California must urgently reform its 'cruel' isolation units

Evidence hearing in California later today will hear from Amnesty 
The authorities in California must introduce radical changes to the cruel conditions of the state’s solitary confinement units, said Amnesty International today, ahead of Amnesty’s oral submission on the subject before the California Assembly Public Safety Committee later today.
The committee is currently considering a series of reforms to its Security Housing Units, proposed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 
In 2012, Amnesty published a 58-page report - The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units - describing the confinement conditions endured by more than 3,000 prisoners - including 78 who had spent more than two decades in isolation units. After the report’s publication, the California corrections department undertook limited reforms, though these fell far short of international human rights standards.
Most of the inmates held in isolation units are held in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, a remote facility on the north Californian coast. Prisoners are confined to their windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day. Exercise is limited to one 90-minute session a week, alone, in a bare, concrete yard, with 20-foot high walls and only a patch of sky visible through a partially-meshed plastic roof.
Unlike most other states, individuals held in California’s isolation units are denied regular phone calls with their families, and some inmates are only allowed to send their relatives one photo a year. Dozens of prisoners have spent more than 20 years in isolation, and many isolation inmates have suffered from long-term physical and psychological issues arising from the extreme conditions in which they were held, even after being released.
Last year, prisoners across California engaged in a two-month-long hunger strike to protest against the gruelling conditions in the isolation units. At its peak, over 30,000 prisoners engaged in the peaceful protest. The hunger strike was brought to an end after state legislators pledged to hold hearings on conditions in the units and on the use of long-term isolation. The second - and final hearing - on the issue is being held today in the California State Legislature in Sacramento. 

Amnesty International USA campaigner Tessa Murphy said:
“Holding prisoners in such restrictive conditions for prolonged periods of isolation is cruel and inhumane. Urgent reforms are needed to bring conditions in line with legal and human rights standards.
“The authorities in California have an historic opportunity to end the inhumane conditions of detention of the hundreds of prisoners held in isolation across the state. 
“We understand that it is sometimes necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security reasons. But the process for deciding who should be sent to solitary confinement appears to be unfair, with no clearly established criteria. This must change.”

Among the reforms being proposed by the California corrections department is a five-year “step-down” programme that would allow prisoners to earn their way back to the general prison population. Amnesty believes the reform would be a positive step, but is pointing out that prisoners would still have to spend at least the first two years of the programme in the same inhumane conditions. Since Amnesty’s visit to the isolation units in 2012, hundreds of prisoners have been recommended for release from isolation or placed in various stages of the step-down programme. Other cases are pending review. However, the review process has been slow and most prisoners held in secure housing units still have to endure severe conditions. 

Note to editors
Tessa Murphy, Amnesty’s campaigner on the USA, will attend the California State Legislature in Sacramento session today and is available for interview. She was part of the Amnesty delegation that toured California’s isolation units in 2012.

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