California Making Big Changes in Its Solitary Confinement Policy. Bob Donley Explains

Bob Donley notes that “I’m gonna lock you up and throw away the key” is a term we’ve all heard. And in California, that was more or less the policy for state’s department of corrections for about forty years. Prisoners could end up in isolation for having certain tattoos, possessing certain artwork with gang symbolism, or being the subject of a statement by a prison informant.

Men would spend twenty-three hours each day locked in a small, windowless cell. When they got their hour of exercise in the yard, they were not in contact with other inmates. Many inmates in California have been confined in solitary confinement for ten years or more. One man, Hugo Pinell, spent 43 years in solitary. As Donley points out, these inmates were not innocent people wrongly imprisoned. They were bad men. Most of them were (or were suspected of being) gang leaders involved in violence.

California’s system involved isolating inmates for an indefinite period of time. Several years ago, two of the isolated prisoners challenged the California’s system in a lawsuit. The lawsuit has been followed by protests and hunger strikes. The settlement of the lawsuit gives these inmates the right to be treated like all other inmates. Prisoners can still be isolated, but only if they have caused trouble during their regular confinement. Also, there is now a five to seven year limit on the amount of time that someone can spend in isolation.

Prison guards are concerned that the settlement will make their jobs even more dangerous. Prior to the settlement, California led the nation in the use of isolation cells. That has probably changed because of the settlement. Isolation will continue in prisons, but there will now be more strictures on how it is used.

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