Oakland — Today, a federal judge allowed hundreds of California prisoners to join a lawsuit challenging prolonged solitary confinement in California prisons when she granted the case class action status. The case, Ashker v. Brown, was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of 10 prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent over 10 years – and some up to 29 years – in solitary confinement. Last summer, California prisoners, including plaintiffs in Ashker, conducted their third hunger strike, lasting 60 days, protesting their confinement and conditions. Class certification allows the case to include all Pelican Bay SHU prisoners who have been in solitary confinement for more than 10 years, as well as all prisoners who are serving indefinite SHU terms as a result of gang validation who have not been placed in a new step-down program.
Said Center for Constitutional Rights Staff Attorney Alexis Agathocleous, who argued the class certification motion in court, “Since their 2011 hunger strikes, hundreds of prisoners at the Pelican Bay SHU – and across California – have stood together in solidarity to protest inhumane conditions and broken policies they’ve been subjected to for decades. This case has always been about the constitutional violations suffered by all prisoners at the SHU, so it is only appropriate that it proceed as a class action.”
More than 500 Pelican Bay prisoners have been isolated in the SHU for over 10 years; more than 200 have been there for over 15 years; and 78 have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years. The lawsuit alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process. SHU prisoners spend 22 ½ to 24 hours a day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. And, because SHU prisoners do not receive any meaningful review of their placement, their isolation can effectively be permanent.
Said Carol Strickman, Staff Attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), “Our clients welcome Judge Wilken’s decision to grant class certification for those men in the Pelican Bay SHU who have been validated and there for over 10 years. They have been anxiously awaiting this decision and will be very excited that we can now move forward with the litigation and prove that policies and conditions at the Pelican Bay SHU violate the Constitution.”
Though a prisoner’s SHU placement has ostensibly been reviewed once every 6 years, prisoners are routinely placed and held in the SHU without any gang activity, violent conduct, or serious rule infraction. Rather, they are labeled “gang affiliates” and have been confined in isolation for activities such as reading about Black history, creating or possessing cultural artwork, or writing in Spanish or Swahili.
According to psychological experts who submitted declarations in support of class certification and have interviewed the plaintiffs and other Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, long-term solitary confinement is “well-known to cause severe psychiatric morbidity, disability, suffering, and mortality.” Further, “[t]he magnitude of the suffering that [these prisoners] have endured… is difficult to fathom. … [They] have lost a connection to the basic sense of who they ‘were.’”
SHU assignments disproportionately affect Black and Latino prisoners. The percentage of Latinos in the Pelican Bay SHU, for example, was 85 percent in 2011, far higher than their representation in the general prison population, which was 41 percent.
A Case Management Conference in Ashker v. Brown will be held on June 4 at 2pm PCT in Courtroom 2 of the Oakland Federal Building. Supporters and press are invited to attend a rally outside the Courthouse at 1:30, and to attend the public hearing as well.
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, the Law Offices of Charles Carbone and the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP are co-counsel on the case.
Ashker v. Brown, amends an earlier pro se lawsuit filed by Pelican Bay SHU prisoners Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell. The case is before Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.