Indefinite Solitary Confinement Ends at San Quentin

San Quentin State Prison will no longer place death row inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely, thanks to a lawsuit filed by an Oakland attorney on behalf of six inmates.

Death row inmates will no longer be kept in indefinite solitary confinement in San Quentin State Prison, it was announced Monday. The agreement was part of a settlement of a 2015 lawsuit filed on behalf of six inmates who were held indefinitely in what is called an “adjustment center” because they were suspected of being gang members. When the lawsuit was filed, there were some 100 inmates being held in the adjustment center. Since then, the number has fluctuated from around 10 to 22 inmates.

“Basically, these guys were housed there for 23 hours a day,” says Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the six inmates. “They got one hour three times a week in the yard. They had no human contact. The cells were like closed boxes, no windows. And they’ve been there for years and years. It takes a toll — emotionally, psychologically, and physically.”

Siegel said he was “ecstatic” about the settlement, but noted that it was the “tail of the dog.” The “dog” was Ashker v. Governor of California, a class-action lawsuit filed by Siegel and several other lawyers in 2012, on behalf of 10 inmates at the maximum-security Pelican Bay prison. Those inmates were also held in solitary confinement indefinitely because they were suspected gang members, or associates of gang members. Their conditions were similar, if not worse, to those being held in indefinite solitary at San Quentin, and their complaint alleged that the state was violating the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of procedural due process. The 2015 settlement in that case resulted in nearly 2,000 inmates being freed from isolation and returned to the general population. Some of those inmates had been in solitary for 30 years, with no human contact.

Siegel says the San Quentin agreement “isn’t the end of solitary confinement yet,” but says the prison will follow the conditions set in Ashker and will identify a specific offense, set a fixed term not to exceed five years, and review each case every six months.

“I think solitary confinement is coming to an end in California,” Siegel says. “It’s uncivilized treatment, and I think prisons are going to stop using it.”

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