New limits on solitary confinement in California prisons are a long-delayed but welcome step in the evolution of a system that only recently subjected inmates to a degree of abuse that approached torture.
The new rules, which will probably mean the transfer of thousands of prisoners from isolation to the general prison population, were the result — as have been most improvements in the state’s prisons over the last several years — of lawsuits. A class action, filed in 2012, challenged the use of isolation in Pelican Bay State Prison’s secure housing unit, where some inmates spent more than 22 hours a day without access to visitors, other inmates or prison programs. Some inmates have lived in those units for more than a decade.
One of the plaintiffs’ chief complaints was that inmates were sent into solitary for indeterminate periods. They asserted that such treatment was used to compel gang members to provide information about their gangs and gang leaders, creating a particular brand of prisoner’s dilemma: talk and be met with the possibility of retaliation in the prison yard, or keep quiet and stay locked in isolation indefinitely despite having committed no crime other than the one that resulted in incarceration in the first place.
Under the settlement terms filed Tuesday, indefinite isolation will end. Gang affiliation will no longer, by itself, lead to solitary.
The agreement will not turn prisons into pleasant places to live. Pelican Bay is notorious not merely for its harsh conditions but for the violence of the inmates housed there, many of them convicted of murder, many of them active gang members who, prison officials assert, run criminal operations from their cells. Solitary confinement was one tactic used by officials there, as in many of the state’s other prisons, to do the very difficult job of maintaining safety and order among violent populations. It will still be available for those purposes.
But in the past, it was abused. Many inmates already deal with mental illness, and extended separation from human contact only exacerbates the condition. Even the emotionally fittest of people are damaged by extended isolation; that’s why confinement of the type practiced in this state’s secure housing units has been outlawed in many nations.
Humane treatment of prisoners — even those whose crimes were so horrendous that they can never be released — is one test of a society’s humanity and maturity. It’s a test that California has been failing abysmally for more than a decade, but recent action to reduce overcrowding, improve medical and mental health treatment, and restore rehabilitation programs has helped. The new policies on solitary confinement follow that very positive trend.