One Year Since Settlement, Long-Term Solitary Drops 99 Percent at Pelican Bay Prison

Last Friday, October 14, marked one year since reforms began under the historic settlement agreement in CCR’s case Ashker v. Brown, which effectively ended long-term solitary confinement throughout California state prisons. We are thrilled to report that new data shows that the settlement succeeded in moving virtually all prisoners out of indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement.

The speed with which the settlement brought an end to California’s use of long-term solitary is even more meaningful when we think about what, exactly, it ended. For decades, California isolated more people, for longer periods, than any other state. In the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison and in other California SHUs, prisoners were isolated in near-total solitude for 23 to 24 hours a day, denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational, or educational programs. When CCR filed Ashker, more than 500 prisoners had been isolated in the Pelican Bay SHU for over 10 years. Seventy-eight had been there for more than 20 years. And six had been there for more than 30.

In the words of Ashker plaintiff Gabriel Reyes, “Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort — for years on end. It is a living tomb.”

What’s more, these men were held indefinitely, without any certain date when they would be returned to general population, and predominantly on the basis of alleged “gang affiliation” — like reading about Black history, creating or possessing cultural artwork, or writing in Swahili — not any infractions of prison rules. The system was barbaric.

Now, after just one year, decades of this treatment are over. The number of prisoners in solitary confinement has dropped dramatically, bringing an end to the kind of torture Reyes described. Among other important provisions that limit California’s future use of solitary — such as isolating prisoners only as punishment for rule infractions and, then, only for a definite period of time — the settlement mandated that the state review all “gang-validated” SHU prisoners within one year to determine whether they should be released from solitary under the settlement terms.

The number of prisoners held in the Pelican Bay SHU for more than 10 years has dropped by 99 percent. Today, only five SHU prisoners have been there for over 10 years, and they are expected to be released from solitary shortly, or at least given a release date. Throughout the rest of the state, 1,557 prisoners have been reviewed, 1,532 of them have been designated for transfer out of solitary, and at least 1,512 of them have already left, bringing down California’s indefinite solitary population a whopping 97 percent.

But the numbers tell only part of the story. The most meaningful reports of the impact of this settlement come from prisoners themselves and their families, who have shared their experiences seeing the skyline, running (through a snow storm), encountering birds, or having a contact visit with a family member for the first time in decades. In the words of Ashker plaintiff Richard Wembe Johnson, sometimes the biggest things are “[s]mall things such as getting up to walk to a dining hall for breakfast and dinner, things like going to a classroom…or having physical contact with visitors, an being able to purchase edible items from the vending machines, not to mention taking photos with love[d] ones.”

The dramatic changes that followed the settlement agreement are the result of an effort that was started years ago — by prisoners themselves — and that began succeeding even before the court-ordered reforms. Ashker was originally filed in 2009 by plaintiffs Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell, representing themselves. Eight months later, prisoners at Pelican Bay began a historic hunger strike, which resumed again the following September. Together, pressure from the lawsuit, the hunger strikes, and the mass mobilization of prisoners, their family members, and supporters prompted California to begin reducing its solitary population shortly after CCR joined the lawsuit in May of 2012.

Ashker v. Brown is a prime example of how the law can be used to aid, rather than depoliticize, social struggles. And the good news about the dramatic reductions in California’s prison population show just how transformative those partnerships between lawyers and activists can be.

Read more about the numbers on this resource page, California solitary confinement statistics: Year One after landmark settlement.