By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A civil rights group sued the state of California and its prison system on Thursday, saying the long-term confinement of inmates in a special high-security unit at Pelican Bay State Prison amounted to torture and human rights violations.
The lawsuit demands reforms and seeks class-action status for more than 500 current prisoners who have been held in the Special Housing Unit at the super-maximum-security prison in Northern California for between 10 and 28 years.
"The prolonged conditions of brutal confinement and isolation such as those at Pelican Bay have rightly been condemned as torture by the international community," Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in announcing the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland.
The Special Housing Unit at Pelican Bay is a virtual prison within a prison and held about 1,100 prisoners last year. Inmates spend at least 22-1/2 hours a day in small, windowless concrete and steel cells with no telephone privileges and very limited contact with other inmates or guards, according to the lawsuit.
"To keep people in these crushing conditions is beyond the pale of any civilized nation," Lobel said, and violated the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit calls for the release of prisoners who have spent more than 10 years in the Special Housing Unit and alleviation of "conditions of isolation, sensory deprivation, lack of social and physical human contact" among other things.
The plaintiffs also seek a review of all prisoners in the unit and the need to confine them there.
The legal action follows a hunger strike by Pelican Bay inmates last fall in part over conditions in the Special Housing Unit that spread to include more than 4,200 inmates at seven prisons across the state.
'WE DO NOT TORTURE'
Those protests coincided with California's implementation of a state-mandated plan to ease prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for thousands of inmates and ex-convicts to county authorities.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison disputed the accusations and said prisoners, some of whom are considered risks to others in prison, were sent to the unit for legitimate security reasons.
"We do not torture in California prisons and we believe that the conditions in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) satisfy the Constitution, so they are not unconstitutional," Callison said.
Most inmates held in Pelican Bay's high-security unit were there because of gang affiliations, he said, and could be returned to the prison's general population by disavowing those ties.
"These are charges that have been made many times over the years and many of them are baseless," Callison said, adding that officials were working on changing gang management policies, which would alter the way inmates are admitted to the unit.
Lobel said that while other U.S. states have special housing units, none keep large numbers of inmates there for such long periods of time, in some cases decades.
While some inmates can earn their way out of the high-security unit at Pelican Bay by renouncing gang ties, he said, doing so puts them and family members at risk of retaliation, making it an unacceptable choice.
He said the high-security unit at Pelican Bay also was unique when compared to other states in that inmates have such limited human contact, including being denied telephone calls, which he said caused profound mental harm.
Among the named plaintiffs is George Ruiz, 69, who according to the lawsuit has spent 22 years in Pelican Bay's Special Housing unit due to his validation as a member of the Mexican Mafia.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)