USA: California urged to reform ‘inhumane’ prison units ahead of hunger strike

A planned hunger strike by prisoners in California’s solitary confinement units highlights the urgent need for major reform, Amnesty International said today.

Over a thousand prisoners continue to be held in indefinite isolation, confined for 22-24 hours per day in small, often windowless cells, and deprived of meaningful human contact.  Hundreds have been held in these ‘Security Housing Units’ for more than ten years.

The hunger strike is due to start on Monday 8 July, in protest against the failure of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to carry out reforms pledged a year ago.

“They said they’d give prisoners a way out of isolation, but few prisoners have been moved out of the units, and most cases haven’t even been reviewed yet,” said Angela Wright, Amnesty International’s expert on US ‘supermax’ prisons.

“Rather than improving, conditions have actually significantly deteriorated.”

Cell-checks by guards every 30 minutes, including throughout the night, have now been introduced.

“These prisoners are already being held in dire and inhumane conditions, and these new night-time checks appear punitive, and may result in severe sleep deprivation.  They should be stopped immediately,” said Angela Wright.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement, even for a limited period, can cause serious psychological harm. States should isolate prisoners only in exceptional circumstances, and for as short a time as possible.

The California State authorities’ own figures show that in 2011 more than 500 prisoners had spent more than ten years in the isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison and 78 had been there for 20 years or more.

Amnesty International visited California’s isolation units in November 2011 and issued a highly critical report, USA: The Edge of Endurance, the following year.

In November 2012, California’s Corrections department introduced changes to the criteria for assigning inmates to the units and a ‘step-down program’ to allow prisoners to earn their way out of isolation. However, even once prisoners are cleared to start the program, they would continue to be held in physical and social isolation for at least the first two years.

Most of those held in the isolation units have not yet even been admitted into the ‘step down program’.

A July 2011 hunger strike by prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay isolation unit lasted for 20 days. The strike spread to prisons across the state, with more than 6,000 prisoners participating at its peak.

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