Is Solitary Confinement Cruel And Unusual Punishment? One California Judge Is About To Decide

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There are few things worse than being locked up, alone, day and night, with no contact with the outside world. That's why solitary confinement's often been employed as the ultimate punishment — an extra measure beyond incarceration. But now, a California judge has granted class action status to a solitary confinement lawsuit brought by a group of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, who filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the practice. If the lawsuit is successful, the case could set a precedent for the total isolation of prisoners, a practice that many consider barbaric.

The lawsuit, originally filed by 10 inmates, states that the use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay is so extreme that it sets California apart from the norm. More than 500 prisoners at Pelican Bay have been held in isolation for more than a decade, confined to windowless 8-foot-by-12-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. An Amnesty International report of the prison from 2012 concluded that the conditions in which solitary inmates lived amounted to illegal torture, citing the lack of natural sunlight, adequate exercise, and human interaction as depriving one of basic needs crucial for physical and mental health.

The lawsuit also claims that Pelican Bay's use of solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment, including torture.

"This would really be the first case about whether the confinement itself is cruel and unusual punishment," Jules Lobel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the New York Times.

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Originally implemented as part of an overall push for tougher punishment in the 1980s and 1990s when gang violence surged and prisons often experienced overcrowding, long-term isolation has been a controversial and scrutinized strategy in recent years. Besides groups like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union urging for prison reform, inmates themselves have protested, resulting in three hunger strikes in the last three years. In February, New York State agreed to extensive reforms reducing the use of solitary confinement.

Now, this class action suit could be the most serious and broad examination of solitary confinement to date, possibly spelling an end to the controversial practice.

So What Does It Involve?

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Solitary confinement — also known as isolation; the hole; maximum security; SHU; or permanent lockdown — is the practice of isolating a prisoner in a small cell for up to 23 hours a day, limiting their contact with other humans. Phone calls and non-contact family visits are infrequent, and access to rehabilitation or education programs is extremely limited.

Sometimes, solitary confinement relies on more extreme tactics, like limiting natural sunlight, sensory deprivation, and permanent bright lighting.

How Do You End Up There?

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Inmates are placed in isolation for many reasons. These include: when a prisoner poses a danger to oneself or others; as punishment while they are under investigation; as a method for behavior modification; as punishment for being associated with a gang; and as punishment for conducting illegal activities outside the prison.

Physical and Psychological Ramifications

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Countless studies have examined the effects of long-term isolation, sometimes known as SHU (Special Housing Unit) Syndrome. The physical effects can include visual and auditory hallucination, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, headaches, chronic lethargy, and heart palpitations.

Perhaps even more damaging are the psychological ramifications of solitary confinement, which include paranoia, extreme anxiety and nervousness, nightmares, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear, distortions of time and perception, obsessive ruminations, social withdrawal, violent fantasies, feeling emotionally empty, chronic depression, increased risk of suicide, and PTSD.