Solitary confinement case set to expand

A guard tower at Pelican Bay State Prison is shown.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

OAKLAND -- A federal judge Thursday said she is likely to allow a lawsuit alleging that solitary confinement conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison amount to psychological torture, to be expanded from the cases of 10 prisoners to include about 1,100 inmates now held in indefinite isolation.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken expressed concern at a hearing, however, that changes the state has made in how it identifies inmates for isolation means those prisoners won’t be included in the pending class-action lawsuit.

What’s more, lawyers for the state say they are in the process of moving some existing prisoners out of confinement in Pelican Bay’s super-maximum security isolation cells.


“I’m wondering how I would manage a class that has people moving in and out,” Wilken said. Nevertheless, she used Thursday’s hearing in Oakland to set Nov. 3, 2014, for the trial. Her ruling over whether that trial will be a class action, or remain confined to the few inmates who filed the case, is yet to be decided.

Inmates in Pelican Bay’s segregation units spend 22.5 hours a day confined to their cells and, though some have cellmates, are otherwise allowed limited human contact and few activities to occupy their time. They are allowed fewer possessions than other inmates, cannot earn good-time credits toward early release like other inmates and are generally refused parole.

The lawsuit alleges that the sensory deprivation of that confinement, especially for 500 men held in isolation more than a decade, causes irreparable psychological harm. The claims were also at the heart of three statewide prison hunger strikes, including a 60-day protest that ended last month when lawmakers pledged public hearings on the practice.

Only one hearing at the moment is planned, Oct. 9, in Sacramento, said staff for Assembly Public Safety Chairman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).

Meanwhile, hunger strike leaders who had been moved during the protest have been returned to their old cells at Pelican Bay, said Anne Weills, one of the lawyers representing those prisoners. She met with them two weeks ago, and said several reported health problems related to their fasting, including cardiac trouble.


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