California, a state that touts progressive standards on the environment and certain civil issues, such as raising minimum wage and providing health care, seems to have turned a blind eye to how it treats prisoners, specifically when it comes to solitary confinement, until now. Unfortunately, it wasn’t because of lawmakers being proactive, but rather conditions of the settlement of a class action lawsuit that ended the practice that has been said to be cruel and unusual punishment for inmates.
The class action lawsuit was filed in 2012 by the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the groups acting on behalf of more than 500 prisoners who had spent over 10 years in solitary confinement. Seventy-eight of the inmates represented in the lawsuit spent more than 20 years in what is known as Security Housing Units. Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City had 89 inmates in solitary confinement for more than 20 years, according to 2012 investigative report by Mother Jones. A report by the Los Angeles Times this week stated that 6,400 inmates are currently in solitary confinement. California is one of at least 20 states that has cells for indefinite solitary confinement. This week, however, prison officials are preparing to move them into the general population, which does pose some risks. For instance, Hugo Pinell, known for murders tied to the 1960s and 1970s black revolutionary movement, spent 45 years in California’s prison isolation units. When Pinell was moved into the general population this summer, he was murdered by fellow inmates. Now, the family is considering a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging the prison officials knew he was a marked target. His solitary confinement had been partly for his own protection. Regardless of the plight of one man, the fact remains, solitary confinement has been known to be a barbaric practice for many years.
Going back more than a century — 1890 to be exact — regarding a solitary confinement case in Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court stated: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide.” It’s apparent that solitary confinement is a failure of the justice system, but we can’t help but wonder why it took a lawsuit to address it — where have our progressive lawmakers been this whole time?
It’s easy to dismiss the value of a human life when that a human has done something egregious to harm society. Further, when a human tends to perpetuate the culture of violence, what is the solution? One thing we do know is that solitary confinement does not work to stem the violence, that by continuing the practice, we not only condoned it, but permitted and accepted it despite the consequences. We understand that this rapid change in moving isolated inmates into the general population will surely cause some issues, but this has been a long time coming. We expect our lawmakers not only to care about average citizens, but also about those in the prison system. If we care nothing for the most egregious, then we are little better than they are. We hope that lawmakers come together now to seriously consider solutions that would be to the best benefit of everyone, not just “lock them up and throw away the key.”