Some Americans Have Spent Over 10 Years In Solitary Confinement

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
Can you imagine being sent to spend 23 hours a day alone, in a windowless cell, because someone looked at your bookshelf and decided it meant you were part of a gang? What if it meant you'd be in that 80-square-foot cell not for a week, but for five or 10 years? Punitive solitary confinement is a reality for thousands of prisoners who find themselves locked away without access to outside visitors, the library, or even the chance to see another person's face.

Today, a court in California finally changed this, and the shift could be a model for reform nationwide. Thanks to a lawsuit settlement, state prisons will move thousands of people out of solitary confinement, which could reduce the chances that the punishment will be used inappropriately. Prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison's Secure Housing Unit (SHU, for anyone who has seen Orange Is The New Black) — many of whom had spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement — filed the lawsuit in 2012 to challenge their detention.

Human rights groups and medical professionals believe long-term solitary confinement is torture, and prison inmates have gone to court to challenge the punishment's use from California to Illinois to North Carolina. Some 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in America. While the method is supposed to be used to isolate violent or dangerous prisoners, it is often used to separate people who prison officials say have gang affiliations or who commit disciplinary infractions.

Things that could get you sent to solitary confinement for gang activity include possessing or creating magazines, books, poems, artwork, or tattoos that officials deem have gang meanings. Under the new settlement, however, solitary can only be used for "specific serious rules violations," and it can't be imposed for an indefinite time period.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which joined the lawsuit in 2012, there were more than 500 prisoners who had been held in isolation at Pelican Bay for more than a decade, and 78 had spent more than 20 years there.

“Today’s victories are the result of the extraordinary organizing the prisoners managed to accomplish despite extreme conditions,” Jules Lobel Center for Constitutional Rights president said in a statement Tuesday. “This far-reaching settlement represents a major change in California’s cruel and unconstitutional solitary confinement system. There is a mounting awareness across the nation of the devastating consequences of solitary — some key reforms California agreed to will hopefully be a model for other states.”

Of course, this doesn't mean that solitary confinement is over in California, or in the United States. The United Nations Committee Against Torture released a 15-page report in November that said the U.S. uses solitary confinement far too much. The report also offered a long list of recommendations, including ending the punishment's use in all forms and under all names for juveniles, pregnant women, mentally ill inmates, and people with disabilities, among others, plus ending long-term solitary sentences and the 22/24-hours-a-day "regimes" that can be found in super-max prisons like Pelican Bay.

More from Politics