Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit demanding prison reforms on behalf of the more than 500 current inmates who have been held in Secure Housing Units in the maximum-security prison — which involves prolonged isolation in the 80-square-foot, windowless cells for all but 90 minutes a day — for between 10 and 28 years. Seventy-eight of those prisoners have been in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison for more than 20 years.
The lawsuit is in line with United Nations experts’ recommendations for a nation-wide ban on solitary confinement. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, urged the U.S. to cease the practice except in very rare cases:
Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique. […] Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Human rights groups also maintain that ending solitary confinement is an integral step in putting a stop to torture and maintaining the basic moral standards of our nation. Human Rights Watch has documented the United States’ “inappropriate use” of solitary confinement and prolonged isolation for over a decade, and has frequently detailed its damaging psychological effects in U.S. prisons:
Isolation can be psychologically harmful to any prisoner, with the nature and severity of the impact depending on the individual, the duration, and particular conditions (e.g., access to natural light, books, or radio). Psychological effects can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis.
Pelican Bay’s prison has been a source of controversy in the state for some time. Last July, prisoners staged a three-week-long hunger strike to protest the conditions in the facility, helping to raise awareness across California about the negative effects of Secure Housing Units.