More than 200 inmates at California’s Pelican Bay prison have spent over a decade locked in windowless 8-foot-by-12-foot cells for 22 hours or more a day. Dozens more have been in solitary confinement for 15 years or longer, says the New York Times. This week, a federal judge in Oakland agreed to consider whether, as a lawsuit against the state's corrections department maintains, holding prisoners in such prolonged isolation violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment. Legal experts say that the ruling, which allows inmates at Pelican Bay who have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade to sue as a class, paves the way for a court case that could shape national policy on the use of long-term solitary confinement.
“It seems that the judge is going to decide the broad policy questions involved here,” said law Prof. Jules Lobel of the University of Pittsburgh, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the suit on behalf of 10 inmates in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay. Without class-action status, any decision in the lawsuit could have been restricted only to those plaintiffs and not the broader policy. The judge's action comes at a time of increasing scrutiny of the widespread reliance of prisons on long-term isolation, a strategy that began three decades ago when prison systems began removing an ever-larger number of inmates from the general population in response to problems with gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding, and the “get tough on crime” stance of legislators.