by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition
CA prisoners locked in isolation achieved a legal victory in their struggle against solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the federal class action suit Ashker v. Brown, filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any programs.

From the prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocates, this settlement is a result of our grassroots organizing, inside and outside prison walls, said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. This victory is huge, but not the end of our fight it will make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger. The hunger strikes gained international attention that put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.

Many prisoners are in solitary because of their status associated with political ideologies or alleged gang affiliation. This settlement does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral violations. The settlement limits the time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for release of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.

It’s estimated 1,500-2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within a year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.

Despite attempts by the prison regime to break the prisoners strength, they’ve remained unified, said Marie Levin of CFASC, sister of a prisoner representative. The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will play a significant role in their ongoing struggle.The Agreement to End Hostilities is a historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to cease hostilities between racial groups.

Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will meet with Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as Federal Judge Nandor Vadas, who’s overseeing the reforms, to insure the settlement terms are implemented.

Without the hunger strikes and the Agreement to End Hostilities to bring Californiaís prisoners together and commit to risking their livesó being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we wouldn’t have this settlement today,î said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. ìIt will improve living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languish for decades in the hole.

The plaintiffs declared: “This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California, and across the country. Californiaís 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: our Agreement to End Hostilities.  It is our hope that this groundbreaking agreement to end the violence between the various ethnic groups in California prisons will inspire not only state prisoners, but also jail detainees, county prisoners and our communities on the street, to oppose ethnic and racial violence. From this foundation, the prisonersí human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognize that we are fellow human beings. As the recent statements of President Obama and of Justice Kennedy illustrate, the nation is turning against solitary confinement. We celebrate this victory while, at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle. We are fully committed to that effort, and invite you to join us.” The statement was signed by Todd Ashker, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, Luis Esquivel, George Franco, Richard Johnson, Paul Redd, Gabriel Reyes, George Ruiz, and Danny Troxell.

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