Ninth Circuit Court Rules Prison Can House Prisoners in Solitary Confinement for as Long as Prisons Like

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By Claire Hsu

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – The California Ninth Circuit Court ruled 3-0 this past week, permitting corrections and rehabilitation facilities to place prisoners in solitary confinement daily for extensive hours, reports the SF Chronicle.

The ruling undermines the 2015 settlement the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC) and prisoners had instituted, agreeing to the hours one can be in solitary confinement and the conditions that determine that prisoners placed in solitude should be restricted to those who pose a danger to other inmates, according to the SF Chronicle.

A class action suit filed for prisoners of Pelican Bay State Prison, known as Ashker vs. Governor of California, by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), claimed the state violated the 8th Amendment of the constitution, by keeping prisoners in confinement for an extended amount of time.

The prisoners also argued the state infringed their 5th Amendment rights because there is no clear explanation for why inmates are subject to the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU).

According to the SF Chronicle, Jack Morris, a former inmate of Pelican Bay, states he was kept in solitary confinement for more than three decades because of his previous connections to a Mexican gang.

Morris said, “Everybody in there suffered in silence. I used to suffer panic attacks. You can’t breathe or see clearly,” reports the SF Chronicle.

Judge Claudia Wilken, a judge in the U.S. District Court in Oakland, is in charge of making sure prisons abide by the 2015 agreement, which originally denied the government’s desire to not terminate the restraints because facilities were placing prisoners in confinement based on alleged gang relations and crimes without concrete evidence, writes the SF Chronicle.

In May 2023, the CDCR responded with a petition to appeal the district court’s conclusion, and the case was to be heard by the Ninth Circuit Court.

Pedro Calderon Michel, a representative of the CDCR, asserted plaintiffs “did not demonstrate a current and ongoing systematic violation and could not justify an extension of the settlement agreement,” reports the SF Chronicle.

And, on Aug. 23, the Ninth Circuit Court, in a 3 to 0 ruling, concluded that facilities do not have to justify why they have decided to place someone in solitary confinement, writes SF Chronicle.

Judge Ryan Nelson, one of the judges who heard the case in the court of appeals, stated, “The constitution does not require prison officials to disclose every piece of information that an inmate might use in support of his defense,” and that they are not obligated to present minimal evidence, according to SF Chronicles.

In 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court overturned the ruling of the district court in 2018, writes the Courthouse News, and that the CDCR had not breached the 2015 settlement.

One of the judges who presided over the case, Judge James Gwin, stated the government is only obligated to move a prisoner from solitary confinement to a different institution, details Courthouse News, adding the state is allowed to keep prisoners who they believe are a danger to others or themselves from living with and working out with the other prisoners in the same area.

In response to Judge Wilken’s conclusion that the “walk-alone status” is unconstitutional because it keeps prisoners from socializing with others, the Ninth Circuit Court writes prisoners on “walk-alone status” may work out by themselves and they may socialize from the barred area, separated with fences, reports the Courthouse News.

Samuel Miller, a CCR attorney and the attorney for the class action suit, said, “We are disappointed the panel has decided the term general population can be defined by the prison system however they please,” writes the Courthouse News, adding Judge Gwin said the 2015 settlement did not clarify the amount of time prisoners in solitary confinement are supposed to be out of it.

California officials have been working to advocate against concerns over solitary confinement practices, details the SF Chronicle.

For example, Assemblymember Chris Holden authored AB 2632, which determines a prisoner may be placed in solitary confinement for 15 days only and 45 days within a 180-day term. But, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, said the Chronicle.

According to CCR, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, involved in the class action suit, asserts, “The settlement is something that has to be continued because some of the things CDCR agreed to, they haven’t accomplished. It’s a constant struggle for our freedom.”

About The Author

Claire Hsu is an undergraduate student at UC Davis majoring in Political Science and minoring in Sociology. She is interested in policies related to advocating for API rights and prisoner's rights across California. After graduation, Claire plans on attending law school and pursuing a career in law. She is most passionate about criminal law and intellectual property law.

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