Inmates exercise in the general population yard at Pelican Bay State Prison. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — California's practice of isolating prison inmates it suspects of gang affiliations and keeping them that way for years is being challenged in federal court by a national civil rights group.
Inmate advocates say California is the only state that makes such extensive, harsh use of solitary confinement, which amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The inmates are segregated based on thin evidence and prevented from seeking parole, the advocates say, and their isolation leads to mental and medical problems.
"It's beyond the pale for any civilized nation," said Jules Lobel, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit Thursday. "We as a society should not be sanctioning torture."
The lawsuit focuses on about 300 inmates who have been held in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit for more than a decade. Most are alone in their windowless cells, allowed out only to shower or exercise in a small concrete yard known as the "dog run."
They're allowed one package a year and almost no phone calls, the lawsuit says, and the food is often rotten.
Prison officials said they were already examining their policies on how inmates are placed in the security unit, and a spokesman defended the practice as necessary to handle safety problems in a prison system rife with gangs.
"It's a place where people who pose a particular threat to staff and other inmates can be kept in the most secure way possible," said Jeffrey Callison at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The state's use of solitary confinement is one of the most controversial aspects of its troubled prison system. Thousands of inmates went on a hunger strike last year to protest conditions in solitary housing. Inmate advocates in March asked the United Nations to investigate whether such confinement constitutes torture.
Pelican Bay has 1,128 inmates in its Security Housing Unit. They are sent there through an administrative process that advocates described as severely flawed and lacking in due process.
Only 66 are in the Security Housing Unit for behavioral problems; the rest have been confined because of gang affiliations, according to the state. One inmate is considered a member of the Mexican Mafia because he was caught with Aztec artwork, according to the lawsuit.
Callison said he couldn't comment on that case, but "some of that style of artwork is used in gang situations." He said there's nothing unconstitutional about how inmates are transferred to the special unit.
Ninety-one prisoners have been in the unit for more than two decades, according to the state. New rules under consideration would require assignment there to be based more on behavior in prison than on gang affiliation, Callison said.
The case filed Thursday is scheduled for trial next March. Pelican Bay, located in the state's northwest corner, has faced legal scrutiny before. In a 1995 ruling, a federal judge said isolation conditions there were unconstitutional for mentally ill prisoners.