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How California Prison Inmates Fought to Change Solitary Confinement, and Won

After a prisoner hunger strike and a lawsuit, the authorities will no longer be able to throw inmates in solitary just for allegedly belonging to a gang.
Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"'We've been tossed into the societal refuse heap. It's the landfill of humanity.'"

It was 2013, and Daletha Hayden was reading aloud from an open letter written by her son. Those were dark days. Ian Whitson, then 30 years old, had been in a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR) security housing unit—or SHU, a.k.a. solitary—for four years at that point. In his letter, Ian wrote that he spent 24 hours a day in his eight-foot-by-12-foot cell at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, with two hours per week of "yard" time in a steel cage. "My son isn't refuse," Daletha told me then. "He's a human being. And I'm proud of him that he's standing up for his rights."


She was scared, too. Her son had stopped eating. Whitson was participating in the largest hunger strike in California history, along with 30,000 other inmates across the state, in an effort to bring attention to the plight of long-term SHU residents. The strike lasted 60 days (two smaller, briefer strikes took place in 2011), and was conducted in tandem with a class-action suit filed in 2012 by a group of long-term inmates in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, some of whom had been there for decades. The suit, Ashker v. Governor of California , was born of litigation started by Pelican Bay SHU inmates Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell in 2009. They alleged that SHU conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that inmates put into solitary were denied their rights to due process.

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Things got a bit brighter for SHU inmates and their families on Tuesday, however, when a settlement was reached that should end unlimited detention of suspected gang members in the state prison system. The terms are promising for the reduction of the volume of inmates stuck in the hell that is solitary in California, and perhaps beyond, as advocates hope other states will follow in reforming their own solitary confinement regimes.

"Very prolonged" solitary will be limited, and those in it will get more time out of their cells. Among the other settlement terms: No more indefinite SHU sentences will be given, no inmate can be housed in the Pelican Bay SHU for more than five continuous years, and a new type of housing known as the Restricted Custody General Population Unit will aim to offer a more humane mode of segregation for potentially dangerous inmates. For at least 24 months, transparency will increase, so that inmates' conditions within the SHU are monitored by plaintiffs' legal counsel to ensure CDCR adheres to the settlement terms.


One of the most important reforms sounds like a minor semantic point, but in fact is a game-changer: California's use of solitary confinement will change from a "status-based" system to a "behavior-based system," in which inmates can only be placed in solitary for a so-called "SHU-admissible" offense—prison-speak for "serious rule violation." The "status" in question was membership or affiliation with a gang, and for years, actual or suspected gang affiliation has been enough to put an inmate in the SHU for an indefinite period of time, with a case review taking place only every six years. The status-based system was part of prison officials' attempts to manage the gang violence that took root in California prisons in the 1970s, and led to the conditions of extremely long-term, severe isolation Ashker et al . protested in their class-action suit.

"Why these SHUs were created in the first place, you have to look back at what was going on in this department 30 and 40 years ago," said Terry Thornton, spokesperson for CDCR. "There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of employees murdered, inmates murdered, riots, it was a horrible time… the department needed to get control."

So officials got control. They segregated inmates "validated" as belonging to gangs, which broke down along racial lines, with the most powerful organizations bearing names like the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the Black Guerrilla Family.


"Gang members and associates needed to be removed from the general population inmates so that they don't influence them, coerce them, recruit them," Thornton explained, adding that segregation worked and violence went down.

The system relegated gang members—or suspected members—to a kind of black hole, where, the saying went, the only ways out were to parole, snitch, or die.

But the status-based system took on a life of its own. To reduce gang activity in prison, inmates like Ian Whitson were put in the SHU upon being identified as gang associates. The evidence for their affiliation might have been literally worn on the sleeve, such as a tattoo, or it might have been that another inmate mentioned them in a " debriefing process" (in other words, snitched) or—one of the factors in Whitson's case—because they made drawings deemed to have gang connotations, such as a dragon or Aztec imagery.

The system relegated gang members—or suspected members—to a kind of black hole, where, the saying went, the only ways out were to parole, snitch, or die. The lack of human contact, the long waits between case reviews, and the indefinite length of a stint in solitary were excruciating facts of life.

After a time, conditions in the Pelican Bay SHU were so intolerable that a group of men of various races and with various gang affiliations came together to produce a document titled "The Agreement to End Hostilities."


The agreement, released in August 2012, declares its signers' intentions to "collectively seize this moment, and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups… we must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention, and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us [i.e., prisoners], and our best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!!" Some of the documents' authors, Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), and Antonio Guillen, are named plaintiffs in the class action against California.

"The prisoners have been leading this movement from the very beginning and they have to get the lion's share of the credit." – Rachel Meeropol

Ashker and his team earned a victory earlier this year, when federal Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that long-term Pelican Bay SHU inmates who had been relocated to other SHUs since the suit began were still eligible as plaintiffs. According to Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, it was the inmates themselves—many of whom have studied law in prison—who came up with the idea to file a claim allowing the relocated SHU inmates to remain eligible, urging their lawyers to keep the class as broad as possible to make the suit more potent.

"The prisoners have been leading this movement from the very beginning and they have to get the lion's share of the credit," Meeropol told me. "They really pushed hard for us as the lawyers to move to supplement the complaint and to enlarge the class. We followed their lead on it and they were 100 percent right that this was the most important approach to take."

For its part, CDCR officials say their policies were heading in the same direction as the settlement terms anyway. The prison system started looking at issues around segregated housing (officials maintain that they do not use "solitary confinement") in 2007, and has made several adjustments to rules since then, including no longer putting inmates in the SHU based solely on gang validation and creating a "Step-Down Program" to reintroduce SHU inmates to the general population over the course of three to four years. The settlement is "part of this journey we've been on," according to Thornton, the CDCR spokeswoman. "It gets us to the direction we were already headed."

This weekend, Daletha plans to take the long trip up to the Oregon border to see Ian at Pelican Bay (he was transferred from Tehachapi earlier this year). She hopes this will be her last visit to her son as a SHU inmate—he's scheduled to be released into the general prison population any time now.

"It's wonderful," she said, the pride audible in her voice. There's more work ahead in reforming California's prison systems, she pointed out, but for the moment, "I'm very optimistic. I feel like the public is more aware and we're on the road to treating one another like human beings."

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