A federal judge in Oakland has granted inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison class action status in their claims of unconstitutional treatment.
The inmates allege physical and psychological abuse when California puts inmates in Pelican Bay's windowless isolation cells. The prisoners are confined 22 hours a day and, in some cases, have been in solitary for years and decades at a time.
The Pelican Bay inmates, in their federal lawsuit, also challenged the administrative process California uses to determine who to send to the super-maximum security cells for an indefinite stay.
A spokesman for the state corrections department said the agency was still reviewing the order and had no immediate comment.
In courtroom proceedings, lawyers for the state have argued that isolation is necessary to keep the peace within prisons, and to hinder gang activity inside and outside prison walls. They said that by creating a so-called "step-down" program last year that allows some prisoners to eventually earn their way out of isolation, the state had made sufficient improvements.
In her ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken narrowed the class action case to just those Pelican Bay inmates who have not been accepted into the state's step-down program.
Civil rights lawyers litigating the case say they hope a victory will set a national precedent on the use of extended isolation in prisons across the United States.
"We pose a fundamental question: Is it constitutional to hold someone in solitary confinement for over a decade," said Alexis Agathocleous, staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
The class action motion was filed by 10 Pelican Bay inmates in solitary confinement, but California has since moved five of them to other quarters. Wilken's order allows the remaining five prisoners to represent the larger class of some 500 Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent more than a decade in isolation, and some 1,100 put into solitary because of alleged gang associations.
Many of the inmates named in the suit also were organizers of a lengthy statewide prison hunger strike last summer.
Wilken refused to allow the state prison guard union to intervene in the lawsuit. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. had argued that it had an interest in protecting the safety of its members by preventing prisoners from leaving solitary confinement.
Pelican Bay is in California's far northwest corner, outside of Crescent City. California also has isolation cells at three other prisons. They are not covered by the litigation.