Lawsuit: California's county jails put inmates in solitary for cruel, arbitrary, illegal periods

There have been plenty of lawsuits challenging America's prisons' use of solitary confinement as a form of torture; but the situation is no better in the jails where prisoners await arraignment, trial and sentencing, and can spend years in solitary.

The first-ever lawsuit to challenge this in California has been brought by the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office as a class-action suit on behalf of Brian Chavez and Brandon Bracamonte, against the Santa Clara Sheriff. Santa Clara inmates are locked up in filthy, tiny cells and given as little of three hours' worth of outside time per week. They are strip-searched up to six times per day, have limited visiting with outsiders, and are fully shackled whenever they are out of their cells.

Chavez and Bracamonte were model inmates with good-behavior perks, including "trustee" status. They were placed in solitary without explanation, and locked up for periods up to 47 hours straight. The confinement has left lasting mental scars.

The Prison Law Office says that they intend to bring suits against all of California's Sheriff's Offices, as this is a common practice across the state.

The lawsuit asks that Bracamonte, Chavez, and all Santa Clara inmates who "don't pose a legitimate security threat" be returned to the jail's general population and that the sheriff use a more objective, risk-based housing classification system. For inmates who remain in solitary confinement, the lawsuit asks that the jail put an end to "isolation, sensory deprivation, lack of social and physical human contact, unsanitary conditions, and environmental deprivation." The lawsuit comes just a couple of months after California corrections officials agreed to significantly scale back the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, reserving it only for serious rule violations. Under the agreement — the result of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison — confining someone to the prison's secure housing unit, or SHU, indefinitely is forbidden. Prior to the settlement, it was common practice to put inmates with gang ties into the SHU for years, even decades, where they were locked up for 22 to 23 hours a day.

But the Pelican Bay case had no bearing on California's 123 jails, which are under local control. Although each jail system sets its own policies, those policies are guided by the state's Minimum Standards for Local Detention Facilities, also known as Title 15. Title 15 recommends that jails allow inmates a minimum of three hours of recreation time each week. In many jails, this is the standard for inmates in solitary confinement, not the minimum — and "recreation" is loosely interpreted.