Ten inmates held in isolation at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison for more than a decade sued the state Thursday, saying their conditions – which deprived them of virtually all human contact and any meaningful chance for release – violate international standards against torture and inhumane treatment.
The prolonged solitary confinement in the North Coast prison’s Security Housing Unit is the harshest anywhere in the nation and “strips human beings of their basic dignity and humanity,” the inmates said in a federal court suit in Oakland.
A proposed class action on behalf of the unit’s 1,000 inmates – half of whom have been there for more than a decade – seeks court orders limiting their stay in the unit to 10 years, requiring regular review and barring what the suit described as “sensory deprivation” and “environmental deprivation.”
The prison in a remote area of Del Norte County houses inmates classified as security risks, mostly because of gang activity. The suit said they are held in windowless concrete cells at least 22 1/2 hours a day, are fed through a slot, have no access to prison vocational or educational programs, sleep on a concrete bed with a lumpy mattress, and can be punished for trying to speak to other inmates.
Most inmates have never been charged with gang-related conduct behind bars, their lawyers said, and are kept in the Security Housing Unit on flimsy evidence – a tattoo, some artwork in their possession, shaking hands with the wrong person, or inclusion in an undisclosed list by an unidentified informant.
They said authorities have told them that the only way out of the unit is to “debrief'” – admit their gang ties and become an informer on other members.
The suit also alleged that state officials have adopted an unofficial but binding policy of denying parole to otherwise eligible prisoners while they are in the security unit. One inmate, George Ruiz
, 69, placed in a security unit 28 years ago as a gang member, has been eligible for parole since 1993, but has been told repeatedly by parole boards that he will never be released while housed in the unit, the suit said.
That is “preposterous,” replied Agathocelous. Although prisoners can have two two-hour visits per weekend, he said, they can speak to their visitors only through Plexiglas and are prohibited from physical contact.
The same complaints were the subject of two prison hunger strikes last summer and fall that spread to more than 6,000 inmates in 13 prisons. Afterward, state officials said they would ease some restrictions on prisoners’ activities and on transfers out of security units, but inmates’ representatives said Thursday the changes have been minimal.
“Prison authorities have given them a handball in the recreation area, and prisoners can buy colored pencils” for artwork, said Marilyn McMahon
, executive director of the advocacy group California Prison Focus. “But the major demand was to stop debriefing. The department has made it clear that they have no intention of ending that.”