Agreement Reached in Ashker v. Brown Ends Indeterminate Long-term Solitary Confinement in California, Among Other Gains for Prisoners

California prisoners locked in iso­lation achieved a groundbreaking legal victory in their ongoing struggle against the use of solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the fed­eral class action suit Ashker v. Brown, originally filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and greatly limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, widely seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay State Prison’s infamous Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any kind of programming.

“From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advo­cate, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls,” said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), and mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. “This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight – it will only make the struggle against solitary and im­prisonment everywhere stronger.” The 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes gained widespread international attention that for the first time in recent years put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.

Currently, many prisoners are in sol­itary because of their “status” – having been associated with political ideologies or gang affiliation. However, this settle­ment does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral rule violations. Furthermore, the settlement limits the amount of time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for the re­lease of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.

It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within one year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.

“Despite the repeated attempts by the prison regime to break the pris­oners’ strength, they have remained unified in this fight,” said Marie Levin of CFASC and sister of a prisoner rep­resentative named in the lawsuit. “The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will continue to play a sig­nificant role in their ongoing struggle.” The Agreement to End Hostilities is an historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to build unity and cease hostilities between racial groups.

Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will regularly meet with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as with Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, who is tasked with overseeing the reforms, to insure that the settle­ment terms are being implemented.

“Without the hunger strikes and without the Agreement to End Hos­tilities to bring California’s prisoners together and commit to risking their lives— by being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we would not have this settlement today,” said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. “It will improve the living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languishing for decades in the hole at Pelican Bay.”

“This victory was achieved by the ef­forts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters,” said the prisoners rep­resented in the settlement in a joint statement. “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamen­tally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.”

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidar­ity coalition is a Resist grantee and is “made up of grassroots organizations, family members, formerly incarcer­ated people, lawyers, and individuals-formed in 2011 to amplify the voices of CA prisoners on hunger strike striving to achieve their Five Core Human Rights Demands. The coalition con­tinues to work in solidarity with CA prisoners and their families to amplify prisoners’ voices and end the torture that is solitary confinement.

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