California must introduce radical changes to prison isolation

The authorities in California must introduce radical changes to the cruel conditions of the state’s solitary confinement units, said Amnesty International.

Tomorrow, 11 February, a representative of the human rights organization will give an oral submission before the California Assembly Public Safety Committee. It is currently considering a series of reforms to its Security Housing Units (SHUs), proposed by the the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“The authorities in California have an historic opportunity to end the inhumane conditions of detention of the hundreds of prisoners held in isolation across the state,” said Tessa Murphy, USA campaigner at Amnesty International.

Most of the inmates are held in isolation units in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

They are confined to their windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day. Exercise is limited to one 90-minute session a week, alone, in a bare, concrete yard, with 20 foot high walls and only a patch of sky visible through a partially meshed plastic roof.

“Holding prisoners in such restrictive conditions for prolonged periods of isolation is cruel and inhumane. Urgent reforms are needed to bring conditions in line with legal and human rights standards,” said Tessa Murphy.

Among the reforms proposed by the the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is a five-year step down program that would allow prisoners to earn their way back to the general prison population.

“The proposed reforms are a positive step. However, the prisoners would still have to spend at least the first two years of the program in the same inhumane conditions as before,” said Tessa Murphy.

Unlike most other states, individuals held in California’s isolation units are denied regular phone calls with their families.

Some inmates are only allowed to send their relatives one photo a year.

Dozens of prisoners have spent more than 20 years in isolation.

Many prisoners have suffered from long-term physical and psychological issues arising from the extreme conditions they were held in, even after being released.

“We understand that it is sometimes necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security reasons. But the process for deciding who should be sent to solitary confinement appears to be unfair, with no clearly established criteria. This must change,” said Tessa Murphy.

When an Amnesty International delegation visited California in 2012, there were around 4,000 individuals held in solitary confinement – more than in any other state in the USA. Since then, hundreds of prisoners have been recommended for release from isolation or placed in various stages of the step down program. Other cases are pending review. However, the review process has been slow to date and most prisoners held in secure housing units still have to endure severe conditions.

Note to editors

In October 2012, Amnesty International published the report USA: The edge of endurance: Prison conditions in California’s Security Housing Units.

After the publication of the report, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation undertook some reforms which fell far short from international human rights standards.

Last year, prisoners across the California state engaged in a two-month long hunger strike to protest against the grueling conditions in the isolation units. At its peak, over 30,000 prisoners engaged in the peaceful protest.

In September, the hunger strike was brought to an end after state legislators committed to holding hearings on conditions in the units and on the use of long term isolation. The second, and final hearing on the issue will be held on 11 February.

It will take place in the California State Legislature. in Sacramento.

Tessa Murphy, Amnesty International’s campaigner on the USA, will attend the session and is available for interviews. She was part of the Amnesty International delegation that toured California’s isolation units in 2012.