Officials and gang members alike praise California solitary confinement limits

Pelican Bay prisoners ‘showed we should be treated as humans’, says former inmate as settlement ends use of isolation as a means of controlling gangs

The Pelican Bay state prison in Crescent City, California.
The Pelican Bay state prison in Crescent City, California. Photograph: California Deptartment of Corrections and Rehabilitation/Handout/EPA

Prison officials, civil rights organizations, former guards and gang members have expressed widespread support of a legal settlement between the state of California and Pelican Bay state prison that will end the use of solitary confinement as a means of controlling prison gangs.

Under the agreement announced Tuesday, the state will no longer segregate gang members in windowless, 80-square-foot cells for more than 22 hours a day, a practice that has been criticised by President Obama and others.

“It is about time,” said Ricardo S, 38, a former Oakland “gang” member turned computer service technician. Ricardo, who left prison in 2004, said that during the time he spent in state prison in his early 20s, “you knew that if you were sent to solitary, it was over. You were not going to come out the same person.”

He praised the state’s acceptance that solitary confinement is not successful in dealing with inmate problems. “It had to change, and thankfully those prisoners in Pelican Bay really showed that we all should be treated as humans.”

Across California, some prisoners have been in solitary confinement for more than a decade. As of late July, 28 inmates had spent more than two decades in the segregation units and another 34 had been isolated for more than 10 years, the Associated Press reported.

The agreement between the state and two Pelican Bay prisoners stems from a 2009 federal lawsuit that claimed conditions in the security housing were “cruel and unusual punishment”. Tuesday’s settlement will see inmates no longer being put in solitary confinement based solely on their being gang members or prison leaders. Gang members and nonmembers will now be sent to segregated housing only if they have committed a serious crime during incarceration – and they can only be held there for up to five years.

California corrections secretary Jeffrey Beard said the prison system could not justify solitary confinement as overcrowding issues in the state’s prisons saw inmates being put in gyms and day rooms for sleeping quarters.

He argued that solitary confinement became a solution in the 1980s as violence in prisons increased. Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Callison said that the state expects to relocate prisoners within existing facilities, and the process will “be done safely and with inmates’ and guards’ safety in mind”.

The settlement also gives inmates who repeatedly break rules or those who refuse rehabilitation programs the ability not to be sent to solitary confinement. They will be placed in housing called the restricted custody general population unit, which is dramatically less harsh than solitary.

A retired San Quentin guard, who asked not to be named as she disagreed with former co-workers, said the settlement will help bring an end to much of the tension that exists between guards and inmates.

“What you have are people who are often scared and the first reaction from the guards is to punish, but this doesn’t help create an environment that helps maintain order, and as a guard that is what you want. The inmates, even if they are really tough and hardened criminals, are scared of being alone.”

During her nearly three decades working in the state’s prison system, she saw individuals return from solitary, “and they lashed out. It was not safe for inmates or guards.”

Her views differ from those of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which has repeatedly argued the state is returning to conditions that witnessed violence and homicide at unprecedented levels in the 1980s, ultimately leading to the implementation of solitary confinement of gang members in an effort to quell unrest.

“We need to be really careful about what is going to happen now because this could put a large number of prison guards at risk,” said association spokesperson Nichol Gomez-Pryde. “We hope this will not result in deaths.” Critics of this position argue that much of the violence of the 1980s was the result of overcrowding, which the supreme court ruled in 2011 was unconstitutional and violated prisoners’ rights.

Prison reform has been a key issue for many organizations in California. According to Critical Resistance, one of the organizers of a rally in Oakland on Tuesday night, more than 5,000 inmates are currently in segregation or solitary confinement units.

“It’s time to end the unnecessary torture of people in this country who are doing their time. It is wrong to use these methods in the 21st century,” said Oakland activist John Benble, who was planning to attend the rally and show his support for prisoners’ rights.

Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, believes the California move will be successful. She pointed to a similar 2002 lawsuit in Mississippi brought forward by inmates over solitary confinement, and said prisons there did not see a return to violence as a result of the ending of solitary confinement. The media attention, she argues, should assist in making the transition period smooth and enable authorities to identify the issues that must be addressed throughout the transition period.

“This is very major and something to celebrate,” she told the Guardian via telephone from Washington. “I don’t think violence will increase, and the authorities will sort out who will cause problems and deal with people individually. Intensive monitoring will happen.”