Thousands of inmates will soon be moved out of solitary confinement in California, after years of court battles and hunger strikes against the controversial practice. The state's decision was revealed in a legal settlement filed today—which still must be accepted by the court—with a group of inmates who have been isolated at Pelican Bay State Prison for 10 years or more, the Los Angeles Times reports. The settlement applies to a class-action federal lawsuit covering almost 3,000 inmates, a lawsuit originally filed in 2009 by Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell, two murderers serving sentences in Pelican Bay. California has agreed to stop using solitary confinement as a means of controlling prison gangs; instead, the most dangerous prisoners will be held in a group setting and will have many of the same privileges as other inmates.
As the AP notes, California's previously unlimited isolation of gang leaders had been used to keep hundreds of prisoners segregated (often in soundproofed, windowless cells of just 80 square feet, for all but an hour and a half per day, with no access to visitors, communication, or even reading materials) for 10 years or more. Now, California will release many of the affected prisoners back into the general prison population and will limit the amount of time prisoners can spend in isolation. New "restrictive custody units" will be used for inmates who commit new crimes while in prison, refuse to participate in rehab, or who may be in danger from other inmates, but those units will allow prisoners more personal contact and other privileges. The union that represents most prison guards has expressed safety concerns, with the spokesperson noting that the state could "return to the prison environment of the '70s and '80s, when inmate-on-inmate homicides were at the highest levels and staff were killed."