Jan 28, 2019
Prison Focus Issue 57
Posted January 28, 2019 at https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/California-prisons-use-of-solitaryconfinement
California prison officials have systematically violated the rights of inmates spelled out in an agreement more than three years ago to limit the use of solitary confinement by crafting dubious procedures to classify prisoners as rule-breakers who must remain in isolation cells, a federal magistrate has ruled. In deciding that inmates were too dangerous to return to the general prison population, officials have fabricated claims of information from confidential sources and abused rules of secrecy to thwart inmates’ challenges, U.S. Magistrate Robert Illman of Eureka said Friday. He said officials have also denied inmates “a fair opportunity to seek parole” from prison by using unreliable evidence to identify them as gang members. Illman’s ruling extends through next January a court-supervised settlement that had been scheduled to expire in October 2018. “Unfortunately, California is still violating our clients’ fundamental rights” that the settlement was designed to protect, attorney Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights said Monday. She said the ruling sends a message to the state and Gov. Gavin Newsom: “Until the constitutional violations end, the courts will be watching.” Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the department was assessing the decision. The department could appeal to U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who approved the original settlement in October 2015. The settlement resulted from a suit filed in 2012, when California prisons had nearly 10,000 inmates in solitary confinement, including 1,557 who had been there for 10 years or more. The prisoners in solitary confinement are kept in windowless concrete cells for more than 22 hours a day, are fed through slots, are excluded from job training and other prison programs, and cannot earn credits toward their parole. The only way out for most inmates in solitary, according to the suit, was to become an informant. The settlement eliminated gang membership by itself as grounds for solitary confinement and allowed placement only for violent acts in prison or gangrelated violations of prison rules. At the time of the settlement, the prisons had already lowered their solitary confinement population to less than 3,500, and they have released another 1,600 since then, said Meeropol, a lawyer for the inmates. But the lawyers said the state is misusing gang classifications to keep some prisoners in solitary confinement and to hurt others’ chances of winning release on parole, Illman agreed. Evidence shows that the prison system “systematically relies on confidential information without ensuring its reliability, thus improperly returning (inmates) to solitary confinement,” the magistrate said. In a number of cases, he said, officials declared that damaging information from an unnamed informant was reliable because it had been corroborated by another informant, “except that there was no second informant, a fact that remained confidential.” Before the 2016 settlement, when gang affiliation itself was grounds for solitary confinement, Illman noted, the prisons classified some inmates as gang members if they had received a birthday card from a gang member, if they spoke to a gang member or even if they had art in their cell with Aztec images or a pamphlet written in Swahili. Since the settlement, Illman said, prison officials have used the same evidence to argue that an inmate who had served time in solitary is a gang member who should not be released on parole. When prisoners dispute their gang affiliation at parole hearings, the magistrate said, parole board members “consider the challenge itself to constitute evidence of dishonesty or a lack of remorse or credibility.”
● Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.