"If you're given an indeterminate sentence and you're not going to get out of segregation until you die or inform on someone … that breeds despair and despair leads to suicide," said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on mental health in prisons.
The suicide rate for isolated inmates is substantially higher than for prisoners in the general population, Kupers told lawmakers at the Sacramento hearing.
The state's policy has been challenged many times, Thornton said, and it has fared well under judicial scrutiny. The notable exception: A federal court found it was unconstitutionally cruel to keep mentally ill inmates locked up in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit for extended periods.
But Charles Carbone, a San Francisco prisoner-rights attorney, said he knew of no case that had directly tested whether the six-year minimum is "arbitrary on its face."
The hunger-striking inmates at Pelican Bay agreed to start eating after three weeks — the point at which serious health problems typically begin — in exchange for warm hats, wall calendars and a promise from prison officials to reconsider the isolation regulations.
Administrators have been slow to act on such promises in the past. A list of reforms agreed to in 2007, for example, has yet to be instituted. "We have to be careful about how we make these changes," Kernan told lawmakers. "People's lives are at stake."
Meredith Drennan said her son, Matthew Hall, lost 30 pounds during the July hunger strike. Drennan said she has not been allowed to visit him or speak to him on the phone during his five years of solitary at Pelican Bay. They communicate through the mail.
"They tell him the only way to get out is to debrief," Drennan said, using the prison term for informing, "but then your head will be handed to you. He'll never do that."
Hall, 43, first went to prison in 1999 for assault with a deadly weapon, prison records show. He was sent back in 2007 after a parole officer searching his apartment found a gun hidden under his roommate's mattress, Drennan said.
Hall has violated multiple prison rules, according to Thornton, including participating in a riot. But he was placed in isolation because he is believed to be a member of the white supremacist group the Aryan Brotherhood.
Prison officials said they were reviewing the isolation policy and might recommend some changes by the end of the year. But under current rules, inmates can remain in solitary until their release dates — in Hall's case, about five years from now.
And that, said Peter Schey, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional law, is dangerous. "We're taking prisoners who were marginally neurotic and evolving them into people who are truly psychotic. And then we let them out."