Calling solitary confinement "torture," California prisoners and advocates are asking the United Nations to investigate the segregated housing of gang members at prisons throughout the state.
"We have California treating several thousand prisoners in much the same way the U.S. government treats enemy combatants held in Guantanamo," said Peter Schey, an attorney representing hundreds of inmates.
Schey, who announced the petition at a news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday alongside prisoners' relatives, said solitary confinement was devastating to the physical and mental health of prisoners and was likely to increase their risk of committing more crimes upon release.
The petition was filed on behalf of about 400 prisoners, including Walter J. Coto at Corcoran State Prison.
"Every single moment I've spent in these torture chambers has chipped away my humanity," Coto wrote.
Schey said he was also considering litigation and a direct petition to Gov. Jerry Brown to end the policy.
About 4,000 inmates are held in the state's "segregated housing units," or SHU. The majority are kept there because they are gang members or suspected gang members. Others have committed violent crimes in prison.
The issue attracted attention last summer when prisoners staged a hunger strike to protest the conditions in segregated housing units. The protest began with inmates at Pelican Bay, the state's maximum security lockup. All but 26 of the 1,056 prisoners who were isolated as of July 1 were being held there because of suspected gang affiliations, not for other specific actions or rule violations. Nearly 300 had been there for more than a decade.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began reviewing the policy last year and plans to make some changes, including requiring more documentation to determine whether an inmate is a gang member. It also plans to make the process to get out of segregated housing easier and faster. Currently, prisoners stay in the segregated housing units for six years unless they drop out of the gang and debrief officials.
Department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the housing segregation was necessary to protect the rest of the prison population and would not violate human rights.
"They are the people who pose the greatest threat for other inmates," he said. "It is not something that is taken lightly sending someone to the SHU. They are sent there because of their violent behavior inside the prison or because of their membership in a criminal gang."