The prolonged use of solitary confinement at a high-security prison in California "strips prisoners of their basic humanity" and amounts to illegal torture, a human rights group charged in a federal lawsuit filed on Thursday.
The suit, filed on behalf of prisoners by the Center for Constitutional Rights in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., calls for an end to prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California. Hundreds of inmates held in the prison's "security housing unit" spend 22.5 hours a day in total isolation, leaving their cells for just roughly 90 minutes a day to exercise, alone, in a small concrete enclosure.
"We as a society should not be sanctioning torture," said Jules Lobel, the center's president. "We as a society should not be sanctioning barbarity."
More than 500 prisoners have been held more than a decade in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, according to statistics cited in the lawsuit, with 87 serving 20 years or more in isolation. Inmates in the security housing unit cannot make or receive phone calls and their visitation rights are extremely limited.
In 2011, thousands of prisoners at Pelican Bay and other California prisons staged a hunger strike to protest the corrections department's use of long-term solitary confinement as a tool to disrupt prison gangs. Inmates complained that once they are transferred to the security housing unit, it is almost impossible to leave.
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the agency was still reviewing the lawsuit and could not comment on how it would respond legally.
Callison rejected the claim that conditions at Pelican Bay amounted to torture, however.
"There is no torture in California prisons," he said. "That is not how we conduct business."
Callison also disputed the lawsuit's characterization of conditions in the security housing unit as solitary confinement, noting that the prisoners there are allowed each day to briefly leave their cells. "We do not have solitary confinement in California prisons," he said.
Yet the conditions in the security housing unit clearly meet the United Nation's definition of solitary confinement, according to an October 2011 report by the U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez. In the report, Mendez defined solitary confinement as "any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others (except guards) for at least twenty-two hours a day."
In an October speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Mendez called for a ban on the use of isolation as punishment and for a prohibition on long-term solitary confinement, citing scientific studies linking such conditions to lasting psychological damage.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, supermax, the hole, secure housing unit … whatever the name --solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion technique,” Mendez said. "Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, in excess of 15 days, should also be subject to prohibition."
“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture,” he said.
Lobel, the Center for Constitutional Rights president, said he hoped the center's lawsuit would proceed quickly through the courts. The Supreme Court has held that prisoners have the right to challenge their detention in extreme isolation units. But it has not ruled on whether long-term solitary confinement violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
"We are hoping that this case will be pushed expeditiously and we'll get some ruling within a year," he said.