LOS ANGELES (AP) — An attorney for hundreds of California inmates held in solitary confinement because of their gang ties on Tuesday petitioned the United Nations to intervene to stop the practice and investigate living conditions and prisoners' health.
The petition, sent to the UN's working group on arbitrary detention, comes after about 6,000 inmates at 13 prisons statewide went on a hunger strike last summer in the nation's largest prison system. They have since staged smaller and more intermittent strikes to protest what they call inhumane and torturous conditions in the so-called segregation housing units, or SHUs.
The document was drawn up on behalf of more than 400 inmates who have been assigned to the isolation cells for years because of their gang ties, said Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. A half-dozen inmate family members joined Schey at a news conference and shared stories of brothers, husbands and sons who have spent decades in the segregated cells.
The petitioners are also asking the UN to issue a report finding that the placement of prisoners in isolation cells for gang affiliations violates international rules governing the treatment of prisoners. They also want the international body to call upon the U.S. government to make sure inmates are not punished for participating in the hunger strikes.
"It's one thing to place a person into solitary segregation because they've assaulted another prisoner or threatened another person with violence. We're not arguing with that," he said. "What we're arguing is the vast majority of people ... are being put in solitary and the key thrown away merely because they're alleged to be a gang member or maybe even just an associate of a gang member. The punishment is barbaric compared to the allegations."
Edwin Smith, a professor of law, international relations and political science at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, said he was not aware of any instance where the United Nations has investigated a U.S.-based prison system. The tactic could create embarrassment for state prison officials if the international body decides to take up the case — although the working group can only issue a report on its findings and has no sanctioning authority, he said.
In recent years, the UN working group has investigated the detentions of a Chinese human rights lawyer and a Venezuelan judge, who was detained for releasing a prisoner, and has conducted a fact-finding mission to El Salvador to investigate deprivations of freedom, among other things.
"International standards are becoming a new measure of what is acceptable governmental behavior," Smith said. "We generally like to do that with countries we consider 'bad' countries but the center is turning it around."
An email sent to two spokespeople for the Geneva, Switzerland-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the umbrella for the working group, was not immediately returned after business hours.
About 4,200 inmates are assigned to segregated housing units statewide and of those, nearly 2,300 are kept in isolation because they are gang members or gang associates, according to data from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The units also house non-gang inmates who kill other inmates, attack employees or participate in riots.
The petition is unnecessary because prison officials have already crafted a proposal that would make it easier and quicker for inmates with gang ties to earn their way out of isolation, said Jeffrey Callison, a department spokesman. The changes could go into effect by the year's end after a review process that will include public input, he said.
Under the new policy, gang members would no longer have to renounce their gang membership to get out of solitary confinement.
Instead, they could earn more privileges and get out of the isolation units in four years instead of six if they stop engaging in gang activities and participate in anger management and drug rehabilitation programs. Inmates isolated because of gang ties must currently be "gang free" for six years to be returned to the general population.
Many gang associates could also be housed in the general prison population instead of in insolation under the proposal.
A sharp reduction in prison crowding has allowed officials to reconsider how to best suppress gangs.
The state is diverting thousands of lower-level criminals from state prisons to local jails under a law that took effect in October.
The shift was driven by federal judges who ruled state prisons were so jammed that officials could not provide proper care to mentally and physically ill inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the authority of the judges to order the state to reduce crowding.
The proposed changes do not go far enough, Schey said.
"It's not enough. It's nothing close," he said. "It's our position that they need to abolish this policy."
A blanket ban on segregated housing for gang members would be dangerous because gangs create much of the violence inside prison, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
"The gangs are a huge part of the problem," he said. "There is a need for this and any kind of blanket prohibition would be out of order."