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Breaking News: CDCR Settles Solitary Confinement Class-Action Suit

Breaking News: CDCR Settles Solitary Confinement Class-Action Suit

by Derek Gilna

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has long been criticized for its excessive use of solitary confinement, and no facility has been subject to more criticism than Pelican Bay State Prison, which confines over 1,100 prisoners in supermax conditions that some observers have called “torture.”

However, after six years of litigation, dozens of depositions, multiple expert witness statements and reports, the exchange of tens of thousands of documents in discovery and multiple motions, a federal lawsuit that began as a pro se prisoner complaint in 2009 and later became a class-action finally settled on August 31, 2015 following months of intense negotiations. [See: PLN, Oct. 2014, p.30; Oct. 2012, p.1].

The settlement discussions came to a head shortly after the CDCR’s final motion to dismiss was denied and discovery was closed by the district court.

As part of the settlement, the CDCR agreed to stop placing prisoners in indeterminate solitary confinement in Special Housing Units (SHUs) based upon alleged “security threat group” (gang) membership; to release long-term SHU prisoners back to general population after a transition period; and to institute a modified two-year Step Down Program, which allows SHU prisoners to earn privileges for good behavior.

Prisoners can still be placed in segregation for violating institutional rules. They can also be held in Administrative SHU “if it has been determined by the Departmental Review Board that the inmate’s case factors are such that overwhelming evidence exists supporting an immediate threat to the security of the institution or the safety of others, and substantial justification has been articulated of the need for SHU placement.”

The CDCR confines nearly 3,000 prisoners for more than 22 hours a day in SHU cells that often lack windows, and restricts their access to visitation, programming and recreation. Prisoners’ rights advocates and mental health experts have long maintained that prolonged solitary confinement can have significant physical and mental health consequences.

Under the settlement, “CDCR shall not place inmates into a SHU, Administrative Segregation, or Step Down Program solely on the basis of their validation [alleged gang] status.” The Step Down Program was started by the CDCR in 2012 in an attempt to address criticism of its solitary confinement practices. The settlement agreement also provides that the CDCR “shall amend the SHU Assessment Chart located in Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations, section 3341.5, subsection (c)(9).” The amendments will limit the amount of time prisoners spend in solitary (including a limit of five years at the Pelican Bay SHU), and outline their ability to earn institutional privileges. Prisoners will also have an opportunity for family visits after successfully completing various Step Down requirements.

Pursuant to the settlement, prisoners who refuse to participate in the Step Down Program will be transferred to a Restricted Custody General Population (RCGP) Level IV facility, where they will still have an opportunity to participate in educational and recreational programs. The 24-page settlement agreement includes additional, detailed provisions related to placing prisoners in and removing them from SHUs and the Step Down Program.

At the time of the settlement, 2,858 California prisoners were held in solitary, but that number was expected to quickly drop to around 1,800 according to CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard.

The settlement agreement “will move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system, but do so in a way where we rely less on the use of segregation,” Beard said.

Jules Lobel, president of the Board of Trustees for the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead attorney in the class-action suit, agreed, stating, “This brings California in line with more modern national prison practice. People have been kept in solitary confinement for outrageously long periods of time. That’s one of the problems in the U.S. – people are warehoused in these places, and now that’s going to change.”

Prisoners’ rights advocates are hopeful that the settlement with the CDCR will serve as a model for reform of segregation practices in other state prison systems. The California federal district court will retain jurisdiction over the class-action case for at least two more years to ensure compliance with the settlement provisions, and the plaintiffs are entitled to request reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. See: Ashker v. Governor of California, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:09-cv-05796-CW.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, more than 500 CDCR prisoners have spent over a decade in solitary confinement, while almost 80 have served at least 20 years in segregation. The lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit are Todd Ashker, Ronnie Dewberry, Luis Esquivel, George Franco, Jeffrey Franklin, Richard Johnson, Paul Redd, Gabriel Reyes, George Ruiz and Danny Troxell.

Additional sources:, The New York Times, Huffington Post

Related legal case

Ashker v. Governor of California