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Prisons In California To Limit Number Of Inmates In Solitary Confinement


California prisons have long viewed prisoners with gang ties as particularly dangerous and solved what they saw as a problem by putting suspected gang members in solitary confinement for years. Now prison reform groups are hailing a court settlement that could end that widespread practice. It resolves a lawsuit filed in 2009 by two convicted killers. They had gang ties and they'd spent decades in solitary confinement. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The biggest change here is that California corrections officials have agreed to stop putting prisoners in solitary confinement solely because of their suspected gang ties. The ruling could affect roughly 2,000 inmates now being held in confinement, or the SHU, on these grounds. Jeffrey Beard is secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He says the department has been working to change this for several years and this settlement is the latest step.

JEFFREY BEARD: We moved slow at first because this represented a big change after a philosophy of gang management that existed for over 30 years that was to keep gang members confined based solely on membership.

SIEGLER: That philosophy, according to state corrections officials, emerged as a response to the 1970s and '80s, an especially violent time in California prisons with gang leaders and their associates fatally attacking each other and prison guards.

BEARD: You know, you just can't walk in and change it overnight. You have to give some thought to it and some planning to it.

SIEGLER: The families of these prisoners have long described the solitary confinement conditions as abhorrent, with inmates living in soundproof, windowless cells for 23 hours a day. The original lawsuit brought by the prisoners argued this amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. In response, several large prisoner hunger strikes recently gained international media attention. Marie Levin's brother has been in confinement for more than three decades. After the details of the settlement were announced, she read a statement written by her brother and other prisoners during a conference call with reporters.


MARIE LEVIN: California's agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliations demonstrates the power of unity and collective action.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Power to the people.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Power to the people.

SIEGLER: Prison reform advocates like Levin are calling this a victory. They rallied in downtown Oakland yesterday, standing in front of a long banner that read, end long-term solitary confinement.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: As we stand in victory with this settlement that thousands will be released from solitary confinement...

SIEGLER: Reached on his mobile from the rally, one of the organizers, Mohamed Shehk, said solitary confinement is too often used to suppress organizing and other political movements led by prisoners.

MOHAMED SHEHK: This settlement is part of the broader movement to abolish solitary and comes directly out of the prisoners organizing themselves.

SIEGLER: But at least one group representing prison guards has expressed concerns about the deal. A spokesperson for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association did not respond to our interview request but told the Los Angeles Times that California's prisons could be returned to the dangerous environment of the 1970s and '80s. The state's top corrections official, Jeffrey Beard, says while prisoners with gang affiliations can no longer be held indefinitely, the settlement does still allow for flexibility.

BEARD: We retain the right that if we have an inmate who is a real danger to staff, inmates or to institution security, they can be kept in an administrative SHU.

SIEGLER: The settlement still needs to be approved by a judge, which is likely to happen early next month. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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