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Solitary Confinement Reform in the State of California

The United Nations “defines solitary confinement as the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.” (Méndez 9) In the United States there are approximately 25,000 prisoners housed in solitary confinement in supermax prisons, specialized high security prisons mainly designed for the purpose of solitary confinement (Mears ii). In California alone there are 3,600 prisoners in solitary confinement in units called Security Housing Units or SHU and an additional 8,878 beds in shorter term Administrative Segregation Units or ASU (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Security Housing Units 1; Solitary Watch 1). California prisoners in the SHU remain in their 80 square foot cells for at least 22 and a half hours a day with little to no natural light as cells do not have windows, and minimal if any human interaction (Amnesty International 15). Additionally inmates are only allowed outside their cells for showers and exercise in a small concrete yard with 20 foot high walls to prevent a view of the outside (Amnesty International 18). On average prisoners in California’s primary supermax prison and SHU, Pelican Bay State Prison, remain there for 6.8 years (Amnesty International 43). However “figures released by CDCR in 2011 revealed that more than 500 prisoners had spent over ten years in Pelican Bay SHU; of this number, 78 had spent 20 or more years in the SHU” (Amnesty International 14). Subsequently, these conditions violate the United Nations’ guidelines for humane treatment of prisoners (Amnesty International 16). This means that California’s use of long-term solitary confinement is inhumane treatment and a violation of international guidelines, a problem that needs to be corrected.
In order to remedy California’s solitary confinement problem reform actions need to be taken. These include reclassification of criteria deciding who is placed in solitary confinement, limits on length of stay in solitary confinement, and regular evaluation of cases of confined inmates. These reforms will not only address the violations of international guidelines, but also save taxpayers and the state significant amounts of money. With these considerations in mind, solitary confinement reforms for the State of California are not only necessary, but beneficial.
An important step in reform is reclassification with the first step being the prohibition of the use of solitary confinement on rule violators. Reclassification is the changing of regulations and adding prohibitions to the criteria that assess an inmate’s security risk which decides if they need to be placed in solitary confinement. In California inmates in solitary confinement are primarily violent offenders, gang members, and the mentally ill. However the Title 15 of the Department of Corrections regulations states “in addition to the disciplinary hearing, the inmate may be subject to segregation [solitary confinement] from the general population” if an inmate has a serious rule violation (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Code of Regulations Title 15 143). Serious rule violations include violence, breach of security, theft, gambling and possession of contraband which can include money, tattoo paraphernalia, drugs and alcohol. Inmates with serious rule violations that are disciplined with solitary confinement are either placed in the SHU or the ASU. This means that rule violators are being punished with solitary confinement. The United Nations condemns use of solitary confinement as punishment stating “solitary confinement, when used for the purpose of punishment, cannot be justified for any reason, precisely because it imposes severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution for criminal behavior” (Méndez 20). The United Nations is reasoning that solitary confinement is a punishment that is far more severe than any criminal behavior or rule violation can warrant creating an international guideline that prohibits the use of solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons. This means that the severity of solitary confinement is disproportionate to the serious rule violations listed by the Department of Corrections and by disciplining rule violators with solitary confinement, the California Department of Corrections violates international guidelines. Therefore any changes made through reclassification will need to include a prohibition on use of solitary confinement for punishment.
In addition reclassification needs to include prohibition of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners as research suggests it can exacerbate their condition. In California mentally ill inmates are placed in the SHU or a unit called Psychiatric Services Unit, PSU, which has been designed for the severely mentally ill. Though the Psychiatric Services Unit “provides a less harsh environment than the SHU and prisoners receive some out of cell therapy and other treatment, inmates are still confined alone to cells for long periods” (Amnesty International 35). This confinement can be damaging to those with mental health problems as it is still a form of solitary confinement which studies have shown worsens a mentally ill prisoner’s condition. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law states “the stress, lack of meaningful social contact, and unstructured days can exacerbate symptoms of illness or provoke recurrence. Suicides occur disproportionately more often in segregation units than elsewhere in prison” (Metzner, Fellner 105). This research shows that solitary confinement can actually worsen mentally ill inmates’ conditions rather than help. For this reason subsequent federal court decisions in the United States, such as Madrid vs. Gomez which applied to Pelican Bay, have limited the use of solitary confinement for the seriously mentally ill, either those who had a history of serious mental illness or those who became severely psychotic while in the SHU (Amnesty International 27). However these court decisions did not limit the use for those with mental illness who were not classified as seriously ill or prohibit the use of the PSU even though research suggests that any confinement can cause those with mental illness to “not get better as long as they are isolated” and even “decompensate in isolation, requiring crisis care or psychiatric hospitalization” (Metzner, Fellner 105). Due to this data and subsequent court decisions, reclassification needs to include a prohibition on use of solitary confinement for all mentally ill prisoners, not just seriously mentally ill ones.
Reclassification also needs to set criteria for who can be placed in solitary confinement as currently the main use of solitary confinement in California is to house gang members. The problem with the current placement of gang members in solitary confinement is the justifications to place them there, part of a program called Security Threat Group or STG, are flawed. The Department of Corrections uses the STG program “to combat gangs” by identifying “the gangs with the greatest propensity for violence and … [separate] the affiliated offenders from the general offender population by placement into a Security Housing Unit (SHU) environment” (California Department of Corrections, Security Threat Group Prevention 2). Though this might seem like a good reason to place inmates in solitary confinement there are a couple of problems. First, there is no research supporting the idea that the use of solitary confinement decreases violence in prisons. A 2003 study published in Criminology found that there was no support “for the hypothesis that supermaxes reduce levels of inmate-on-inmate violence” and “mixed support was found for the hypothesis that supermax increases staff safety” (Briggs, Sundt, Castellano 1341). The study shows that though in theory supermax prisons and solitary confinement decrease violence, in practice there has been no such evidence. However the main issue with the STG system is the fact that simply being in a gang or an associate qualifies an inmate for the SHU. Consequently, many inmates are placed in the SHU simply for being a gang member rather than a significant security or safety threat. Therefore the criteria for use of solitary confinement needs to change with only inmates, whether a gang member or not, who pose an extreme safety or security risk that cannot be controlled by any other means qualifying for solitary confinement. Through this reclassification the number of inmates in the SHU will greatly decrease which will not only prevent prisoners who do not need to be in the SHU from being placed there, but also cut costs significantly for the state and taxpayers.
The cost to place prisoners in supermax prisons and solitary confinement is significantly higher than the cost to place the same inmate in General Population units. Currently there are about 3,600 prisoners in solitary confinement in the SHU including rule violators, the mentally ill, and validated gang members (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Security Housing Units 1). The annual cost per inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU is $70,641 per year comparatively it only costs $58,324 per year to house an inmate in the General Population unit (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Pelican Bay State Prison 2). This means that by greatly decreasing the number of individuals placed in the SHU, the state can save about $45 million annually (Solitary Watch 1). Additionally the cost of ASU units where many rule violators are placed in solitary confinement costs “$14,600 more than the equivalent general population bed. For the 8,878 ASU beds statewide, this additional cost equates to nearly $130 million a year” (Solitary Watch 1). With all the costs totaled including both the cost of SHU and ASU, the savings would be significant; saving taxpayers about $175 million a year (Solitary Watch 1).
In addition to reclassification, it is important to decrease the maximum length a prisoner can be placed in solitary confinement and regularly evaluate their case while they are confined. Studies have found that prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, even in prisoners without mental illness, are more at risk of developing self-harm behaviors or psychiatric conditions compared to prisoners not in solitary confinement. A study of New York jail inmates found “that acts of self-harm were strongly associated with assignment of inmates to solitary confinement. Inmates punished by solitary confinement were approximately 6.9 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm” (Kaba 445). The inmates in solitary in the study only spent short amounts of time there meaning a few weeks at most rather than the inmates in the SHU who spend years, but even with that consideration inmates still exhibited increases in self-harm behavior. Additionally a Scandinavian study found that the “incidence of psychiatric disorders developed in the prison was significantly higher in SC [solitary confinement] prisoners (28%) than in non-SC [non-solitary confinement] prisoners (15%)” (Andersen 19). These findings show that psychiatric conditions develop in prison at a higher rate in solitary confinement rather than in General Population units. Subsequently, both of these studies show that solitary confinement, even in those without mental illness, can cause psychological problems. With these findings in mind, the United Nations has classified solitary confinement as torture stating “given its severe adverse health effects, the use of solitary confinement itself can amount to … torture … or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” (Méndez 19). This sets an international guideline that solitary confinement should only be used in extreme circumstances where there are no other options and only for the shortest time possible. Therefore solitary confinement reforms for California will require that only a judge, through the use of a hearing, can determine who is a serious threat and needs to be placed in solitary confinement. In addition, the judge will evaluate the need for solitary confinement every 15 days with the maximum confinement period allowed only being 45 days. This will not only be in accordance with international guidelines, but also allow for objectivity through a judge rather than the subjective Department of Corrections in deciding confinement length, who will be placed in solitary, and the evaluation of the case. Additionally this will prohibit indefinite, long term solitary confinement and will not only prevent psychological damage and inhumane treatment, but also reduce costs.
Critics of the proposed reforms point to recent changes made by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They state that their goal through “complex retooling of CDCR’s gang management” is to reduce “long-term SHU confinement for those offenders who do not engage in gang behavior” (California Department of Corrections, Security Threat Group Prevention Fact Sheet 1). In order to do this, the Department of Corrections plans to change their validation process, the process that decides which inmates receive what they call a Security Threat Group or STG designation and placement in the SHU, to include an “objective point-based component” (California Department of Corrections, Security Threat Group Prevention Fact Sheet 2). Though this reform on the surface seems like a good change and a new system, it actually is not all that different from the current system. While the Department of Corrections did create a point based component to the validation system, the overall change to the validation process does not actually make it objective or different from the previous system. Under the old system an inmate was an identified member of a gang if there were “at least three (3) independent source items of documentation indicative of actual membership” such as symbols, tattoos, or photographs (California Department of Corrections, Security Threat Group Prevention 17). This means that possessing photographs of perceived gang members or having perceived gang tattoos can validate an inmate and place them in the SHU. This creates a subjective system. Under the new system which is proposed as more objective an inmate is an identified member of an STG if there are at “least three (3) independent source items with a value of 10 points or greater” such as two symbols and 1 tattoo or three photographs (California Department of Corrections, Security Threat Group Prevention 17-24). This means that though there is a point system, the subjectivity of using tattoos or photographs has not been removed. Consequently, though the Department of Corrections claims reform there are not actually any tangible changes in what is needed to become a validated gang member. This shows that there is still a need for the proposed reforms.
In addition, the Department of Corrections to reform their system created a Step Down Program for individuals confined in the SHU because of a STG designation. The program, a five step program, states that “the initial four steps are generally designed to be completed within 48 months” with a “successful completion of each step … [requiring] a minimum of 12 months program participation (California Department of Corrections, Security Threat Group Prevention 27). This means that any validated inmate confined to the SHU because of an STG designation will be required to be confined for a minimum of 4 years. With the unchanged gang validation system and the Department of Corrections also increasing the number of gangs it recognizes under the STG program to include “traditional disruptive groups and street gangs” use of long-term solitary confinement could actually increase (California Department of Corrections, Security Threat Group Prevention Fact Sheet 1). This is no different from the current system of confining inmates for years at a time and in fact will likely be worse as more inmates are applicable for an STG designation. Therefore, though the Department of Corrections and critics of the proposed reforms might claim that there already are reforms in place, these changes do not seem to have any tangible effect on California’s problematic use of long-term solitary confinement.
Supporters of solitary confinement and supermax prison systems oppose reform primarily because they believe that solitary confinement and supermax prisons increase security and decrease violence. Corrections professionals Thomas J. Stickrath and Gregory A. Bucholtz, active supporters of solitary confinement and who oppose reform, state that the “the overriding justification for the use of a philosophy [solitary confinement] is rooted in the need for security” (Stickrath, Bucholtz). Though in theory this might be true, in practice research does not support this idea with one study stating “the bulk of the evidence presented here suggests that supermax is not effective at reducing system-wide levels of prison violence” (Briggs, Sundt, Castellano 1368). Therefore, research simply does not support the theory that solitary confinement decreases violence. In fact, in Mississippi where similar reforms to the proposed reforms have been put in place “the number of incidents requiring use of force [by staff] plummeted … Monthly statistics showed an almost 70% drop in serious incidents, both prisoner-on-staff and prisoner-on-prisoner” (Kupers et al. 7). This shows that in some cases solitary confinement could actually increase violence and by reducing the number of inmates in solitary confinement through reclassification, as done in Mississippi, reductions in violence might be seen. This evidence is contrary to the critics’ arguments and actually supports the proposed reforms.
Additionally critics support the idea that subjective corrections officials should decide who should be placed in solitary confinement rather that the proposed reforms of objective hearings and reclassification. Stickrath and Bucholtz describe the criteria used to place inmates in solitary confinement as only “a guideline for use [by corrections officers] in determining the most appropriate inmate classification assignments” which means that corrections officers are ultimately the ones who decide who is placed in solitary confinement (Stickrath, Bucholtz). Although corrections officers are experts in maintaining the security of prisons, their main concern is security not humane treatment of prisoners. Thereby allowing them to subjectively decide who is placed in solitary leaves the possibility for violation of international guidelines by placing individuals in solitary confinement who do not need to be there. When Mississippi replaced their subjective system of allowing corrections officers to decide which inmates need to be placed in solitary with an objective one “they found that 80% of the population in administrative segregation did not meet the new criteria” reducing the solitary confinement population from 1,000 to fewer than 150 (Kupers et al. 5). This means that 80% of the individuals placed in solitary confinement by corrections officers did not need to be there. Subsequently, though critics of proposed reforms state that subjective criteria based on corrections officials’ determination are the best method to deciding who should be placed in solitary confinement, there is no evidence to support their arguments. In fact the evidence supports the need for and benefits of reform.
Solitary confinement reform through the use of reclassification, limits on length of stay in solitary confinement, and regular evaluation of cases of confined inmates is an excellent and evidence supported solution to remedy California’s long-term solitary confinement problem. Through the prohibition of confinement of mentally ill prisoners and confinement as punishment, in addition to reclassification of who can be placed in solitary, the reforms will remedy California’s solitary confinement problem. This will reduce costs and comply with international guidelines of humane treatment of prisoners. Additionally, in instances where solitary confinement must be used, an objective judge will decide whether solitary confinement is actually needed, regularly review the case, and comply with the set maximum confinement length. Although there are critics to the proposed reforms, evidence suggests that these reforms are effective and supported and are a necessary step to comply with international guidelines of humane treatment and even decrease prison costs.

Works Cited
Amnesty International. USA: The Edge of Endurance Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units. Rep. Amnesty International, Sept. 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Andersen, H. S. “A Longitudinal Study of Prisoners on Remand: Psychiatric Prevalence, Incidence and Psychopathology in Solitary Vs.non-solitary Confinement.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 102.1 (2000): 19-25. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Briggs, Chad S., Jody L. Sundt, and Thomas C. Castellano. “The Effect Of Supermaximum Security Prisons On Aggregate Levels Of Institutional Violence.” Criminology 41.4 (2003): 1341-376. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. California Code of Regulations Title 15. Crime Prevention and Corrections. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
—. Pelican Bay State Prison. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
—. Security Housing Units. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Oct. 2013. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
—. Security Threat Group Prevention, Identification and Management Strategy. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Mar. 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
—. Security Threat Group Prevention, Identification and Management Strategy Fact Sheet. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
The High Cost of Solitary Confinement. Fact Sheet. Solitary Watch, 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Kaba, Fatos. “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm Among Jail Inmates.” American Journal of Public Health 104.3 (2014): 442-47. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Kupers, T. A., T. Dronet, M. Winter, J. Austin, L. Kelly, W. Cartier, T. J. Morris, S. F. Hanlon, E. L. Sparkman, P. Kumar, L. C. Vincent, J. Norris, K. Nagel, and J. Mcbride. “Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 36.10 (2009): 1037-050. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Mears, Daniel P. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons. Rep. Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, Mar. 2006. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Metzner, Jeffery L., MD, and Jamie Fellner, Esq. “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for Medical Ethics.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 38.1 (2010): 104-08. Human Rights Watch. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Stickrath, Thomas J., and Gregory A. Bucholtz. “Supermaximum Security Prisons Are Necessary.” Supermax Prisons: Beyond the Rock. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Facility, 2003. Rpt. in America’s Prisons. Ed. Clare Hanrahan. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2006. Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.
United Nations. Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. By Juan E. Méndez. N.p.: United Nations General Assembly, 2011. Print.


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