Rights group joins lawsuit over solitary CA cells

May 31, 2012 - 6:42 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell are among the 78 prisoners who have lived for more than 20 years in notorious solitary confinement cells at a California prison.

Troxell painstakingly crafted a handwritten federal lawsuit on behalf of both convicted killers in December 2009, claiming their prolonged isolation in 80-square-foot, windowless cells at Pelican Bay State Prison for all but 90 minutes a day amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

On Thursday, lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights took over the lawsuit and filed a revised case on behalf of hundreds of Pelican Bay prisoners who have served more than 10 years in the prison's so-called security housing unit, known widely as the SHU.

"There is no other state in the country that keeps so many inmates in solitary confinement for so long," said Alexis Agathocleous, a center attorney.

Center president Jules Lobel said lawyers were alerted to the inmates' case during a prisoner hunger strike last year that called attention to conditions at Pelican Bay. At its peak, the strike included 6,600 inmates throughout the state.

California opened Pelican Bay prison in December 1989 along the coast in remote Del Norte County, just south of the Oregon border. It was meant to house the worst of the worst prisoners and includes 1,056 solitary cells. Those prisoners are barred from contact visits and face harsher limits on reading materials, wall decorations and other accoutrements than general population inmates.

The lawsuit filed Thursday alleged the soundproof SHU cells were designed to hold a prisoner for no longer than 18 months. Ashker and Troxell have been housed there almost since its inception.

Ashker killed another inmate in 1990 in what prison officials described as a gang hit and was transferred to Pelican Bay. Troxell was sent there directly after receiving a sentence of 26 years to life for a murder outside prison.

Both have remained in solitary for decades for refusing to renounce ties to the Aryan Brotherhood and answer questions from investigators hungry for inside information about the gang. Both inmates deny gang associations.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the harsh conditions are justified by the prisoners' behavior inside the system. Many are active and violent gang members.

While not commenting on the lawsuit directly, prison department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said officials have been reviewing its SHU policy for more than a year and plan to implement a behavior-based process for leaving SHU.

"CDCR will increase privileges for inmates housed in a Security Housing Unit who refrain from criminal gang behavior," Callison said.

The CDCR has successfully fought off legal challenges to the SHU before, but many of the past lawsuits were filed and litigated by inmates without lawyers.