By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - The use of solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time in California's Pelican Bay State Prison constitutes cruel and degrading treatment in violation of international law, according to Amnesty International report released on Thursday.
The human rights group found that roughly 3,000 prisoners in the super maximum security Pelican Bay facility in Northern California and the Corcoran State Prison in the state's rural heartland were being held in "extreme" isolation, with no direct human contact, access to rehabilitation programs, sunlight or fresh air.
California's state prisons have been plagued by hunger strikes, occasional violence and overcrowding and remain at more than 50 percent above capacity, despite a massive shift of low-level offenders to county jails that began last year.
The effort to shift the prison population followed a U.S. Supreme Court directive to cut the inmate population after the nation's top court ruled that overcrowding in the 33-prison system was causing "needless suffering and death."
The report comes months after a lawsuit filed by rights groups against California and its prison system over long-term solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, saying it violated the rights of more than 500 prisoners who have been held in isolation at the prison between 10 and 28 years.
"After being in solitary confinement for almost seven years, that rush of loneliness still vibrates through me," one former inmate interviewed by Amnesty International, Freddie Garay, said of his seven years in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit, the isolation chambers for the "worst of the worst."
Garay was convicted of armed robbery at age 16, and was serving time in another prison when officials said he was an active member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang and sent him to Pelican Bay, the rights group said.
After seven years in the Security Housing Unit, he was released from prison last year, and now says the conditions he and others were held in constitute torture and have a chilling effect on behavior inside and outside of the unit.
"I would grow my own hair so I could cut it to use as a paint brush and invent my own colors," Garay said. "I'd use mustard, Kool-Aid and coffee. I would even rub the dye from images in paper magazines to use to make my own colors."
MOST NOTORIOUS PRISON GANGS
Last fall, a hunger strike by Pelican Bay inmates over conditions in the isolation units spread to include more than 4,200 inmates at seven prisons across the state.
"Pelican Bay is probably one of the most scrutinized and monitored prisons in U.S. history, but no court has ever found our SHU facilities to be inhumane or a violation of offender rights," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"All of these allegations about any unit in CDCR being inhumane are just that - an allegation," Thornton said.
She added that Pelican Bay houses "shot-callers," leaders of some of the nation's most notorious prison gangs. Those who wind up in isolation units are barred from communicating with others because they may have ordered hits and operated drug trafficking and extortion rings from inside the prison walls.
More than 1,000 inmates in Pelican Bay are held in nine foot by nine foot isolation cells for at least 22 hours and 30 minutes a day, the report said. They are allowed 90 minutes of exercise a day in a walled concrete yard, and only catch a glimpse of sky through a partially meshed plastic roof.
The group said that prisoners in solitary confinement are barred from working or attending religious services, and are barred from human touch, even from doctors or family members.
No other state is believed to hold so many prisoners in solitary confinement, Amnesty International said.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson)