[Pnews] California's Secret Solitary Courts

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Oct 6 15:18:35 EDT 2015


  California's Secret Solitary Courts

Sarah Shourd

Despite a new settlement that bans indefinite solitary confinement in 
California, prisons are finding new secondary excuses to lengthen time 
in the SHU.

A change in policy in California just last month could result in an 
estimated 1,500 to 2,000 prisoners being released from solitary 
confinement into the general prison population.

Seventy-eight of these prisoners have been isolated for more than 20 
years. Like being confined to a small fish bowl in the dark corner of an 
attic—these prisoners will suddenly be thrust into a much larger 
aquarium, teeming with life.

“This is a pretty shocking admission that these people—who have been 
held in solitary confinement ad infinitum—perhaps never needed to be 
there in the first place,” says Charles Carbone, a part of a team of 
lawyers who worked on the class-action suit /Ashker v. Governor of 
California, /which recently ended in a settlement resulting in a pending 
seismic shift in California’s prisons policies.

/Ashker v. Governor of California/ will, in fact, lessen the wide-spread 
use of solitary confinement—a punishment the United Nations deems "cruel 
and unusual"—but internal resistance, retaliation, and a widening 
definition of what constitutes a gang may keep prisoners in solitary 

And sometimes, lawyers and prisoner rights activists warn, those 
criteria can be arbitrary or even “retaliatory.”

California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) says 
there are around 5,000 inmates currently validated as belonging to what 
they call Security Threat Groups (STGs). In 2012, CDCR vastly expanded 
the parameters of STGs from a mere eight groups—serious gangs like the 
Bloods and Crips—to over 1,500 groups labeled vaguely as “disruptive.”

Evidence of association with any of these groups—a book or a tattoo—can 
be used to “validate” a prisoner as a gang member or “associate” on the 
basis of flimsy evidence such as possessing a certain book or having a 
gang-related tattoo.

Among these “disruptive groups” are motorcycle gangs and so-called 
revolutionary groups. One category in the list 
<http://www.motherjones.com/documents/452650-cdcr-disruptive-groups> is 
simply called “Black-Non Specific,” so any group with the word “black” 
in its name can qualify as an STG.

“Let’s say a Correctional Officer (C.O.) decides a guy is a real pain in 
the ass,” says Carbone. “Maybe he has institutional notoriety, maybe 
he’s been filing too many complaints, or the C.O.s just don’t like him. 
They can take an ordinary rule violation, transmute it into gang 
activity, and make sure said prisoner stays off the mainline for a long 

Carbone believes CDCR saw this as an opportunity to depart from an 
antiquated policy.

“They’ve moved their target from prison gangs to a much wider 
population—the STGs—and they want a strong sanction at their disposal.”

“Guards write false tickets for rule violations all the time,” says Anne 
Weills, another lawyer involved in negotiating the historic settlement 
that ended indefinite solitary confinement.

    “They can take an ordinary rule violation, transmute it into gang
    activity, and make sure said prisoner stays off the mainline for a
    long time.”

“Prisoners have very few due process rights when it come to being placed 
in solitary, and no right to an attorney,” she continues.

“Also, prisoners in are under such intense scrutiny—they’re experiencing 
mental health issues, insomnia, and hallucinations—the situation easily 
leads to breaking more rules and being sentenced to longer and longer 

At first glance, the “behavior-based” crimes listed in the 
settlement—like murder, escape, and weapons-possession—seem to warrant 
the harsh punishment of isolation.

Thank You!

You are now subscribed to the Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email 
with anyone for any reason

You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest. We will not share your email 
with anyone for any reason

You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not 
share your email with anyone for any reason

Yet, further down the list you find vague “SHU-eligible” offenses (CDCR 
refers to certain cells as Segregated Housing Units or SHU) such as 
“harassment” and “disturbance” that could easily be applied 
subjectively, even in a retaliatory fashion—which is exactly what 
lawyers are afraid of.

“There’s a hard core of guards that are furious about this settlement,” 
says Weills.

Weills says one her clients, after being released into the general 
prison population, was approached by someone from another gang who “told 
him a sergeant was spreading rumors that my client was bad-mouthing him.”

“The guards are trying to start fights and foment violence between 
different racial groups. They think this settlement undermines their 
entire system of control.”

Before CDCR initiated reforms, an inmate could be placed in the SHU 
indeterminately//for being validated as a gang member.

“He didn’t even have to do anything,” says Thornton.

“Now the thinking is there has to be a behavior-based offense, what we 
consider a ‘serious rules violation.’ After all, why should inmates be 
put in the SHU if they haven’t /done anything/?”

Yet, that’s been CDCR’s policy for decades. Prisoners have been 
sentenced /indefinitely /to conditions that qualify as solitary 
confinement by international standards, simply for being “validated.”

Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) have been 
arguing in court that this policy was unconstitutional, a violation of 
the 8^th Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Last month, on Sept. 2, they won.

As a result the state of California has agreed to eliminate 
“indeterminate” sentences to its SHU—a practice rare in other states—and 
release all prisoners who have been confined to isolation for more than 
10 years.

In addition, CDCR must limit the use of solitary confinement to 
prisoners convicted of “behavior-based” prison rule violations.

CDCR is now in the process of reviewing all cases of individuals put in 
solitary on the basis of gang “validation.” Seventy-one percent of the 
1,478 cases that have undergone review have been already approved for 
release into general population.

“It’s an incredible victory but still a terrible situation,” says Weills.

On Sept. 4, two days after the settlement was announced, the California 
Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) issued a press release 
“denouncing CDCR’s agreement to end the unlimited use of solitary 

The press release states (PDF) 
“Our prisons are even more crowded now than they were in the 1980’s… 
dangerously low staffing levels add to the challenges correctional 
officers face. CCPOA believes this settlement will further exacerbate 
gang activity and prison violence that threatens the security of our 
institutions, and exponentially increasing risks to the safety of both 
correctional peace officers and inmates.”

“This is no longer the ’80s,” says Weills. “30,000 prisoners went on a 
non-violent hunger strike to force this change to happen.”

Weills thinks the guards are “back in the dinosaur days.”

“Many have a militaristic, war-like mentality against our prisoners,” 
she says. “They are so threatened by this unity that they’ll do anything 
to break it up.”

“It doesn’t matter how some Correctional Officers might feel about the 
new policy,” says Terry Thornton, Deputy Press Secretary for 
California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). 
“They’re hired to do a job. They’re obligated to follow these new 

“It’s a set-up,” adds Weills. “These so-called ‘wellness checks’ started 
on August 3rd, the very day we settled. That’s no coincidence. Guards 
have been waking up our clients multiple times throughout the night in 
the name of their ‘safety’—but what it really is is retaliation.”

“When our clients get released they put them on the most violent yards,” 
continues Weills. “[Guards are] just waiting for someone to attack them 
so they can call this new policy a failure.”

Weills points to the case of Hugo Pinell, an inmate murdered just weeks 
after being released on the mainline after being in solitary confinement 
for 40 years.

“I fear for them all,” she says.

This settlement has forced CDCR to acknowledge their past mistakes and 
correct their policies. Lawyers have helped all sides come to an 
agreement that promises to benefit both prisoners, California’s 
correctional institutions and society.

CDCR says there are currently 7,397 prisoners in various forms of 
isolation in California’s prisons. California has no plan to close any 
of its 33 prisons, nor are any of its SHU units currently slated for 

Some critics fear that CDCR is merely reshuffling the deck by ending 
unlimited solitary confinement. Is the unstated goal of this change in 
policy to get the heat of public and prisoner outrage off of CDCRs 
backs—or will the numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement actually 
go down?

“We anticipate the numbers will go down,” says Thornton. “Permanently.”

“The number of people in the SHU will probably remain the same,” says 
Carbone. “But the duration will go down significantly. More guys will 
leave their gang, which is a very good thing. Guys will say ‘I’m out of 
here, I want to get an education, I want to go home.’”

Carbone believes that the desire of the department to correct these 
policies actually exists.

“Resistance is at the level of the foot soldiers,” he says. “The good 
thing is we’re going to have some hawks, at least for two years, keeping 
vigilant watch.”

“We’re making these changes because it’s the right thing to do,” adds 

“I believe anybody can be rehabilitated if they want to be,” she 
continues. “Moses was a murderer, he saw an Egyptian beating an 
Israelite, killed him, hid his body in the sand and ran away. Then he 
went on to write the first five books of the first testament. If there’s 
hope for Moses, there’s hope for anyone.”

“I’m hopeful things are changing,” says Weills, “but it can all be 
undone so easily.  The real proof is in the pudding.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20151006/5e17bf4b/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list