have been “validated” by prison authorities as gang members or associates. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.30; Dec. 2013, p.40].

The arbitrariness of such isolation practices has led to an average stay in Pelican Bay’s SHU of 6.8 years, AI stated. At least 500 prisoners have spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement, where the conditions “would crush you” according to Tess Murphy, an Amnesty observer who toured Pelican Bay. Disturbingly, nearly 60 prisoners have been held in the SHU for over 20 years, many of them since the facility first opened in 1989.

Now these practices will be subjected to judicial scrutiny in the latest of a long line of federal lawsuits that have mined a seemingly endless vein of questionable conditions of confinement that have exacted an immense cost in unnecessary human suffering in California’s prison system.

Although there have been recent efforts by state prison officials to review SHU placements and move certain SHU prisoners into a “step down” program, such efforts have been criticized as inadequate. As of June 9, 2014, prison officials had conducted 828 SHU reviews, resulting in 557 prisoners being moved to general population and 231 placed in various levels of the step down program. Five of the original plaintiffs in Ashker have been removed from SHU confinement.

In its class certification order, the district court certified two classes, one consisting of “all inmates who are assigned to an indeterminate term at the Pelican Bay SHU on the basis of gang validation...” and the other of “all inmates who are now, or will be in the future, assigned to the Pelican Bay SHU for a period of more than ten continuous years.” Prisoners held in SHUs at other facilities are not included.

The court also assigned five of the original named plaintiffs who remain at Pelican Bay to serve as class representatives, and denied a motion by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) to intervene in the case. See: Ashker v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:09-cv-05796-CW; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75347 (N.D. Cal. June 2, 2014).

In a related matter, a bill that would have required certain reforms in SHUs in California prisons, SB892, died in the state legislature in late August 2014. For example, the bill would have allowed SHU prisoners to have photographs and make phone calls if they maintained good behavior for three months. Fears that Governor Jerry Brown would veto the legislation contributed to its demise.

“I became convinced that to get a bill signed into law would require further weakening it to a point where it could no longer accomplish its goals,” said state Senator Loni Hancock.

Thus, it appears that changes in SHU practices will have to be accomplished through the courts, as California lawmakers lack the political will to do so.

Additional sources:,


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Related legal case

Ashker v. Brown