Pelican Bay “Special Housing Unit”

Solitary confinement remains one of the most archaic punishments in the prison arsenal. Given the advances in our understanding of mental illness and penal rehabilitation over the last thirty years, it’s shocking that it has taken as long as it has for California penitentiaries to come to the conclusion that completely isolating a prisoner for sometimes decades is perhaps not the most appropriate method for dealing with self-harm or prison violence. It’s taken a class-action lawsuit to lead lawmakers in the state to this moderate conclusion and work towards adopting a late 20th century model of prison reform. Activists are applauding a recent settlement that will result in sweeping changes to the manner in which “special housing units” (the “SHU”) are utilized.

The suit in question was filed on behalf of inmates from the Pelican Bay State Prison, some of whom had been held in “security housing units” (read: solitary confinement) for prolonged and often indefinite periods. Literally segregated from the rest of the prison community, incidences of abuse by staff often increase, compounding the already grueling psychological impact of such isolation.

States like Wisconsin have already moved to adopt new policies on solitary, stating that it is only to be applied for those offenses which “create a serious threat to life, property, staff, or other inmates, or to the security or orderly operation of the institution.”  However the policy wording remain vague enough as to be widely interpreted by staff to suit any number of motives, with the maximum of 90 days isolation remains well beyond the UN’s recommended maximum duration of 14 days. The announcement in California has garnered greater attention because of the state’s notoriously widespread application of solitary as a punitive and precautionary measure.

This particular facility at the heart of the lawsuit has a particularly infamous reputation for its use of such practices—specifically their tendency to keep prisoners with known gang affiliations isolated for extended periods without cause.

But once again, while an important development, it’s hardly a resounding victory in prisoners’ rights. Their decision ends indefinite solitary, but the new parameters do not represent reasons to celebrate. It simply states that they will not automatically segregate gang members, wand will only commit those to isolation who have committed new crimes.  Prisoners can still be isolated for up to five years, gang members an additional two years, and can still be confined for up to ten years non-consecutively.

In the state of California alone there are nearly 3,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, and the recent settlement will trigger a review of cases. Proclamations that this will mean the release of thousands of inmates into the regular prison population are, however, misplaced; those currently in isolation will be subject to review that may either limit their time, alter the number of hours spent in the unit, or transfer them to units more suitable for those struggling with mental health issues. 

 There’s no denying the arguably meager changes in California can’t come soon enough. For far too many inmates, however (like Hugo Pinell, who after being released to gen pop of New Folsom Prison after 43 years in isolation, was killed just a few short weeks ago in a prison riot), the damage has already been done—and we must atone for those injustices as well.   It’s time for California to adopt 21st century understandings of justice and humanity.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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