California starts emptying solitary confinement cells
Even as inmate leaders held in isolation within California's toughest cell blocks threaten renewed hunger strikes, the state has begun reviewing and moving segregated prisoners into general housing.
As of this week, corrections spokesman Bill Sessa said, 88 inmates had been reviewed under standards adopted in October. Fifty-one of those prisoners were told they will be moved immediately to the general population, where they will be allowed to exercise in outdoor yards, mingle with other prisoners, and enjoy privileges denied them for years while in solitary confinement. Another 25 of those inmates have been moved into the state's new four-year "step down" program that allows their reentry to the general population only after an extended process.
Sessa said he could not identify the 12 inmates who will remain in segregation, nor where they are being held. California's core high-security segregation cellbocks are at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border. Inmates also can still leave segregation by the old way -- "debriefing," the term for providing critical evidence against other prisoners involved in gangs.
The state contends it uses the segregation cells to isolate its most dangerous inmates -- those who have committed violent offenses in prison or are identified as leaders or active members of prison gangs, now called "security threat groups."
Inmates within the spartan units argue they are held indefinitely without recourse to challenge what they contend are inhumane conditions. The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a federal lawsuit against the state in their behalf.
In recent open letters sent to inmate advocacy organizations, several inmates held in Pelican Bay's segregation units contend the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed to follow through with promises made to end a series of prison hunger strikes last year. They now threaten renewed protests.
The demands ranged from improved food and greater visitation rights to an outright end to the use of indefinite isolation. More than 70 of the 1,200-plus inmates held in segregation at Pelican Bay have been there for more than 20 years.
-- Paige St. John in Sacramento
Image: The solitary confinement cell of an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison's security housing unit. Photograph provided to Amnesty International.