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Solidarity with CA prisoners poster 2

Prisoners in California will no longer be kept in windowless boxes indefinitely. That improves the lives of 3,000 people. It also brings California into line with the practices of virtually all other states. This is landmark.

Many groups were involved in the support of the plaintiffs in the class action suit. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children put out a press release. Below I copy the press release of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group.


OAKLAND — Today, California prisoners locked in isolation achieved a groundbreaking legal victory in their ongoing struggle against the use of solitary confinement. A settlement was reached in the federal class action suit Ashker v. Brown, originally filed in 2012, effectively ending indefinite long-term solitary confinement, and greatly limiting the prison administration’s ability to use the practice, widely seen as a form of torture. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in Pelican Bay State Prison’s infamous Security Housing Units (SHU) for more than 10 years, where they spend 23 hours a day or more in their cells with little to no access to family visits, outdoor time, or any kind of programming.

“From the historic prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, to the work of families, loved ones, and advocate, this settlement is a direct result of our grassroots organizing, both inside and outside prison walls,” said Dolores Canales of California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC), and mother of a prisoner in Pelican Bay. “This legal victory is huge, but is not the end of our fight – it will only make the struggle against solitary and imprisonment everywhere stronger.” The 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes gained widespread international attention that for the first time in recent years put solitary confinement under mainstream scrutiny.

Hunger-Strike-suspension-1st-anniversary-Mosswood-Park-Amphitheater-Oakland-090614-by-Lucas-Guilkey-web 4

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition members commemorating the first anniversary of the 2013 hunger strike suspension.

Currently, many prisoners are in solitary because of their “status” – having been associated with political ideologies or gang affiliation. However, this settlement does away with the status-based system, leaving solitary as an option only in cases of serious behavioral rule violations. Furthermore, the settlement limits the amount of time a prisoner may be held in solitary, and sets a two year Step-Down Program for the release of current solitary prisoners into the prison general population.

It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners will be released from SHU within one year of this settlement. A higher security general population unit will be created for a small number of cases where people have been in SHU for more than 10 years and have a recent serious rule violation.

“Despite the repeated attempts by the prison regime to break the prisoners’ strength, they have remained unified in this fight,” said Marie Levin of CFASC and sister of a prisoner representative named in the lawsuit. “The Agreement to End Hostilities and the unity of the prisoners are crucial to this victory, and will continue to play a significant role in their ongoing struggle.” The Agreement to End Hostilities is an historic document put out by prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay in 2012 calling on all prisoners to build unity and cease hostilities between racial groups.


Drawn by Michael D. Russell, Pelican Bay SHU

Prisoner representatives and their legal counsel will regularly meet with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials as well as with Federal Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas, who is tasked with overseeing the reforms, to insure that the settlement terms are being implemented.

“Without the hunger strikes and without the Agreement to End Hostilities to bring California’s prisoners together and commit to risking their lives— by being willing to die for their cause by starving for 60 days, we would not have this settlement today,” said Anne Weills of Siegel and Yee, co-counsel in the case. “It will improve the living conditions for thousands of men and women and no longer have them languishing for decades in the hole at Pelican Bay.”

“This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters,” said the prisoners represented in the settlement in a joint statement. “We celebrate this victory while at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.”

Dare to Struggle_Carlos Ramirez_Pelican Bay

Drawn by Carlos Ramirez while in Pelican Bay SHU

Legal co-counsel in the case includes California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Chistensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC, and the Law Offices of Charles Carbone. The lead counsel is the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge in the case is Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

A rally and press conference are set for 12pm in front of the Elihu M Harris State Building in Oakland, which will be livestreamed at

The settlement can be read on CCR’s website, along with a summary. CCR has also put up downloadable clips of the plaintiffs’ depositions here.


By Chris Garcia, drawn while in Pelican Bay SHU.

UPDATE: 06/27/2012 – The Prison Law Office (PLO), Berkeley represented the prisoners of California. PLO pointed me in the direction of this full gallery of images that were available to defense and prosecution teams.

On May 23rd, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) affirmed – with a 5-4 majority – a federal court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. California has two years to shrink the number of prisoners by more than 33,000. California currently has 143,335 prisoners, which is still significantly less than the 166,000+ the state housed at its peak five years ago.

Brown vs. Plata (formerly Schwarzenegger vs. Plata) was a landmark case in U.S. legal history and, I would hesitate a guess, the largest release program of convicted individuals ever enacted. And it is the right decision.

You can download the full SCOTUS decision as well as other documents from the case at SCOTUSblog.

I want to draw attention to one particular aspect of the ruling: Justice Kennedy’s inclusion of photographs in the appendix.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

Two of the photographs Kennedy included show prisoners being housed in a gymnasium. These are open dorms and clearly unsuitable for such numbers. The lawsuit however, was centred on standards of medical care; it was stresses of overcrowding that led to the drop in healthcare standards to the point of “cruel and unusual punishment” and the associated violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Justice Kennedy in a sincere way was trying to illustrate a point. An editorial at The New York Times is on board:

Looking at the photos, there should be no doubt that the conditions violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

That’s a bit prescriptive for me but I’ll forgo that.

The images are quite unremarkable inasmuch as they are the norm. News media has shown images from California prisons like these for years. So much so, the California Department of Corrections provided a gallery of official “Prison Overcrowding Photos” (now with added fisheye lens!)

In 2006, Max Whittaker photographed overcrowded gymnasiums at Folsom prison. In 2007, Justin Sullivan went to Mule Creek State Prison. After the verdict, Gary Friedman‘s photo gallery ran in the LA Times.

The third picture (below) shows something a little different. It depicts the apparatus of inadequate care. According to the Court’s opinion: ‘Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials explained they had “‘no place to put him.’”

It’s impossible to say what sort of reaction publication and underlining of these three images means for anyone reading-up on the case. Dahlia Lithwick for Slate asks Do photographs of California’s overcrowded prisons belong in a Supreme Court decision about those prisons?:

“Whether those photos will change anyone’s mind about the morality of prison overcrowding is open to debate. Whether they should may be the more important, and more interesting, question.” Lithwick wonders, “Should the court be using visual aids to prompt emotional responses or be inviting citizen fact-finding in the first place?” The weakness of this question is in its presumption that it is only through an emotional reaction that a viewer will conclude make-shift open dormitories and cages are unacceptable. Surely, logic dictates that these are not beneficial management strategies, let alone conducive to rehabilitation.

Photographs of overcrowded prisons in California have been available for a long time for anyone who cared to search. These three are representative of the failed system, and quite honesty Kennedy had thousands to choose from.

For a full round up of the ruling visit the phenomenal Prison Law Blog.

UPDATED: 06.12.2011

Previously, I was under the impression that only three photographs were used in the Brown vs. Plata deliberations, but according to Mother Jones, the two images below were also items of the appendix.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR


The California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCr) filled the visual hole left by the absence of press photography. I discovered via the CDCr Twitter stream that it had a Flickr profile and more than 72 hours after the event published these images. I use them throughout this post.


I was also contacted by a friend who also happens to have worked in CDCr facilities, is a PP guest blogger and now qualified fact-checker!

He was able to offer some clarification, correction and background on the physical environment at Chino and the CDCR desegregation policy that news sources and I referred to as a factor in the heightened racial tensions. Read on.

Spatial Orientation

The CDCR picture used in the original post shows only the minimum [security] facility at California Institution for Men (CIM). From the picture’s POV, the entire Reception Center infrastructure is behind you. That’s where the riot happened. Nothing happened anywhere in the area pictured.

The large building in the foreground is the administration building for the entire prison. The large building directly behind it is the prison hospital – yes, this is one of the rare prisons that actually has its own hospital. To the right of the hospital is the main walkway toward the back end of the minimum facility and in that upper left corner is a Substance Abuse Program yard with its own dorms and programming facilities. The large baseball field is considered the main yard.

California Institute for Men, Chino, CA. Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. Credit: CDCR

Implementing CDCR Integration Policy

The integration/desegregation issue has not been raised or put into effect in any prison except two – Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) in Ione and Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) in Jamestown. These were the so called pilot programs for housing integration.

Like all things in CDCR, the reality is not what you think. These two prisons were chosen because they would seem to cause the least possible problems. MCSP is entirely SNY (Sensitive Needs Yard) with only a few hundred general population inmates in a separate minimum facility, and that’s designed for support of the prison itself. Inmates from that population work in administrative areas as clerks, porters, landscapers, etc. Some are sent out to work in local parks, on roads, etc. And some are bussed each day to the training academy for officers in Galt. Almost all of them are within a year or two of release and aren’t interested in getting into any trouble. Anyway, the three SNY yards house about 3600 inmates (1200 on each yard), and they are all in cells and already fully integrated because they are SNY. (Those not in cells are in badly overcrowded gyms and dayrooms.)

Many on the Mule Creek SNY yards, about 1500, are rated EOP mental health inmates (enhanced outpatient program – the most serious level of mental health programming). Virtually all of those are on psychotropic drugs of one sort or another and are essentially in la la land most of the time. Another several hundred are considered CCCMS (correctional clinical case management system) inmates. Some of those are on drugs, and all are doing some sort of mental health programming (support groups, etc.). There is a mental health staff there of about 150 people. Anyway, inmates in this prison are already quite docile and have been de facto integrated for a long time (since it was made SNY three or four years ago). They have had no discord around the housing integration issue that I’m aware of.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Now, Sierra Conservation Camp (SCC) is a different situation. Half of that prison is a [lower security] 3-level SNY facility, and integration in that half is no issue. [But] the general population side of the prison is a different story.

There is a 1-level yard with about 1200 inmates in dorms. An identical 2-level yard is next to it. The mission of these yards is to train inmates to be firefighters and to staff the small fire camps around the state. It’s hard and dangerous work, but the rewards are substantial. The food in the camps is excellent, and there’s as much of it as you want. The pay is very good (by inmate standards) and some have been able to accumulate a parole nest egg of several thousand dollars. Finally, good time credits mean your in-prison time is as little as 35% of your sentence so you can get out a lot earlier. These inmates are typically not the most violent offenders, although some will have violence in their past. Some are affiliated and active gang members. (On SNY yards there are no active gang members, in theory anyway, because you can’t get to an SNY until you renounce your gang.) The housing integration flies in the face of the gang conventions so it has caused some problems at SCC on those two general population yards.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

The CDCR started the integration effort last summer, and it quickly backed off when inmates put up resistance. Summer is not a good time in prison; heat makes violence flare more easily. Also, it’s fire season and the camps must be staffed. So they waited until the fall and tried again. Many dorms had mini-riots as gangs instructed incoming inmates not to comply. There were a couple of yard-level disturbances. The inmates tried refusing to come out of their dorms for a couple of days. They believed the officers would bring food to them as they would in a lockdown situation. When they did not, the stomachs settled it temporarily. Eventually, the administration settled on dealing with the situation by depriving any inmate who refused a bunk assignment of privileges. He would be given a disciplinary writeup and not be allowed phone calls, programming, visits, etc. It is currently this kind of a stalemate.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Existing Racial Enmity

One thing that has not been mentioned is the ongoing Black/Hispanic rivalry in the southern half of the state. You may recall in early 2006 there were major riots in the Los Angeles County jails between Blacks and Hispanics. Over 2000 inmates participated, one died and at least 100 were injured. Many men involved in that could be the same people who were at Chino this weekend. Since that part of the Chino prison is a reception center, many inmates were probably local parolees who’d violated. These, and others, would have been through the LA county jail system, probably over the last few years. So this could all be no more than a continuation of the ongoing violence with many of the same people. Who knows!?

I’ve been in those Chino dorms many times and always felt uneasy. Only two officers are assigned, and at any given time one is on the phone or at the door doing an unlock or in the restroom or off on some administrative quest. There is no “gun coverage” as they call it when an armed officer is placed in an elevated position to provide less-than-lethal and lethal force to quell disturbances. As the administrative representative made plain in the interviews, the inmates are really in control. Two officers armed with pepper spray, batons and alarms can be overpowered in seconds. One officer had to be airlifted to medical care from that facility a year or so ago. His partner was doing something and he got hit from behind and they just beat him unconscious. He is extremely lucky he didn’t die; I’m sure the inmates left him for dead. Those dorms are classic World War II era barracks style housing. They would not meet the current standards of prison housing. Actually, they probably would not get any kind of occupancy permit in any municipality in the state.


Finally, a note of purely personal opinion. I believe the CDCR went about integration all wrong. In effect, they asked inmates to integrate. For a year or so prior to the start date, they had meetings with inmates to tell them what it was about and why it was being done. Worst of all, they created a video to sell them on the idea and played it incessantly on the prison TV system. It reminded me of parents who had decided to ask their children to go to school rather than simply telling them to go to school. Inmates are like children, and psychologically, they respond like children. If the administration had simply told them the courts were ordering integration and on a certain date it was happening, I think they would have had less trouble.

Credit: CDCR

California Institution for Men, Chino, CA. August 2009 riot aftermath. Credit: CDCR

Here’s the official CDCr press release update (11th August)


Editor’s note: ‘Sensitive Needs Yards’ (SNY) can be understood, essentially,  as protective custody areas. They were conceived seven years ago to accommodate the following populations;
1. Guys who had dropped out of gangs. And you have to go through a six-month to one-year deprogramming that includes telling everything you know about the gang and its activities.
2. High notoriety inmates – ex-cops, celebrities, etc. For example, Tex Watson, the Manson family murderer is at MCSP. Phil Spector is on an SNY at Corcoran.
3. Sex offenders.
4. Mental health inmates.
5. Old and infirm people who are still ambulatory.


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