VIDEO: After Mass Hunger Strikes and Lawsuits, Prisoners Force California to Scale Back Solitary Confinement


In a major victory for prisoners’ rights, California has agreed to greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement as a part of a legal settlement that may have major implications in prisons nationwide. The decision on Tuesday came following years of litigation by a group of prisoners held in isolation for a decade or more at Pelican Bay State Prison, as well as prisoner hunger strikes. We speak to Dolores Canales, the co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, whose son, John Martinez, has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 14 years. We also speak with Jules Lobel, the lead attorney representing prisoners at Pelican Bay in the lawsuit.


AMY GOODMAN: In a major victory for prisoners’ rights, California has agreed to greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement as a part of a legal settlement that may have major implications in prisons nationwide. On Tuesday, California reached a landmark legal settlement with a group of prisoners held in isolation for a decade or more at the Pelican Bay State Prison. California currently keeps nearly 3,000 prisoners alone for more than 22 hours a day in windowless cells. Human rights advocates have long maintained that the practice of solitary confinement is both inhumane and counterproductive. The settlement comes after years of prisoner hunger strikes and sustained protests by prisoners’ loved ones.

In 2011, Democracy Now! obtained a recording of one Pelican Bay prisoner on hunger strike, Todd Ashker, who was held in the prison’s secure housing unit, which is referred to as SHU. Listen closely.

TODD ASHKER: The basis for this protest has come about after over 25 years—some of us, 30, some up to 40 years—of being subjected to these conditions the last 21 years in Pelican Bay SHU, where every single day you have staff and administrators who feel it’s their job to punish the worst of the worst, as they’ve put out propaganda for the last 21 years that we are the worst of the worst. And most of us have never been found guilty of ever committing an illegal gang-related act. But we’re in SHU because of a label. And all of our 602 appeals, numerous court challenges, have gotten nowhere. Therefore, our backs are up against the wall.

AMY GOODMAN: That was one of the Pelican Bay prisoners, Todd Ashker, speaking about his participation in the 2011 hunger strike.

Well, for more, we go to Los Angeles, California, where we’re joined by Dolores Canales, the co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. Her son, John Martinez, has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 14 years. Dolores herself spent nine months in segregation at the California Institute for Women in 1999. And in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we’re joined by Jules Lobel, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, the lead attorney representing prisoners at Pelican Bay in the lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement in California prisons.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jules Lobel, let’s start with you. Lay out what this decision, what this settlement means.

JULES LOBEL: Up until now, California has put thousands of prisoners into solitary confinement simply because they have some association with a gang, or they have alleged association with a gang, often simply for artwork or political literature which the officials said were gang-related in some way. Under this settlement, California will no longer do that. In addition, when California put these alleged gang affiliates into solitary confinement, they did it for an indefinite term—really, for life. There was almost no way out. So that’s why people like Todd Ashker have spent over 20 years in solitary confinement. Under this settlement, people will only be put in solitary confinement if they commit some serious offense, after a due process hearing, a serious offense being assault or murder or something like that in prison. And they will only be put in for a definite term, and after that term ends, they will get out. So they’re abolishing essentially indefinite, indeterminate solitary confinement. They’re abolishing solitary confinement simply for gang affiliation.

And throughout the country, there are about 80,000 people in solitary confinement, many of whom are in for minor offenses or for—because they’re mentally ill or for not any good penological reason. And California, through our lawsuit, through the hunger strikes, realizes that this is a wrongheaded policy, even from the perspective of good prison management, apart from the human rights problem. In addition, California has recognized that for people who are in solitary confinement for a very long time, it’s cruel and inhumane. To put somebody in a small little box with no windows, no phone calls, no ability to contact other people—they could get written up and disciplined for even communicating with other prisoners—it’s just an inhumane way to run a prison. And for everybody who’s there after 10—for more than 10 years, they’re going to get them out of solitary confinement. In fact, they’re going to go through all the prisoners who are there simply for gang affiliation, and if they don’t have a serious misconduct in two years, in the last two years, they’re going to put them into general population. California estimates that over 95 percent of all the prisoners they have there now for simply gang affiliation are going to be released into the general population. It’s a major victory.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how many people are we talking about?

JULES LOBEL: We’re talking about probably approximately 2,000 people. There are 2,000 people in California in the SHU now simply for gang affiliation. There are a thousand people in the SHU, out of the 3,000 that you mentioned, who are there because they committed some serious offense. And this isn’t going to really affect them. We still have a long struggle down the road to get rid of solitary confinement totally in this country, but this is an important first step.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores Canales, what does this mean for your son, John Martinez, who has been in solitary for what? Fourteen years now?

DOLORES CANALES: Yes. Well, for my son, John Martinez, it means that he will be released from the security housing unit, and he will be placed on a yard where hopefully he’ll be given the opportunity to participate in vocational training and programs. So, I’m very excited about this and for the many family members that have been waiting for this moment, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what his life is like in solitary confinement?

DOLORES CANALES: Well, I know that he sleeps on the floor, because the mattresses that they have are very thin, and he’s concerned about his back. So I know that he sleeps on his cement floor. I know that he has an exercise routine. He does a lot of legal work. We’ve provided his education. Out here, we were able to support him in his education, so he’s received certificates in paralegal studies and civil litigation, so that occupies a lot of his time. But there’s been times that he’s written me, you know, saying that he has no doubt in his mind that Pelican Bay security housing unit was designed solely to drive men mad or to suicide, because that is his existence.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been able to visit him?

DOLORES CANALES: Yes, I have. I try to visit at least every six to eight weeks, especially because of his conditions. And I’m going to be up there to see him on Saturday, because I’m just so excited at this moment, although I will say this is very, very bittersweet, because in my advocacy, working with numerous family members as we organize together, there’s been family members that are not here today to share in this moment with us, as they’ve passed away, with the last chance of ever seeing their loved one just simply behind an image behind a glass or holding onto a cold phone, but yet always believing that there would be change. So, I’m happy, and then I hold them in my heart, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, Dolores, the kind of organizing that went on outside the prison, people like you organizing for family members, and inside the prison? Your son, John Martinez, participated in all three hunger strikes that began in 2011?

DOLORES CANALES: Yes, he did. He gave us notice prior to the first hunger strike, July 1st, 2011. He wrote us, and he asked us to send his letter to about over 200 organizations and to the governor and various administration in Sacramento. And, you know, I didn’t even realize the circumstances of solitary confinement, the depth of the isolation. I didn’t really give it too much of a second thought. I guess it’s something you just kind of block out. But then, after that, I could not stop thinking about it.

And so, what the family members began to do—and even right now, as I’m sitting here, I wouldn’t even be here at this moment if it were not for the hundreds of family members that have come out. And every hunger strike that they had was during the summer—July, August and September—you know, these warm months. But yet family members would be outside every other day dressed in orange jumpsuits or dressed in orange, you know, carrying chains or handcuffs or bullhorns, just to get attention, to draw attention of society, conducting numerous panels at universities and churches, and just organizing and mobilizing across the state of California, raising awareness to these conditions that our loved ones were enduring.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, corrections officials and guards have come out increasingly—is this true—against solitary confinement? Were there guards or officials supporting you in your activism?

DOLORES CANALES: Some were, yes. Some would make comments, maybe not out in the open, but some would make comments that it was time for change, you know, while others, of course, there is resistance, and they don’t want change. And I just recently heard yesterday that, you know, the CCPOA is very much against this change because they’re concerned about violence. But one thing that the men did do was they drew up an agreement to end all hostilities. And that is something that the family members and the advocates have been attempting to promote and just spread the word, that it’s time for change and to just come together in unity. And what my concern is, if there is such a big concern that there’s going to be violence, it would seem like CDCR would be very cooperative in helping, you know, to get this word out and to pass this around and to promote this end of all hostilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Dolores Canales, you yourself were in a segregated unit in 1999. Explain how that compares to solitary confinement. Is it solitary? How do you end up there? And, I mean, we’re talking now more than 15 years of activism.

DOLORES CANALES: Yes, well, I do believe that I was in solitary confinement when I was—when I was doing a SHU term in CIW. And I had a window in my cell. You know, keep in mind that in Pelican Bay there is no windows. Not only did I have a window, I went outside to yard activity, and I was actually outdoors. I could see the sun, feel the wind when I went out. But yet, when you’re in that cell and you’re surrounded by that brick, you know, and the only thing you experience—you don’t experience human contact other than being handcuffed and escorted places. My visits were non-contact. They were behind the glass. And there would be times that I would wake up at night, because the cells are so small, and I would just feel like if I couldn’t breathe. And I guess that’s why once I really did start thinking about the situation of solitary confinement for decades on end, you know, that’s why I organized with such passion, because I didn’t realize that California left people for 20, 30, 40 years, and then I immediately realized that they had no intentions of letting my son out and that we had to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama addressed the NAACP in July. He spoke out against solitary confinement.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What’s more, I’ve asked my attorney general to start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons. The social science shows that an environment like that is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent. Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama addressing the NAACP in July. So, Jules Lobel, where does solitary confinement stand across the country, outside of California? And how will this settlement affect that?

JULES LOBEL: A couple things. One is, I just want to point out one thing about what happens at Pelican Bay, is that when Dolores visits her son, she cannot hug him, she cannot have any human contact with him. She visits him with a glass in between them. And so, we have clients who for 20 years have not hugged their loved ones. And I think this is an abomination. In addition, for many years at Pelican Bay, they had no phone calls. Until our lawsuit, nobody was allowed to even make a phone call to their loved ones. But what’s happening around the—

AMY GOODMAN: Aside from the morality of that, Jules Lobel, and the humanity or lack of humanity of that, talk about how that actually makes prisoners—makes the situation worse for prisoners, can make them more violent, less able to rehabilitate when they are so cut off from human contact.

JULES LOBEL: Yeah, it obviously makes them very angry, frustrated, hopeless, which all of our guys have experienced. And in addition, it creates what social scientists call a social death. People lose their ability to relate to other people, and have a lot of difficulties relating to people in the normal world. And that—most of these people are going to get out of prison. We are creating a situation where we’re releasing people from solitary confinement who cannot possibly have the ability to relate to the outside world in a normal, human way. I mean, they could function, but their basic human need of social interaction has been taken away from them, their basic human need to touch another person. If your listeners could imagine living in a world where for 15, 20 years you’ve not been able to hug another person, you haven’t been able to touch another person, you’ve had very little contact with other people, and then get thrown out into the street, it’s a very, very difficult situation. And it’s contrary to any notion of prison rehabilitating people. But around the—

AMY GOODMAN: And what this means globally—I mean, nationally?

JULES LOBEL: Yeah. Around the country, as I said, there are 80,000 people in solitary confinement. And as President Obama said, most of them are there without any real necessity. So what this settlement, I think, will mean is it will give impetus to the movement in Colorado, in Mississippi, in other states to dramatically reduce the number of people in solitary confinement. California now is going to dramatically reduce the number of people held in SHU. And California has been the major state using solitary confinement. That, I think, will give impetus to these reform efforts around the country.

But in addition, this settlement has done another thing which I think could have a major impact around the country. There are some prisoners who commit murder in prison or assault in prison, who obviously need to be segregated from the general population, but they don’t have to be treated in a cruel, inhumane way. They don’t have to be put in cells with no windows. They don’t have to be given any contact visits with their family. They don’t have to be cut off from phone calls with their family. And California, as part of this settlement, has agreed to create a special unit for people who they consider dangerous, but who will be given contact visits, who will be in a—given small group recreation. So they won’t recreate in a big yard like what we’ve seen in the movies, in Shawshank Redemption or something like that, but they’ll be able to recreate with other people as opposed to totally alone. They’ll be able to have educational programs. And we’re hoping that this unit could be an alternative model around the country for segregating people, but not isolating them, not treating them inhumanely. Our prisons have to realize that every prisoner is entitled to human dignity, is entitled to basic human needs. And the way our prisons have been running has not been in accordance with that.

And finally, I think there’s another key thing about this settlement which could be a model in other states, which is that in our whole litigation we incorporated the prisoners into—the prisoners came up with the demands. We had a number of group meetings with all the prisoners. We had the prisoners ratifying this agreement. And the prisoners are going to be meeting with prison officials, helping to implement this. So, it’s not like just the lawyers did this. To treat people with some human dignity, you have to allow them to participate in the things that govern their own lives. That’s a basic democratic principle, and it shouldn’t be abolished simply because somebody goes to prison. And I think that’s critical to rehabilitation, and it’s critical to allowing a prison to be run with some kind of a dignity and some kind of a hope for the prisoners. So I do think the way this litigation and this settlement was conducted really could be an alternative model for prisons around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. Her son, John Martinez, has been held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for more than 14 years, participated in all the hunger strikes, and may now well be released from solitary confinement because of the settlement that has been reached this week.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Guatemala City. The president of Guatemala has been stripped of immunity by the Guatemalan Congress. That means he could be arrested at any moment, unless he resigns—he could still be arrested, even then. Stay with us.


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