CA Prisoners Win Historic Gains with Settlement Against Solitary Confinement

Posted on September 1, 2015 by prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity

Agreement reached in Ashker v. Brown ends indeterminate long-term solitary confinement in CA, among other gains for prisoners

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – September 1, 2015
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition

Oakland – Today, California prisoners locked in isolation achieved a groundbreaking legal victory in their ongoing struggle against the use of solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the federal class action suit Ashker v. Brown, originally filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and greatly limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, widely seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay State Prison’s infamous Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any kind of programming.

“From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocate, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls,” said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), and mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. “This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight – it will only make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger.” The 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes gained widespread international attention that for the first time in recent years put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.

Currently, many prisoners are in solitary because of their “status” – having been associated with political ideologies or gang affiliation. However, this settlement does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral rule violations. Furthermore, the settlement limits the amount of time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for the release of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.

It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within one year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.

“Despite the repeated attempts by the prison regime to break the prisoners’ strength, they have remained unified in this fight,” said Marie Levin of CFASC and sister of a prisoner representative named in the lawsuit. “The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will continue to play a significant role in their ongoing struggle.”

The Agreement to End Hostilities is an historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to build unity and cease hostilities between racial groups.

Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will regularly meet with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as with Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, who is tasked with overseeing the reforms, to insure that the settlement terms are being implemented.

“Without the hunger strikes and without the Agreement to End Hostilities to bring California’s prisoners together and commit to risking their lives— by being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we would not have this settlement today,” said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. “It will improve the living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languishing for decades in the hole at Pelican Bay.”

“This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters,” said the prisoners represented in the settlement in a joint statement. “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.”

Legal co-counsel in the case includes California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Chistensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone. The lead counsel is the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge in the case is Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

A rally and press conference are set for 12pm in front of the Elihu M Harris State Building in Oakland, which will be livestreamed at http://livestre.am/5bsWO.

The settlement can be read on CCR’s website, along with a summary. CCR has also put up downloadable clips of the plaintiffs’ depositions here.

Court Must Intervene to End Torture of Solitary Confinement, Attorneys Argue

A court hearing took place on March 14th in Oakland on behalf of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners. 
Here is the press release by the Center for Constitutional Rights:

press@ccrjustice.org

March 14, 2013, Oakland – Today, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged a federal judge to reject California’s attempt to dismiss a class action lawsuit challenging prolonged solitary confinement in California prisons.  The case was filed on behalf of prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement and who staged two widely publicized hunger strikes in 2011.  It alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review of SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process.  CCR lawyers argued today that nominal, temporary reforms by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which the defendants cited as grounds for dismissing the case, have had little to no effect on the conditions challenged in the lawsuit and, thus, the case must proceed.

“The CDCR’s reforms are nothing more than window dressing.  They are riddled with the same constitutional problems challenged in this lawsuit, they have had no effect on any of the plaintiffs and, in any event, they are set to expire in two years,” said Center for Constitutional Rights President Jules Lobel, who argued today.  “The most important similarity, however, is that this pilot program is the third time the CDCR has promised meaningful reforms and failed to deliver.  At this point it is clear that a court must intervene.”
SHU prisoners spend 22 ½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell.  They are denied telephone calls, any physical contact with visitors, and vocational, recreational and educational programming.  As of 2011, more than 500 Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these conditions for over 10 years; more than 200 have been there for over 15 years; and 78 have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years.  Solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage and is analyzed as torture under international law.  The pilot program implemented by the CDCR still allows for prisoners to be confined in extreme isolation for decades.
Said plaintiff and Pelican Bay SHU prisoner Luis Esquivel, “I have joined this lawsuit as a named plaintiff because I am interested in the welfare and human dignity of all people in the SHU, not just my own situation. All SHU prisoners are in this struggle together. We all want to be treated like human beings, but are not.”
Additionally, CCR attorneys argued today that the pilot program does not ameliorate the due process violations alleged in the complaint, as it still does not provide any meaningful review of prisoners’ SHU placement, rendering their isolation effectively permanent.  Prisoners can still be placed and held in the SHU absent any gang activity, violent conduct, or serious rule infraction; they may still be labeled gang “affiliates” and confined in isolation for activities such as reading about Black history, creating or possessing cultural artwork, or writing in Swahili; and they still must wait years between each opportunity for review.  Moreover, even since the pilot program was implemented, some of the plaintiffs have been denied release from the SHU explicitly under the old policy.
Said attorney Charles Carbone, “The pilot program is already in a tail spin. The prisoners have rejected it and it does nothing to stop long term isolation or torture. The only real fix here is to end indefinite solitary confinement in California.”
SHU assignments disproportionately affect Latino prisoners.  The percentage of Latinos in the Pelican Bay SHU was 85% in 2011, far higher than their representation in the general prison population, which was 41%. 
“I’ve been in solitary confinement for 16 years,” said plaintiff and Pelican Bay SHU prisoner Gabriel Reyes.  “I have learned here to hope for the best, expect the worst. I hope common sense and justice rule the day, so my family and loved ones can touch and hug each other and be a family again someday. My pillow keeps getting smaller and smaller from squeezing it so much.”
                                                        
On March 12, 2013, CCR submitted written testimony on solitary confinement in the United States to an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) thematic hearing on the use of solitary in the Americas.  The testimony is available here.
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone are co-counsel on the case.
The case is Ruiz v. Brown, and it amends an earlier pro se lawsuit filed by Pelican Bay SHU prisoners Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell.  The case is before Judge Claudia Wilken in The United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

Write a letter:

Synopsis

Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisoners have organized to combat cruel conditions of confinement, and have launched two hunger strikes to raise attention to their demands. (Learn more about this here)

Tell the California Governor Jerry Brown to honor the demands on the prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU.
Description

In mid October 2012, members of the Pelican Bay hunger strike movement issued an open letter to Governor Jerry Brown asking for his support and intervention on their behalf, demanding substantive policy changes to their conditions of confinement, and citing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)’s failure to meaningfully commit to agreements made following the hunger strike. We ask you to take action in solidarity with these prisoners and please write to Governor Jerry Brown asking for his support and intervention on their behalf.
Take Action Now: Tell Governor Brown to intervene on behalf of Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners.

CALI prisoner rights’ activists under investigation.


PRISONER HUNGER STRIKE SOLIDARITY

This post below is ominous. It comes from CaliforniaWatch, founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Both of the agencies in question are pretty prominent and well established in the area of fighting for prisoner rights – they’re also serious antagonists of the system out there. They would be the ones to go after if the state wanted to intimidate everyone else into backing off the Pelican Bay prisoners – they’ve been a resource for other activists all across the country over the years.

So, defy the state of California – or whatever state you’re fighting prison systems in: Support the California prisoners on hunger strike demanding to be treated like human beings. Don’t just sign a petition: tune in and follow along, look for local solidarity actions, help local prisoners get their stories told – just take it one step further than you have before. What’s been happening at Pelican Bay is a whole lot bigger than California…so is this investigation.
By the way, the strike is now 12,000 prisoners big and growing…

– in Solidarity from Arizona Prison Watch

SUPPORT OUR COMRADES: Follow their sites!


—————-CaliforniaWatch—————

State prison officials investigate 2 advocates

Just days after thousands of California inmates renewed a hunger strike, two Bay Area attorneys closely involved in mediation efforts got a surprise: They were under investigation by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for allegations of misconduct and unspecified security threats.

The attorneys – Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, and Carol Strickman of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children – have been banned from state institutions until the investigation is resolved, according to temporary exclusion orders signed by Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan on Sept. 29.

The investigation will determine whether the attorneys “violated the laws and policies governing the safe operations of institutions within the CDCR,” the order states.

The document does not provide details about the allegations. It cites a section from California Code of Regulations that reads:

“Committing an act that jeopardizes the life of a person, violates the security of the facility, constitutes a misdemeanor or a felony, or is a reoccurrence of previous violations shall result in a one-year to lifetime exclusion depending on the severity of the offense in question.”

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton confirmed the department had banned “some specific attorneys” from one facility for alleged misconduct. She declined further comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

The move is another indication that the corrections department intends to handle the current protest differently from an earlier hunger strike, which ended July 20 after officials agreed to some concessions, including a review of policies governing the state’s controversial Security Housing Units, where some inmates have spent decades housed alone in windowless cells.

Since then, strike leaders have accused corrections officials of failing to carry out their promises.

“CDCR has responded with more propaganda, lies and vague double-talk of promises of change in time,” reads a statement from the leaders posted on an advocacy website. The inmates vowed to continue the protest indefinitely, “until actual changes are implemented.”

But corrections officials say they’ve kept their commitments and claim the protests are the work of dangerous gang leaders.

“Unlike in the first instance where we certainly evaluated their concerns and thought there was some merit to it, this instance appears to be more manipulative, and it certainly has the possibility of being a real disruption to the Department of Corrections and the security of its staff and inmates,” Kernan said.

A memo signed by Kernan and distributed to inmates Sept. 29 warned the department was treating the new hunger strike as a “mass disturbance” and said any prisoner who joined the protest would be subject to disciplinary action.

General-population inmates identified as strike leaders will be locked in special segregation units normally used as punishment for major rules violations, according to the memo.

Strickman and McMahon have been involved in extensive discussions with corrections officials, including Kernan, and leaders of the strike, who are housed in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit.

Neither attorney was available for comment.

Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, condemned the sanctions against the attorneys and said he expected the department would place similar restrictions on other advocates in order to further isolate leaders of the hunger strike.

“They’re trying to move us out of the way,” he said.

Nearly 3,400 inmates at six prisons have refused state-issued meals for three consecutive days, according to the most recent data from the corrections department.

On the Block Radio interview with Ed Mead of California Prison Focus about the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

From: On the Block Radio, Philadelphia:
June 24th 2011

A group of prisoners housed in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, a housing assignment in which prisoners are restricted to their cells in solitary for at least 23 hours a day, has announced plans to begin a hunger strike on July 1st. According to a formal complaint published by a group of prisoners in the Summer 2011 issue of Prison Focus, one of the goals of the hunger strike is the implementation of 5 demands by the administration of Pelican Bay Prison.

They are:

1) Eliminate group punishments
2) Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria
3) Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons
(2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement
4) Provide adequate food
5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.”

We speak with Ed Mead–editor of the California-based newspaper Prison Focus and one of hte organizers of the outside support for the Pelican Bay State prisoner hunger strike–about the living conditions for prisoners inside of Pelican Bay State Prison and the development and structure of this latest planned prison protest.

Formal Complaint by SHU Short Corridor Inmates, Pelican Bay State Prison

The latest California Prison Focus has a Formal Complaint by SHU Short Corridor inmates at Pelican Bay, on its front page. Read it here, and inside the issue there is more info on the upcoming hunger strike for Human Rights.

See the handwritten formal complaint here.

Pelican Bay SHU Hungerstrike starts 1st of July 2011

From California Prison Focus:

Five Core Demands *** Formal Complaint

April 25, 2011

Dear Supporters of Prisoner and Human Rights,

On July 1, 2011, between 50 and 100 prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), Corridor D, are going on an indefinite hunger strike. The D corridor (also known as the “short” corridor) has the highest level of restricted incarceration in the state and among the most severe conditions in the nation. The rules of their confinement are extremely harsh in order to force them to “debrief” or offer up information about criminal or prison gang activity of other prisoners. Most inmates in the SHU are not members or associates of prison gangs, as the PBSP staff claims, and even those who are put their lives and the lives of their families and other prisoners at risk if they debrief.

Using conditions of severe mental and physical harm in order to force prisoners into confessing is torture! Many debriefers simply make up information about other prisoners just to escape the isolation units. This misinformation is then used to validate other prisoners as members or associates of prison gangs who in reality have nothing to do whatsoever with gang activity.

California Prison Focus recently interviewed some of those who are leading this hunger strike and we will be taking a number of key steps to publicize this event. This widespread hunger strike has the potential to become the most significant event in California prison reform in the last decade. Public support is crucial. Please stay in touch with California Prison Focus and other prison organizations who are supporting this hunger strike.

Attached are two documents. The first lays out the five core demands of the hunger strikers. The second is their formal complaint which outlines how the conditions of their imprisonment constitute human rights violations and violate both US and international law.

In support,

California Prison Focus