Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Law Won

pelican-bay-prison

Pelican Bay State Prison. (Photo: Jelson25/Wikimedia Commons)

Are We Approaching the End of Solitary Confinement?

• June 23, 2014 • 8:00 AM

Pelican Bay State Prison. (Photo: Jelson25/Wikimedia Commons)

As a new class-action lawsuit out of California’s infamous Pelican Bay State Prison that may definitively determine the future of solitary in that state moves forward, more people are taking the position that the practice amounts to inhumane punishment.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Oakland held that five inmates currently locked up in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison are permitted to move forward with their class action, Ashker v. Brown, on behalf of over 500 other inmates, all of whom have been held in Security Housing Units (SHU), the administrative term for solitary confinement, for over a decade. Some of those inmates have been in solitary for over 20 years now, and many are there on the basis of alleged gang affiliation only. One of the plaintiffs, Todd Ashker, has been in solitary for over 25 years, and he’s only 50. This means that he has spent over half of his life in solitary lockdown.*

This lawsuit seriously challenges the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) widespread use of solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time, arguing that the use of solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates housed in solitary confinement, which the Istanbul Statement defines as “the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day,” are generally denied access to edible food, medical care, stamps, writing materials, and visitors, according to one complaint. Their exercise period is held in a small concrete “dog run” where sunlight and air are obscured by Plexiglas and mesh. The named plaintiffs are the leaders of last summer’s hunger strikes, where over 30,000 prisoners across California refused to eat in order to protest the inhumane conditions at Pelican Bay and the CDCR’s draconian methods to curb gang activity by sending alleged members to the SHU.

This isn’t the first time that a federal judge has intimated that matters of California prison policy will be decided in court. The CDCR is still struggling to comply with a federal order, upheld by the Supreme Court, to reduce prison overcrowding (Plata v. Brown) as well as another order to improve the treatment and services available to mentally ill inmates (Coleman v. Brown). The implementation of both Plata and Coleman has been going on for over a decade. From all appearances, the CDCR seems to view these court-ordered mandates as burdens imposed by an outside authority, resulting in what appears to be petulance at being the loser. Dr. Raymond F. Patterson, a suicide expert and one of special masters assigned to Coleman, stated in his 14th and final report that he would no longer participate in the process because the CDCR showed no signs of improvement: “It has become apparent that continued repetition of these recommendations would be a further waste of time and effort.”

Little dissent exists in the medical community that solitary confinement for even short periods of time can cause long-term effects like psychotic disturbances, depression, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and a severe incapacity to re-integrate into society.

Solitary confinement has been the subject of a previous lawsuit in California, Madrid v. Gomez, where a judge held that confining inmates with mental illnesses in SHU conditions at Pelican Bay violated the Eighth Amendment. The case left open the question as to whether or not the use of solitary confinement was similarly illegal for all inmates, a question that Ashker seeks to answer.

The tide of public opinion has gradually been turning against the use of solitary confinement, and it’s hard to find any evidence in support of the practice. International groups, like Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have determined that solitary confinement amounts to inhumane punishment, causing hosts of mental and physical problems; it’s widely considered torture under most international conventions. Little dissent exists in the medical community that solitary confinement for even short periods of time can cause long-term effects like psychotic disturbances, depression, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and a severe incapacity to re-integrate into society. Solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time may have untold additional consequences.

This lawsuit may definitively determine the future of solitary confinement and force the CDCR to phase it out completely. This is no small task. California holds more people in solitary than any other state. Famously foreboding because of its remoteness, Pelican Bay has over 1,000 inmates in SHU alone, and two other prisons—Corcoran State Prison and CCI Calipatria—hold over 2,000 more inmates in SHU confinement.

While it may seem unusual that solitary confinement would have such widespread use in California, the history of that state’s prisons is one of extreme fear and violence. Since the 1970s, when the serial killer phenomenon entered the social consciousness, government officials have responded to public anxiety by deciding that people who are prone to violence—who may commit a violent act even if they haven’t yet—should be restrained in order to prevent any harm. The famous “San Quentin Six,” a group of inmates who attempted to escape in 1971, resulting in a riot that ended in the gruesome deaths of three correctional officers, further encouraged policies that favor restraint and confinement over rehabilitation. The 1971 riot is still cited as major support for the increased use of supermaxes, and all of California’s supermax prisons, like Pelican Bay, were commissioned after the riot, according to author and law professor Jonathan Simon.

The CDCR justifies the long-term use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay as a way to deter gang violence. Currently, individuals who are determined to have a gang affiliation can be held in SHU indefinitely until they “debrief”—provide prison authorities full information on gang-related activities. The debriefing process is describing as chillingly threatening—inmates are asked before debriefing if they want to contact their family members to let them know they may be in danger.

The way the CDCR determines gang affiliations is particularly shrouded in mystery. Todd Ashker, for example, is an alleged member of the Aryan Brotherhood, based on some drawings found in his cell and confidential informants. The Ashker case calls into question these tactics, but from the CDCR’s point of view, Pelican Bay houses the most dangerous gang leaders, necessitating the extreme control tactics implemented there.

Despite the clear and convincing evidence that solitary confinement must be curtailed, lawsuits aren’t always the most effective way to solve problems of public policy. They are costly and take a long time. As the results from Plata, the overcrowding lawsuit, show, decades pass before the CDCR complies—California prisons are still over the judicially mandated population limit. I was told by people within the CDCR that courts misinterpret prison management and unfairly set standards to which the CDCR cannot immediately adhere. Plus, for the money the CDCR spends to defend its policies, it could fund dozens of rehabilitative programs in California prisons, programs that have been found to reduce the prison population overall. Would it be more effective—and result in less stubborn resistance—to allow these changes to occur through the political process?

The culture of prisons seems slow to change, particularly in California. Those who work within the prisons have little incentive to modify the system, and, while many people support prison reform, they grow more edgy when they realize that ex-cons are being funneled back into their community. The Pelican Bay hunger strikers tried to take action in the only politically meaningful way they could, bringing widespread attention to their cause, but no change occurred. Cases like Ashker seem like the sort for which constitutional protections were designed, a reminder that individuals are equal, even if they are incarcerated.


*UPDATE — June 23, 2014: We originally wrote that SHU stands for Segregated Housing Units. It stands for Security Housing Units.

Jessica Pishko
Jessica Pishko graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She practiced corporate law, specializing in securities fraud, and represented death penalty clients and victims of domestic abuse pro bono. Follow her on Twitter @JessPish.

More From Jessica Pishko

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.