Federal judge declares she won’t dismiss solitary confinement lawsuit

The solitary confinement cell of an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison's security housing unit. Photograph provided to Amnesty International.
(Amnesty International)

OAKLAND -- A federal judge made it clear Thursday she won’t grant California’s bid to dismiss a lawsuit filed by state prisoners challenging the state’s use of prolonged isolation -- in some cases decades -- for inmates not convicted of a new crime.

Plaintiffs at Pelican Bay State Prison have remained in segregation for more than 10 years, “deprived of basic human needs for human contact and environmental stimulation,” their lawyer, Jules Lobel with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, argued in U.S. District Court before Chief Judge Claudia Wilken.


The state contends the decision to put each of the prisoners in segregation were made after careful weighing of evidence that they are members or associates of dangerous prison gangs. A lawyer from the state attorney general’s office pressed Wilken to dismiss or at least delay the lawsuit while California tries a pilot program that reconsiders the segregation of some of those inmates. He also argued that issues over the physical and psychiatric impact of isolation belong instead in front of other federal judges overseeing medical and mental health care lawsuits against the state prison system.

Wilken made her thoughts clear from the bench.

“You can’t have a two-year pilot program and dismiss the case based on this,” she told Deputy Atty. Gen. Adriano Hrvatin. Later, she made her point even clearer, directing Hrvatin to immediately begin preparations for the next round of legal motions, which will include a move by inmate lawyers to have the lawsuit declared a class action.

“You can start now,” she told Hrvatin. “It’s not going to be dismissed.”


The judge has yet to put her order into writing. Motions for class certification are due May 2.