Amnesty International urges end to isolation for thousands of California prisoners (Read the full report)

A bunk in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. (August, 2011)
A bunk in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. (August, 2011)
Rina Palta, KPCC

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Amnesty International calls California’s confinement of 3,000 prisoners in isolation units "cruel, degrading and inhumane” in a report released Thursday.

Corrections officials isolate inmates they say are the “worst of the worst” - prisoners who have committed violent crimes in prison or are deemed a member or associate of a prison gang. Those inmates live in small cells nearly 23 hours a day.

Amnesty International’s Angela Wright toured the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison and found the “exercise yards” shocking.

"They have high walls, there’s absolutely no view, there’s absolutely no equipment in them, they’re covered with mesh across the top so that there’s even restricted access to sunlight," said Wright.

But Wright said worse than the conditions are the lengths prisoners endure them.

At least 500 of the inmates living in isolation at Pelican Bay have been there for a decade or more - 78 of them for 20 years. Amnesty International says California should reserve isolation for only the most extreme behavior—and for only short periods of time.

The use of isolation units has survived many court challenges, but California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is about to revise its policy. The plan will allow inmates to earn their way to a less restrictive environment, but not for another three-years.

"While people may think it needs to go faster, we need to make sure our new policy isn’t endangering the orderly operation of our institutions," said Terri McDonald with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

McDonald said the department will also refine its criteria for who gets sent to isolation units. She said full details of the new policy will be released soon.

California Solitary Confinement Report