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California Prisoners Seek to Enforce Settlement Provisions in Ashker Litigation

by Kevin Bliss

On March 29, 2018, a federal magistrate judge in California held that prisoners in a class-action lawsuit over long-term solitary confinement, who entered into a settlement agreement with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), had not proven a material breach of the agreement. That decision was subsequently overruled in part by the district court.

CDCR prisoners held in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) stay on lockdown 23 hours a day and have limited programming opportunities or privileges. A large number of those prisoners have remained in SHUs for years or even decades due to alleged gang affiliations.

On behalf of a class of prisoners in administrative SHU, California state prisoner Todd Ashker and other plaintiffs entered into a September 2015 settlement with the CDCR that included a requirement that all class members eligible for release under the agreement would be transferred to a “General Population level IV 180-design facility, or other general population institution consistent with [their] case factors.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.1; Oct. 2014, p.30].

The CDCR transferred over 200 SHU prisoners to other facilities, where in some cases conditions were no better than in segregation units. Many class members asserted they did not receive even one hour a day of out-of-cell time, did not receive the agreed programming, and actually lived in more punitive and isolated circumstances than before. The prisoners filed a motion for enforcement, arguing the CDCR had violated the spirit of the settlement agreement; they relied on surveys from class members and expert declarations as evidence.

The CDCR countered that the surveys were unreliable, that only 55 surveys had been answered out of 205 sent – skewing the results – and that the plaintiffs’ experts did not conduct a separate investigation to verify the survey data.

The magistrate judge over the case held the prisoners had incorrectly relied upon their interpretation of “General Population Level IV 180-design facilities,” which was not otherwise defined in the settlement.

“Not only does the Settlement Agreement not specify details as to the conditions of confinement for class members transferred to a General Population level IV 180-design facility, it provides no requirements regarding the conditions of such a facility as compared with general population facilities nation-wide, or as compared with other inmates in the CDCR systems,” the magistrate judge wrote.

Accordingly, the prisoners’ motion for enforcement of the settlement was denied. They sought de novo review by the district court, and on July 3, 2018 the court granted their motion “to the extent that Plaintiffs must receive more out-of-cell time than they received in the Pelican Bay SHU. They should receive out-of-cell time consistent with the CDCR’s regulations and practices with respect to Level IV general population inmates, as well as its constitutional obligations.”

The case remains pending. See: Ashker v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:09-cv-05796-CW. 

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Related legal case

Ashker v. Brown