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By Alexis Agathocleous and Rachel Meeropol, senior attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights
When Todd Ashker was transferred to the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California's Pelican Bay State Prison in 1990, he was told he would remain there until he was paroled, died, or debriefed -- i.e. informed on other prisoners, a practice that often begins with staff asking a prisoner whether he would like to contact his family and warn them they may be in danger. Upon finding himself one of so many California prisoners subjected to solitary confinement in a cramped, windowless cell, without access to phone calls, educational opportunities, or physical contact with anyone but guards, and learning that no one ever got parole from the SHU, Ashker filed administrative requests to be returned to the general prisoner population. When these requests were rejected, and after decades of feeling like he was "silently screaming" all day, every day, Ashker, and another SHU prisoner, Danny Troxell, filed a lawsuit on their own behalves challenging their conditions and isolation. But lawsuits take years as well. One year ago this week, after being trapped in the SHU for 23 years, suffering chronic physical pain, severe anxiety, and many of the other symptoms proven to result from prolonged solitary confinement, Todd Ashker joined thousands of prisoners across California on a hunger strike to protest the living death of prolonged solitary confinement.
Last year's strike was the longest and largest in the growing, prisoner-led movement to abolish this form of prolonged solitary confinement. The third for Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, the strike lasted 60 days and, at its peak, involved 30,000 prisoners statewide. It drove home the desperation of men who have been isolated for more than a decade, often for multiple decades. And it worked, sparking legislative hearings and efforts at reform in California. Pelican Bay prisoners in solitary confinement are now allowed more visits with loved ones (though Pelican Bay is so remote that it is difficult for many family members to make the trip); are permitted to have both televisions and radios; and may have their own underwear, a cup, and a bowl. That these seemingly miniscule improvements are so important to the prisoners only underscores the extent of the inhumane conditions inside the SHU.
More fundamental, the strike prompted the Department of Corrections to begin reviewing all prisoners in indeterminate solitary confinement in California. With many more reviews to go, nearly 400 prisoners have qualified for release into general population and 152 have already been moved, giving lie to California's frequent refrain that those men subjected to the cruelty of solitary were the worst of the worst, who could not be released without endangering the prison population. These accomplishments would not have happened without the prisoners' solidarity and organizing.
The problem of long-term solitary confinement is far from fixed -- the cells that have been emptied as men are returned to general population have been filled by others newly transferred into the SHU. The prisoners need our support to finish the job.
In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and co-counsel took on Ashker's lawsuit, adding eight other prisoner plaintiffs because Todd Ashker's constant, silent scream is not unique. Researchers have demonstrated that prolonged solitary confinement causes a persistent and heightened state of anxiety and nervousness, as well as headaches, insomnia, chronic fatigue, nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns. Obsessions, confused thought processes, oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, social withdrawal, hallucinations, violent fantasies, emotional flatness, moodswings, chronic depression, feelings of overall deterioration, and suicidal ideation have also been documented. These symptoms have been reported by individuals placed in solitary confinement for just a few days or months, and only become more pronounced when, like the plaintiffs in our case, a person is held in solitary confinement for many years without any meaningful hope of release. A leading psychological expert who has interviewed Pelican Bay prisoners over time observed they experience a form of "social death" as their isolation continues.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has concluded that as little as fifteen days in solitary confinement can constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and that prolonged solitary confinement results in irreversible, harmful psychological effects. In light of his findings and emerging consensus about the cruelty and grave harm associated with long-term solitary confinement, we are asking the court to abolish the practice and find that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. It is our position that the type of prolonged solitary confinement which exists in California cannot be imposed on any individual, no matter what the reason.
Now, for the first time in decades, through the combined efforts of prisoners, attorneys, and a coalition of grassroots organizations and community members committed to amplifying the voices of the prisoners at Pelican Bay and other California prisons, there is hope for an end to long-term solitary confinement. Just last month, a federal judge granted class action status in the Center for Constitutional Rights case, allowing all Pelican Bay SHU prisoners who have been in solitary confinement for over 10 years and all prisoners serving indefinite SHU terms to be parties to the case -- totaling in the hundreds. Some of these men have languished in isolation for 40 years. The torture of long-term solitary confinement may finally end.
Ashker v. Brown is a class action civil rights lawsuit challenging policies and conditions at the Pelican Bay SHU. Plaintiffs are represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights along with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Weil Gotshal & Manges, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone.