New report exposes 'shocking' conditions in California's prison isolation units

More than 500 prisoners kept in isolation for over 10 years

  Amnesty International has called on the US state of California to end “shocking” conditions in its prison isolation units, as the organisation today (27 September) published a major new report on the special units in the state’s jails.    Based on exclusive access to California’s “Security Housing Units”, Amnesty’s 58-page report - The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units  (pdf) - describes the confinement conditions endured by more than 3,000 prisoners - including 78 who have spent more than two decades in isolation units.   Prisoners in isolation are confined for at least 22-and-a-half hours a day in cells measuring less than eight square metres. In one prison alone - Pelican Bay State Prison, a remote facility on the north Californian coast - more than 1,000 inmates are confined in single, windowless cells with poor access to natural light. Exercise is limited to an hour-and-a-half a day, alone, in a bare, concrete yard with 20-foot-high walls with only a patch of sky visible through a partially-meshed plastic roof.   Prisoners in isolation don’t have access to work, rehabilitation programmes or group activities on any kind. They are also prevented from any contact with the outside world, and even consultations with medical staff take place behind barriers and visits from family or lawyers take place behind a glass screen. Prisoners are not entitled to regular telephone contact with relatives.   According to figures provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2011, more than 500 prisoners have spent ten or more years in isolation, more than 200 had spent over 15 years, and 78 in excess of 20 years. One prisoner, who had been in an isolation unit for 22 years, told Amnesty delegates during a visit to Pelican Bay that they were the first outsiders he had seen in the cell block for years.   Even though isolation is intended for extreme cases, many prisoners who end up in such units have mental illness or behavioural problems and have sometimes been confined for repeated, relatively minor rule infractions and disruptive behaviour. Over 2,000 prisoners are being held in isolation after being “validated” as members or associates of prison gangs.   Amnesty International USA Researcher Angela Wright, who visited a number of prisons in the state, said:   “The conditions and length of imprisonment in California’s isolation units are simply shocking.   “To deprive prisoners in a segregated environment of natural light, adequate exercise or meaningful human contact is unnecessarily punitive and unjustifiable in all circumstances. Access to natural light and exercise are basic needs, essential for physical and mental health.   “We fully recognise the challenges faced by prison administrators in dealing with prison gangs and recognise that it may sometimes be necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security purposes.   “However, current conditions of isolation are extremely severe and too widely used. Segregation should be imposed only in exceptional circumstances and for as short a period as possible.”     Prisoners in isolation units in Pelican Bay have reported a range of physical problems resulting from, or exacerbated by, their conditions of confinement.   The severe negative psychological consequences of isolation are reflected in data from various jurisdictions showing that suicides occur more frequently in isolation units than in the general prison population. In California, over a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the number of prison suicides averaged 34 a year, with 42% occurring in administrative segregation or isolation units.      Studies have found that negative effects from prolonged isolation can continue long after release; and the lack of pre-release or transitional programming for inmates who may have spent years or decades in isolation before being released directly back on to the street makes successful reintegration into society that much harder.    Amnesty’s report is urging the authorities in California to:    Limit the use of isolation units so that is it imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners whose behaviour constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of others.

  • Improve conditions for all prisoners held in isolation units, including better exercise provision and an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even at the most restrictive custody levels.
  • Allow prisoners in isolation units to make regular phone calls to their families. 
  • Reduce the length of the Step Down Program and providing meaningful access to programmes where prisoners have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at an earlier stage.
  • Immediate removal from isolation of prisoners who have already spent years in those units.  

Download the report to read more nbsp;(pdf)

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