California Limits Solitary Confinement in Prison

The State of California has agreed to limit the use of solitary confinement in its prison system and to immediately transition many of its nearly 3,000 isolated prisoners back into the general prison population. The move marks the conclusion of a class action lawsuit by inmates of Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent over 10 years in solitary confinement. It will also conclude a concurrent hunger strike, which California’s isolated prisoners have staged since 2011 in protest of their conditions.

It is a victory not only for prison reform activists and prisoners across the state, but for psychologists as well. The growing body of psychological research and evidence about the detrimental effects of long-term isolation is now enshrined with a court ruling, labeling extended solitary confinement as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

California’s Prison System Shows Limits of its Liberalness

Solitary confinement is used in prisons nationwide, but California, which during the 1970s and 80s had some of the country’s most overcrowded and violent prisons, began locking more people in solitary confinement and for longer periods of time than any other state.

It began as an extreme measure to punish violent inmates and keep the general prison population safe, but it became the status quo for prison offenders of any kind, and often without time limits. Gang members were particularly targeted: solitary cells became the first stop—if not the only stop—for some incarcerated gang members, whose affiliation automatically marked them as too dangerous for general prison in the eyes of the state.

Since the lawsuit began a few years ago, California already begun transitioning many prisoners out of solitary confinement. Still, nearly 3,000 remain in isolation, hundreds of whom have been isolated for over a decade, and 1,100 of whom are at Pelican Bay, the northern California maximum security prison from which the lawsuit originated. Solitary confinement prisoners at Pelican Bay do not have windows.

Such treatment was deemed cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, violating inmates’ 8th Amendment rights. Now, only prisoners who commit serious in-prison offenses (violence, possessing weapons or narcotics, or attempting to escape) will be sent to solitary confinement, and for a limited period of time.

Psychologically, Solitary Confinement Constitutes “Social Death”

The research on the detrimental psychological effects of isolation goes back decades. Current solitary confinement practices fly in the face of common psychological knowledge that prolonged isolation exacerbates mental illness and can even trigger mental symptoms in those who were previously psychologically sound.

The most revealing research, however, has come from this lawsuit itself, and a UC Santa Cruz psychology professor named Craig Haney, employed by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to conduct an evaluation of the psychological effects of prolonged solitary confinement. Haney held detailed, emotional interviews with each plaintiff, as well as many other Pelican Bay inmates who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement. Though Haney has yet to publish a formal paper on his study, a draft of his findings is available, and his results have been the subject of widespread curiosity and coverage.

What Haney continuously discovered was inmate’s trauma at having completely lost their former life and now being physically and psychologically confined to a life devoid of interaction. From this, he coined a term to describe the psychological result of solitary confinement: “social death.”

Undoubtedly worse than real death, social death often comes with a host of prolonged psychological symptoms: aggression, anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness, panic attacks, loss of self-control, emotional breakdowns, paranoia, psychological regression, loss of sleep and appetite, dizziness, hallucinations, hypersensitivity, and incidents of self-mutilation and attempted suicide. All these symptoms occur at much higher rates among those in solitary confinement than the general prison population.

It is no wonder that so more and more people are beginning to call solitary confinement what it is—torture.

The ruling in California is a big victory against the use of torture, but it will only be preserved as a big victory by the nationwide momentum it builds to end solitary confinement.

Do you believe that even the worst criminals deserve decades of tortuous solitary confinement? Share your thoughts, but respectfully.


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Kerry Martin is a semi-native of Denver. He went to school in Vermont for its great beaches. Now transplanted to Brooklyn, he works as a volunteer coordinator/community organizer for ArchCare TimeBank when he isn't writing Ecology, Technology, and Offbeat articles for Clapway.