Amnesty International Report Condemns Shocking Conditions in California Prisons

California prison
California’s overcrowded prisons

The state of California must make substantial changes to their prison isolation units and halt the inhuman suffering of thousands of prisoners, Amnesty International said in a new report.

“The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units” is based on exclusive access gained by Amnesty International to isolation units in California and explores the conditions of confinement endured by more than 3,000 prisoners – including 78 who have spent in excess of two decades in isolation.

Prisoners in isolation are confined for at least 22 and a half hours a day in cells measuring fewer than eight square metres (86 square feet, or 7 feet by 12 feet). In Pelican Bay State Prison, over 1,000 inmates are confined alone in windowless cells with poor access to natural light. Exercise is limited to an hour and a half a day, alone in a small, bare concrete yard enclosed by 20-foot-high walls with only a slice of sky visible through a partially meshed plastic roof.

Prisoners in isolation don’t have access to work, rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind.

They are also prevented from having any contact with the outside world; consultations with medical staff take place behind barriers and visits from family or lawyers take place behind a glass screen. Prisoners are not entitled to regular telephone contact with relatives.

“The conditions and length of imprisonment in California’s isolation units are simply shocking,” said Angela Wright, U.S. researcher at Amnesty International who visited a number of prisons in the state.

“To deprive prisoners in a segregated environment of natural light, adequate exercise or meaningful human contact is unnecessarily punitive and unjustifiable in all circumstances. Access to natural light and exercise are basic needs, essential for physical and mental health.”

According to figures provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2011, more than 500 prisoners have spent 10 or more years in isolation, more than 200 had spent over 15 years and 78 in excess of 20 years.

Even though isolation is intended for extreme cases, many prisoners who end up in such units have mental illness or behavioral problems and have sometimes been confined for repeated, relatively minor rule infractions and disruptive behavior. Over 2,000 prisoners are being held in isolation after being “validated” as members or associates of prison gangs.

In a Los Angeles Times story on the report, Paige St. John writes: “High-security isolation is necessary, California officials say, to control violence in overcrowded prisons where riots sporadically occur. ‘It is a complicated problem for us,’ (Corrections Department Operations Undersecretary Terri) McDonald said. ‘This is a world that people don’t understand.’

“Two-thirds of those in isolation, authorities said, were there because of suspected gang membership. They can be held indefinitely, with the promise of release back into the general population only if they provide information on gang activity.

“Even when in segregation, McDonald said, gang leaders send coded messages – ordering murders and drug deals. She cited the statewide hunger strike as an example of the inmates’ ability to organize.”

One prisoner, who had been in an isolation unit for 22 years, told two Amnesty International delegates during a visit to Pelican Bay that they were the first outsiders he had seen in the cell block for years.

An inmate of Mexican origin wrote in December 2011 that he had not had visits from his elderly parents since he was sent to an isolation unit in Pelican Bay in 1999 as they were too frail to travel the distance. For several years he applied on grounds of hardship for a transfer to a prison nearer to his home, but was told by the classification committee that “they might consider my transfer if I would debrief” – i.e., provide information about other gang members.

“In November 2009 my mom passed away; I never got to see her again. The last time I talked to her was in 1999,” he said.

“We fully recognize the challenges faced by prison administrators in dealing with prison gangs and recognize that it may sometimes be necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security purposes,” said Angela Wright.

“However, current conditions of isolation are extremely severe and too widely used. Segregation should be imposed only in exceptional circumstances and for as short a period as possible.”

Prisoners in isolation units in Pelican Bay have reported a range of physical problems resulting from or exacerbated by their conditions of confinement.

The L.A. Times story notes that Amnesty found “conditions within the state’s security housing ‘breach international standards on humane treatment.’

“‘It would crush you,’ said Tessa Murphy, an Amnesty International observer who was given unusual access to the isolation units at Pelican Bay and two other California prisons last November.

“But California officials rebutted Amnesty’s findings, insisting the state’s security units ‘follow the national standard. They are clean. They are secure,’ said Terri McDonald, who is in charge of prison operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“She cited the constant monitoring of those units – the result of federal lawsuits over poor medical and mental healthcare in the state system. ‘We have not been inhumane,’ McDonald said.”

California prison

Yet, Amnesty notes, according to the L.A. Times, “Group therapy consists of inmates in individual holding cages lined up before a therapist; physicians examine ill inmates through the closed cell door.”

The severe negative psychological consequences of isolation are reflected in data from various jurisdictions showing that suicides occur more frequently in isolation units than in the general prison population. In California, over a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the number of prison suicides averaged 34 a year with 42 percent occurring in administrative segregation or isolation units.

Studies have found that negative effects from prolonged isolation can continue long after release; and the lack of pre-release or transitional programming for inmates who may have spent years or decades in isolation before being released directly back on to the street makes successful reintegration into society that much harder.

“Recent reform proposals do not go far enough to address Amnesty International’s many serious concerns with California’s long term isolation units; if further changes, such as those proposed in detail in our report, are not incorporated into these reforms, California would still fall short of international law and standards for humane treatment of prisoners and the prohibition of torture and other ill treatment,” said Angela Wright.

Amnesty International is urging authorities in California to:

  • Limit the use of isolation so that is it imposed only as a last resort in the case of prisoners whose behavior constitutes a severe and ongoing threat to the safety of others.
  • Improve conditions for all prisoners held in isolation units, including better exercise provision and an opportunity for more human contact for prisoners, even at the most restrictive custody levels.
  • Allow prisoners in isolation units to make regular phone calls to their families.
  • Reduce the length of the Step Down Program and provide meaningful access to programs where prisoners have an opportunity for some group contact and interaction with others at an earlier stage.
  • Immediate removal from isolation of prisoners who have already spent years in those units.

This summary of the new report appears in the News section of


The Shocking Abuse of Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons


Amnesty International issued a new report calling for an end to the use of prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons. The report contains shocking details about the scope and impact of abusive use of solitary confinement on prisoners, ex-prisoners, families and communities.

What’s solitary like?

Personally, I find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be held in solitary confinement for a couple days, let alone a couple decades. Medical doctors have described how, even after short periods of time, solitary can lead to insanity. I can see how after reading this Kafkaesque story about a prisoner who participated in a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary:

“The wife of an inmate currently held in the Pelican Bay SHU (Security Housing Units) told Amnesty International that her husband would regularly read the dictionary in order to keep his mind active. For a while he also cared for a frog which he had found in the exercise yard. He would collect worms and bugs to feed the frog. She explained that this interaction was particularly therapeutic for him, having been held in solitary confinement without human contact for 16 years. When the hunger strikes began, as punishment for his participation, the guards took the frog away.”

How many people are held in solitary?

More than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units known as Security Housing Units, where they are confined for at least 22 and a half hours a day in single or double cells, with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind.

More than 500 prisoners had spent 10 or more years in the Pelican Bay SHU, with 78 in solitary more than 20 years.

No other U.S. state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.

But California is not alone in using prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement. The U.S. has become a world leader in the practice, holding people in inhumane conditions of isolation from Arizona to Illinois to Louisiana to Guantánamo. Reportedly, the U.S. holds “at least 25,000 inmates in isolation in supermax prisons.”

What’s the impact?

While there may be instances where holding prisoners in isolation is appropriate and humane, the use of prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement is a violation of the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment found in international human rights law. By violating this prohibition, U.S. authorities not only abuse the rights of prisoners, they undermine the human rights that protect all of us from abuse.

The good news is that we can do something about it: E-mail Amnesty International’s recommendations for ending the use of prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement to California state authorities.


Zeke Johnson is the director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign. To be sure California authorities get the message, sign Amnesty’s petition, which will be delivered to Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Gov. Jerry Brown.