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Rights group urges improvement in California prison conditions

Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] on Tuesday called on [press release] California to end conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement and order an impartial investigation into the recent death of a prisoner. Billy Sell, 32, was found hanged in his cell [Reuters report] last Monday at the Corcoran State Prison [official website] in central California. Prison officials originally reported in a preliminary suicide ruling that there was no evidence that Sell's participation in the ongoing hunger strike had anything to do with his suicide. However, they acknowledged that he had been taking part in the hunger strike for at least 10 days before his suicide. The hunger strikes began on July 8, with more than 30,000 inmates from approximately 24 California prisons refusing food to protest the allegedly cruel use of solitary confinement as punishment within the state's system. Before his suicide, Sell had been in solitary confinement for five years. AI reported that there are "severe negative psychological consequences of isolation" and that suicides are more prevalent among prisoners in solitary confinement than among the general prison population. Thenjiwe McHarris, senior campaigner of AI's US program stated, "Conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement in California are an affront to human rights and must end. No human being should be held under the deplorable conditions we have witnessed in California prisons for prolonged periods, even decades—this amounts to cruel, inhumane and degrading conditions."

California has been under scrutiny for its prison overcrowding [JURIST news archive] since 2006, when the state's governor proclaimed a prison overcrowding state of emergency [text]. In May 2011 the US Supreme Court decided Brown v. Plata [opinion, PDF], which upheld [JURIST report] a federal court order that California reduce its state prison population. The court concluded that the extreme overcrowding of the California prison system violated the Eighth Amendment [text], because it prevented the system from providing adequate medical and mental health care to inmates. In January of this year, Governor Jerry Brown [official website] issued a proclamation [text, PDF], in order to effectively terminate the 2006 state of emergency. In this proclamation, the governor indicated that the circumstances giving rise to the prison overcrowding state of emergency no longer exist within California prisons. In April, however, a panel of federal judges refused to vacate or modify their 2010 order [text, PDF] for reduction of the California inmate population. This order mandated the state to reduce its prison population to within 137.5 percent of institutional design capacity. In May, Governor Brown and various state prison officials filed a notice of appeal [JURIST report] to the US Supreme Court [official website] from the April order.

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