Landmark Agreement Dramatically Changes Solitary Confinement in California

CHICAGO, IL — Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) congratulates the prisoners and their attorneys on reaching a settlement in Ashker v. Brown, which will require massive changes in the use of solitary confinement in California’s prisons. This settlement builds on massive hunger strikes organized by thousands of prisoners across California (the last one involving 30,000 prisoners), and is the product of years-long intense litigation by a team of dedicated attorneys, including friends of UPLC at Center for Constitutional Rights, California Prison Focus and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

The settlement is an important victory, ending California’s widespread practice of indefinite status-based solitary, which resulted in California having the country’s largest solitary population. In status-based solitary, prisoners are put in solitary confinement based on alleged gang involvement, not actual rule violations. Now, prison officials will have to prove that prisoners committed serious violations of specific rules before sending people to isolation, and in most cases, people cannot be kept in isolation for more than two years.

Uptown People’s Law Center is concerned with exceptions contained in the agreement, which will allow California to keep some prisoners in long-term solitary for at least a decade. Whether these exceptions will in fact be rare, or will ultimately swallow the rule depends on continued vigilance by the judge, attorneys, family members, and ultimately the prisoners themselves. UPLC also feels strongly that two years in complete isolation will inevitably damage people, sometimes irreparably. Several studies have shown that solitary confinement can cause problems including panic attacks, uncontrollable rage, hypersensitivity to noise and/or touch, paranoia, and memory problems, which often persist even after leaving prison. Steps taken to reduce isolation, such as daily group activities, could help mitigate this.

Illinois prisons send prisoners to indefinite solitary, without charges or a meaningful hearing, based on their alleged status as members of “security threat groups.” Prisoners in Illinois are regularly kept in solitary for years, even decades. UPLC’s pending case, Coleman v. Taylor, seeks to limit solitary in Illinois to those who commit the most serious rule violations, eliminate status-based solitary, eliminate long-term solitary, and ensure that those sent to solitary are not deprived of the minimal conditions required to avoid long-term damage to their mental and physical health.

“We hope that Illinois will follow California’s lead and begin to examine alternatives to its excessive use of long-term solitary confinement. Illinois sends people to solitary too often, for too little, for too long, and keeps them in inhumane conditions,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director at Uptown People’s Law Center.

Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) is a nonprofit legal services organization specializing in prisoners’ rights, Social Security disability, and tenants’ rights and eviction defense. UPLC currently has ten pending class action lawsuits regarding jail and prison conditions.

See the Center for Constitutional Rights’ press release here.

Read the Chicago Tribune article about UPLC’s solitary confinement lawsuit here.