Amnesty International Condemns California Prisons’ Use of Indefinite Isolation

Friday, September 28, 2012

The last three reports by Amnesty International on human rights abuses focused on Syria’s assault on civilians, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Chad prison conditions (“We are all dying here”).

Now it’s California’s turn.

In a report released Thursday titled “The Edge of Endurance,” the human rights organization took issue with California’s 3,000+ prisoners held in high-security isolation, two-thirds of whom are separated from the general prison population for an “indeterminate” period of time.

“No other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation,” the report says. The organization said it was a “breach international standards on humane treatment . . . that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law.”

More than 1,000 of these prisoners are in Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison, where the cells have no windows or direct access to sunlight. They spend at least 22.5 hours a day in cells without telephone access or contact visits. They receive no vocational, recreational or educational programming.

As of 2011, more than 500 prisoners serving indeterminate terms in isolation had spent at least 10 years doing so. More than 200 had been isolated for 15 years and 78 for 20 years. Many of those in isolation have been identified by corrections authorities as prison gang members.

Terri McDonald, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation official, told the Los Angeles Times that Amnesty International was mistaken and that the prison system’s high-security units “follow the national standard. They are clean. They are secure.”

Last year, 12,000 inmates in California prisons participated in a hunger strike whose demands included an end to long-term solitary confinement. After the strike ended, the Center for Constitutional Rights and several other legal advocacy groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoners, alleging that prolonged solitary confinement violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.     

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California's Security Housing Units (Amnesty International)

Report Decries Suicides, Isolation Cells in California Prisons (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

Pelican Bay Prisoners File Lawsuit Against Long-Term Isolation (by Sal Rodriguez, Solitary Watch)

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