California authorities have agreed to sharply limit the number of inmates held in isolation for long periods of time, a major development in the national debate about solitary confinement.
The agreement resolves a class-action lawsuit filed by prisoners who say the practice amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Advocates say it could change the daily lives of as many as 2,000 inmates stuck in isolation because authorities determined they had some ties to a gang.
The inmates live in tiny windowless, sound-proofed cells for nearly 23 hours each day — some have remained there for decades.
Plaintiff Paul Redd spent 33 years in a solitary unit. In a videotaped deposition, he talked about his vision problems and anxiety.
"It's not to the point where you want to commit suicide but sometimes I be at the point where I be going to right to jail and say just give me the death penalty, just give me the death penalty man," Redd said.
Under the terms of the settlement, state authorities will only send inmates to solitary if they commit new and serious crimes in prison, like murders or violent assaults.
California prison officials have a year to review files of inmates in isolation now. The process is designed to send many of those prisoners back into the general prison population.
Jeffrey Beard, corrections and rehabilitation secretary for the state, said authorities have already released more than 1,000 inmates into less restrictive custody with few problems — even for inmates kept for decades in the harshest facility known as Pelican Bay.
"I personally have gone to institutions and talked to many of them that have come out of Pelican Bay," Beard said on a conference call with reporters. "In some of the institutions they are some of the better inmates. Their cells are cleaner than anybody else's cell. Their housing units is one of the cleanest housing units. They want nothing to do with going back to Pelican Bay."
Gang members who break the rules can still get sent to solitary units but prison officials say they will no longer hold them there indefinitely. Prison leaders are creating a separate unit with tight restrictions for inmates who pose security threats, but they will get more contact with others and access to educational courses and some phone calls.
Marie Levin is the sister of an inmate kept in solitary for decades. She read a statement written by her brother and other prisoners.
"This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California," Levin said.
Levin hasn't been able to hug or touch her brother, an alleged gang leader, for 31 years. But that could change under the terms of the settlement, which requires the approval of a judge.
Experts hired in connection with the case concluded that long-term isolation can cause severe mental and physical damage.
Lawyer Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represented the prisoners in the case, said public opinion may be souring on solitary confinement. He pointed out that President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have both raised questions about the harmful consequences of isolating inmates.
"There clearly has been a fundamental shift in our society to recognizing that solitary confinement does present serious constitutional and psychological problems," Lobel said.
But the union that represents many corrections workers has warned, in comments to the Los Angeles Times, that turning away from solitary could produce more violence, for both inmates and officers.