[JURIST] California on Tuesday agreed [settlement, PDF] to restrict its controversial practices of solitary confinement. The class action lawsuit was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) [advocacy website], which alleged that approximately 3,000 prisoners were kept in isolated conditions in which they were alone for 22 hours a day, sometimes in windowless cells. In the settlement California agreed not to place prisoners in solitary confinement simply because of "gang validation status." Placements will be based on a prisoner's conviction for an eligible offense after a disciplinary hearing has been held. California will also stop subjecting prisoners to indefinite terms in solitary confinement, limiting the involuntary housing period to five continuous years, and the state will create a new facility for prisoners thought to be too dangerous to return to the prison population. CCR President and University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor Jules Lobel [profile] said [press release], "[t]his far-reaching settlement represents a major change in California’s cruel and unconstitutional solitary confinement system. There is a mounting awareness across the nation of the devastating consequences of solitary—some key reforms California agreed to will hopefully be a model for other states."
The legality of solitary confinement [JURIST news archive] has been an ongoing debate in the US, with many calling for comprehensive prison reform [JURIST podcast]. In March the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] that Virginia could continue to automatically house death row inmates in solitary confinement. In June Colorado enacted a law changing its traditional methods of solitary confinement [JURIST report] by mandating psychiatric evaluations and therapy for inmates diagnosed with mental illness and qualifying for disciplinary intervention. In February New York issued reforms [JURIST report] on the use of such practices on minors. In October 2013 UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez urged the US to immediately end [JURIST report] the solitary confinement imposed in 1972 on Albert Woodfox [AI backgrounder]. In June 2011 at least 400 inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in California initiated a hunger strike [JURIST report] in protest of solitary confinement. In January 2011 the Washington Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that holding death row inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely is not an impermissible increase [JURIST report] in the severity of punishment.