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Faith Leaders Spotlight Need for Reform of Solitary Confinement in CA Prisons

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June 27, 2014

One year after an unprecedented inmate hunger strike to protest inhumane use of solitary confinement, faith-based leaders met this week with California prison officials to urge faster action.

Some inmates have been in solitary confinement -- called the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) in California -- for as many as 35 years or more (the average being seven.) They spend 23 hours per day in their cells, with an hour for exercise -- although that can be curtailed as well. In the state's "supermax" facility, Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates have virtually no human contact and receive little or no exposure to sunlight. Doors, cells and exercise time are controlled remotely by a guard. 

After the hunger strike -- but not in response to it -- the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced it would review the cases of the more than 3,000 prisoners in the SHU. Many are there because they are a threat to guards and inmates or for other disciplinary reasons. But others are confined, according to the faith leaders, because of untreated mental illness, gang affiliation, political beliefs or other non-disciplinary reasons.

CDCR's own review of individual SHU inmates has found that around 70 percent of those in the Unit do not need to be housed there and can be moved into the general population. They have reviewed about 700 cases this far.

"We stand opposed to any form of unjust, inhumane treatment. While it may be that isolation mitigates gang activity, placing humans in isolation in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU) has no restorative or rehabilitative purpose," said the California Bishops' statement during last year's hunger strike. "It is not a sustainable solution to legitimate security concerns. Some of the men on this hunger strike have been in isolation for up to 35 years with very minimal human contact. International human rights standards consider more than 15 days in isolation to be torture."

Faith leaders meeting with CDCR this week asked for ending disciplinary action after "non-violent protest," increasing rehabilitative programing for people in the SHU and allowing volunteers, especially those working in religious programs, to meet with SHU inmates.