by Crystallee Crain
Christian Gomez gave his life to end indefinite solitary confinement in California Prisons. His death was horrific and tragic — but not in vain. This year, his cause prevailed.
After participating in a coordinated hunger strike against the abusive conditions within solitary confinement, Gomez was found unresponsive in his cell on February 2, 2012.
Three and a half years later, on August 31, his family’s loss and the suffering of thousands of prisoners in California was mitigated by the ending of indefinite solitary confinement.
Gomez, who died at 27, spent his last days of his life participating in a hunger strike with hundreds of other inmates in California State Prisons. This massive civil disobedience campaign was coupled with a lawsuit Ashker v. Governor of California filed in 2012 as a coordinated effort. The class action lawsuit was meant to stop the human rights violations cited by inmates who were held in solitary confinement for indefinitely.
Many of the individuals in the federal class action lawsuit had been in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) for over 25 years. They were granted no access to family visits and any visitation that they did have was through a glass window. In the next year it is estimated that 1500–2000 people will be released from the SHU across the state because of this settlement.
Solitary Watch reported that “approximately 3,000 people were held in California’s Security Housing Units, including over 1,100 at the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU alone.” The recent report, “Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison,” conducted by the Liman Program of Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators, found that in 2014 between 80,000 and 100,000 prisoners languished in solitary confinement in US state and federal prisons.
Semantics allowed CDCR to curb speculation on the use of solitary confinement by using the term “single cell” housing. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “ they spent nearly 24-hours-per-day in cramped cells, often without windows, and were denied phone calls, all physical contact with visitors, and recreational, educational, and vocational programming.”
The settlement states that the use of indeterminate solitary confinement is a violation of the 8th amendment which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
This shift in practice handed down in a courtroom provides an example to the rest of the nation on how tax dollars have been wasted on excessive stays in solitary confinement and the ways in which incarceration can lead to a lack of rehabilitation when there is no oversight. Solitary confinement costs are at least double of what housing an inmate in general population costs.
The CDCR reports that the cost of solitary confinement SHU or Administrative Segregation is much higher than housing a person in general population. It California it costs $70,641 per SHU inmate $77,740 per ASU inmate and $58,324 per general population inmate. Comparatively in Illinois the cost to house an inmate in the SHU is upwards of $92,000 per year.
As a volunteer with California Prison Focus I collected narratives from men in the SHU in an effort to document human rights violations for this case. In my work I was able to speak to over 50 men in the SHU in New Folsom State Prison and Pelican Bay State Prison.
Many of the men told stories of being wrongfully accused of being “gang affiliated”. This classification often times handed down by correctional officers gave them the ability to send people to solitary confinement without the advisement of a lawyer. The class action lawsuit ruling now limits CDCR’s ability to use presumed gang affiliation as a reason to be sent to solitary. This is believed to reduce racial bias in who gets sent to the SHU.
Jacobs & Lee (2012) reported that “officials need to “identify or “validate” inmates who are members or associates of prison gangs (also known as Security Threat Groups or STGs).” Gang affiliation is said to be based on tattoos, gang paraphernalia, intel from arresting officers and informants. Many of the categories of identification are racially based and subjective based on a person’s interpretation of behavior, gestures and language.
One man in the SHU in Pelican Bay said that he was validated as a gang member because another inmate had his name on a list of paper in his room. He never saw the list and did not know the man the correctional officer said pinned him as a gang member. He said the guards reported that this was a list of associates and all the people on the list including the man who had the list were send the solitary. As he reported the circumstances to me he disclosed that he had been in the SHU for over two decades.
The unchecked amount of discretion that has been given to guards is under question as the prison population issue in California has been raised. California has responded to a federal mandate for the CA to reduce its prison population to 137% of capacity. In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown made a commitment to reduce the prison population to humane levels.
In 2012 Representatives from the Hunger Strike created a statement that was meant to end the violence between racial groups in prison. The Agreement to End Hostilities was a sign of organized efforts from behind prison walls.
In response to the settlement representatives from the case wrote:
California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action. This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters. Our movement rests on a foundation of unity: our Agreement to End Hostilities. It is our hope that this groundbreaking agreement to end the violence between the various ethnic groups in California prisons will inspire not only state prisoners, but also jail detainees, county prisoners and our communities on the street, to oppose ethnic and racial violence. From this foundation, the prisoners’ human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognize that we are fellow human beings.