California will no longer hold inmates in solitary confinement for more than five years at its notorious Pelican Bay prison and will reform its incarceration practices for similar units in other prisons under a sweeping settlement announced on Tuesday.
The settlement ends a lawsuit originally brought by prisoners at the maximum-security facility, where some of them lived for decades in units where they were housed alone in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, plaintiffs' lawyers said.
As outlined in the agreement, most inmates held in so-called Security Housing Units for more than 10 years will be released immediately into general prison populations, and inmates will no longer be confined to such units for unknown periods of time, according to the lawyers.
As many as 1,500 inmates, or about half the total population in solitary or near-solitary confinement, will soon be moved either into general prison populations or special units where they will have higher security but will be able to interact with each other and receive visitors, said Jules Lobel, an attorney with the New York based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Under the settlement, the state agreed to no longer sentence inmates to such units for indeterminate periods that can stretch to decades. The state also agreed to only send inmates to the units if they commit certain felonies while behind bars, not simply because they have gang affiliations.
Jeffrey Beard, California's prison chief, confirmed the terms of the settlement and said it was part of a longer-term shift by the state away from such heavy reliance on near-isolation for inmates.
The state has consistently rejected the term solitary confinement to describe its SHU units, saying inmates have up to 90 minutes per day out of their cells, and that at Corcoran and other state prisons some inmates have roommates.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International have said solitary confinement is torture.
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