In Landmark Ruling, California Prisons Halt Solitary Confinement
Prisoner advocate Marie Levin and attorney Anne Weills how this will impact some 80,000 prisoners nationwide
EDDIE CONWAY, PRODUCER, TRNN: Hi. I’m Eddie Conway. Welcome to the Real News.
In breaking news, a landmark settlement will effectively end indeterminate long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons. Within the prison-industrial complex in the United States of America there is widespread use of solitary confinement, particularly in what is known as Security Housing Units. Here the imprisoned are forced to accept solitude for 22 to 24 hours a day, and it is believed more than 80,000 people are held in solitary across the United States. Often people are held in such conditions for imprisoned activism. That is, organizing against the same repressive conditions for other inmates.
Here’s a clip from a press conference about the decision.
SPEAKER: This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners, and an important step towards our goal of ending solitary confinement in California and across the country. California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action. This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters. Our movement rests on a foundation of unity.
CONWAY: Doing my time being locked up for 44 years for a crime I didn’t commit, I spent seven of those years in solitary myself.
Joining us now to discuss this are our two guests. Ann Weillis is a civil rights lawyer from Oakland, California and has been co-council with the Center for Constitutional Rights for this case since 2011. Marie Levin is a member of Prisoners Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition and California Families Against Solitary Confinement. Thank you both for joining us.
ANNE WEILLIS, CO-COUNCIL, ASHKER V. STATE OF CALIFORNIA: Thank you.
MARIE LEVIN, CALIFORNIA FAMILIES AGAINST SOLITARY CONFINEMENT: Thank you, Mr. Conway.
CONWAY: Okay. Will you please just summarize what that ruling that came down today means?
WEILLIS: Well, the ruling means a number of things. One of the main things that I think we achieved in the settlement was that from now on there will be no indefinite detention in California’s SHUs, the Security Housing Units, or anywhere else. And so the maximum term that anybody could get theoretically down the road is for five years, a determinate sentence. So we’ve eliminated indeterminate sentence in California. And it started out by, our case had to do with claims against the conditions that the SHU, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, in terms of solitary confinement and also the whole improper violation of the 14th Amendment, and allowing CDCR to validate prisoners as gang members and keep them in the SHU indefinitely until they snitched. Their term is debriefing. And if they didn’t debrief, they would die there because they never could be paroled while in the SHU.
And Marie Levin, [inaud.]. I’m sorry.
CONWAY: What are the origins of Ashker v. the Government of California? I mean, who filed this?
WEILLIS: That–again, it’s Anne Weillis. So what happened in 2011, there were two hunger strikes led by prisoners in the Short Corridor of Pelican Bay. All the different groups in the prison, all the different affiliated groups united together, cooperated in demanding changes in the SHU. And they–so they had a hunger strike.
I came in as a lawyer coming up to visit them while they were in the administration segregation, while they were starving and being blasted with freezing cold air. And so that was my first introduction to the case. Shortly after that Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights and several others joined this effort. We ultimately filed a lawsuit in May 2012 which led to our victory today.
CONWAY: Okay. So what is often said to be the impact of solitary confinement, and how is solitary confinement often used or applied?
LEVIN: Solitary confinement is, the impact is great. Meaning that the mind, the damages that they do to the men when they put them in solitary confinement–the lack of, sensory deprivation. You are not able to touch anyone. These guys in Pelican Bay solitary confinement there was no sunlight. There was no fresh air coming in. No windows. They only got the air that was pumped in. They only saw through a little tiny skylight in the yard, which is all concrete. The only time that they touched people was when the guards were handcuffing them.
CONWAY: Marie, how did you get involved in this protest effort?
LEVIN: I got involved because of my brother. My brother is, has been locked up for 34 years in prison, and in solitary for 31 years. And in 2011 he was going on the hunger strike, and he told me that he was going to go, and he was–he was willing to die for it. For those that are coming behind him, he didn’t want them to have to go through the same thing that he’s gone through these 31 years in solitary confinement. So that is how I got started.
I went to a rally that they had at the beginning of the hunger strike. And at that rally someone told me the conditions that were happening to him on the inside. And I made a decision that day that I would get involved with making change in the system.
CONWAY: Okay. It seems that this whole protest effort was collective action by a number of people from different races. Please describe the interracial aspect of this case.
WEILLIS: There’s an interesting beginning of that in what’s called the Short Corridor Collective of the Pelican Bay SHU where they put–where CDCR, it’s stupidity in a way, put together all the people they thought were the most powerful leadership of all the various groups in California’s prisons. The different so-called gang and their affiliates. And so they put what they thought were the highest-ranking members all together in a pod in the Short Corridor. And over a period of years these men became very close. They started talking about their families, their joint interests, and ultimately decided to go on a hunger strike in 2011.
And after that they decided to go a step further and develop what we call, they call, and which we wholeheartedly support, the Agreement to End Hostilities, which is a document which asks every group of men in California SHU, as well as women, to step back. To not fight each other, to not commit violence against each other, and to work for the greater good of liberating themselves and improving the conditions of life in California’s prisons. And I’m sure Marie would like [inaud.]
LEVIN: Yes. And as it pertains to the families on the outside–she told you about the inside, but the outside, there have been–it’s African-Americans, Hispanics, whites, Asian. We have all different races that are involved in this fight to end solitary confinement. And it was just across–it’s not just family members but activists. Lawyers. Just loved ones, just people, strangers. You know, people, concerned citizens just band together to do whatever we could do to make a change.
CONWAY: Can you describe the reach of this decision and how this was not just a case for those in prison in Pelican Bay, but how this has been designed to possibly impact those in prison anywhere?
WEILLIS: Well, one thing is the lawsuit was specifically targeted against Pelican Bay, because that is where they have no windows. That whole prison was produced in ’89 to be like the most restrictive, the most secure, and the most, basically, violent towards our prisoners in terms of all kinds of indirect violence towards our humanity.
So it was focused on Pelican Bay, but ultimately this settlement that we’ve reached covers all the Security Housing Units in California. And so everybody will be impacted and they’ll be stepping out of the SHU. Every person in the SHU that fits our class will be coming out of the SHU within the next year. Probably within the next few months. They’ll be sent to various prisons to general population, or they’ll be put in what we call restrictive custody, general population, which will be a new facility, a pilot program where men coming out of the SHU who for various reasons do not want to go to general population or Level 4 prisons in California will be in this unit, which will have all the privileges of general population, but it still will be fairly high security. But all the individual prisoners from these various groups will be meeting together, recreating together, being educated together, and living together as a group.
So that’s the model. And obviously it hasn’t been developed yet on the ground. But if that’s successful I think it will be an alternative to solitary confinement in the United States. Because it would mean that people that the system finds difficult or finds–who classify as this high security for whatever reasons, that they will still be able to have a more human life with the basic privileges that they receive in general population in California’s prisons. Which means contact visits, family visits, telephone calls, educational opportunities, programming.
And you may not know this, but in California SHUs nobody could ever get paroled because they were in the SHU. Some of our men would have been paroled in the ’80s, ’90s, but for being, languishing there in the Pelican Bay SHU for all these years.
LEVIN: And one thing I would like to add to that is that these are people who are ten years, who have been in the SHU for ten years or more. So that’s a big thing, from all the California prisons, for it to be ten years and above. So that’s touching a lot of people. It’s not just those in Pelican Bay, but at other prisons. So that’s wonderful.
CONWAY: Okay. Thank you both for joining us.
WEILLIS: You’re very welcome, Mr. Conway. Take care.
LEVIN: You’re welcome. Thank you.
CONWAY: All right. And thank you for joining the Real News.
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