Inmates at California's highest security prison Thursday filed for class-action status, seeking to broaden their 3-year-old federal lawsuit alleging the state's segregation policies equate to cruel and inhumane treatment.
The plaintiffs are all prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison, confined to the Security Housing Unit for what the state says are active ties with prison gangs, allegations the inmates deny. In the motion filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland, the prisoners contend they have been confined for years, and in some cases decades, to solitary, windowless cells where they spend almost all of their time, with little meaningful contact with others, restricted food, limited communication and no access to educational or treatment programs.
State corrections officials maintain the system is necessary to limit the ability of prison gangs to operate, and that the safety and security of both inmates and guards statewide is at risk otherwise. However, late last year the state rolled out what it said is a three-year trial program that allows some SHU inmates to slowly be transferred into the general population. A federal judge this year refused California's request to put off hearing the litigation while that program unfolds.
Lawyers for the attorney general's office are due to file their own response to Thursday's legal motion. The prisoners seek a ruling on their motion for class-action certification by early August. If granted, that would broaden the case to include all inmates held in solitary confinement at the prison.
In their lawsuit, filed by prisoners' rights lawyers in New York, Pelican Bay inmates allege the process California uses to put inmates into solitary confinement is flawed, requires minimal evidence and doesn't allow meaningful challenges. They say those "warehoused" under such conditions suffer serious mental and physical harm from extreme isolation, sensory deprivation and restricted movement.
"The magnitude of the suffering that they have endured, and the full measure of what they have lost over the course of the last two decades of their lives, is difficult to fathom," Craig Haney, a prison psychologist who has followed the plaintiffs for the past 20 years, is quoted in one of the court filings. "These prisoners have lost a connection to the basic sense of who they 'were.' "
The court filing says there are about 1,000 inmates in Pelican Bay's SHU; half have been there more than a decade, and 78 for more than 20 years.