Court Finds Continued Systemic Constitutional Violations in California Prisons
A federal judge ruled yesterday that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to systematically violate the due process rights of imprisoned men despite a settlement agreement where the agency agreed to drastically change its use of solitary confinement cellular. Judge Claudia Wilken found that the CDCR relied on inaccurate and even fabricated confidential information to place individuals in solitary confinement, using questionable gang affiliations to deny them a fair chance of parole and detaining them in a restricted unit of the general population without adequate procedural safeguards. .
Citing these rights violations, Judge Wilken extended for a second additional one-year term a landmark 2015 settlement agreement to end indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons.
“The deeper we dig, the clearer it becomes that CDCR prison officials routinely lie about information from so-called ‘confidential sources’ and use this bogus secret evidence to send people into the torture of solitary confinement,” said Rachel Meeropol, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights representing the men who filed the complaint. “It can’t go on.”
The 2015 settlement agreement resulted from Ashker v. the Governor of California, a case originally filed by Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell, who were in long-term solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison and representing themselves themselves. The class action charges that the prolonged solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and that the lack of meaningful review for placement violates prisoners’ due process rights granted by the 14th Amendment.
Under the agreement, CDCR released nearly 1,600 prisoners from solitary confinement – Security Housing Units (SHU) – and stopped sending prisoners to SHU solely on the basis of their affiliation with gang. The agreement also included a two-year supervision period intended to abolish indefinite solitary confinement and allowed plaintiffs to obtain a one-year extension if they could demonstrate continuing systemic violations.
In a previous decision in 2019, Judge Wilken ordered an initial extension, finding that the CDCR was “effectively defeating the purpose” of the settlement agreement by systematically violating due process rights. This decision is under appeal. Yesterday’s ruling overturned a magistrate’s denial of a request for a second extension. In her 72-page decision, Judge Wilken details three categories of continuing due process violations, noting that each was sufficient on its own to warrant an extension.
First, she found that the CDCR continues to use fabricated, exaggerated, or inaccurately disclosed confidential information to send men into solitary confinement. Additionally, they falsely attribute statements to informants. Judge Wilken points to a number of “material discrepancies” between the transcripts of informant interviews and the memos purporting to summarize those interviews and used in disciplinary proceedings. In one case, a memo says an informant named a man who allegedly ordered an assault on a third man. But the transcript reveals that the informant did not in fact name him or otherwise implicate him in any way.
Second, she found that the CDCR provided parole boards with purported evidence of gang affiliation without acknowledging that their old gang affiliation validation system was unreliable and violated due process. Judge Wilken wrote that “the continued retention of implicated gang validations in central prisoner records without any mention that they are erroneous and unreliable results in continued violations of the constitutional right of gang members to a significant possibility of being heard in the context of parole.
Finally, Judge Wilken found that the CDCR places and detains some men in a restricted unit of the general population without adequate procedural protections. She found that the department violated the plaintiffs’ due process rights by failing to provide them with either meaningful periodic reviews of their detention in Restricted General Population (RCGP) detention units or specific notice of the reasons for their detention there. -low. “These failures,” she writes, “are likely to lead to a significant risk of erroneous RCGP retentions.”
“We are pleased that Judge Wilken has acknowledged the impact that CDCR’s limitations on visitation opportunities are having on RCGP individuals, and in particular that she has criticized the department’s systemic practice of citing the same historical rationale to keep men in this restrictive unit year after year without significantly considering new evidence or circumstances,” said Carmen Bremer, partner at Bremer Law Group.
Co-counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights are Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Bremer Law Group, Ellenberg & Hull, the law firms of Charles Carbone and the firm lawyers of Matthieu Strugar.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.