Via Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project
On March 2 the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project hosted a lunch talk on solitary confinement by Jules Lobel, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Pittsburg School of Law and President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Professor Lobel began his talk by giving a brief history of Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit filed in May 2012, challenging the practice of solitary confinement based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment at California’s notorious “super max” Pelican Bay State Prison. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at the prison’s Security Housing Unit for over a decade. The case was part of CCR’s efforts to challenge mass incarceration and abusive prison policies.
In 2013, the state agreed to settle the case and enter into a consent order, on terms that were acceptable to the prisoner plaintiffs. Lobel explained that the Pelican Bay State Prison has one of the largest solitary confinement units of its kind. Prisoners were locked 23 hours a day in an 8-by-10 feet cell, without access to sunlight. Studies have shown a consensus that such conditions of sensory deprivation contribute to mental illness and serious behavioral problems, even over a relatively short period of time.
Lobel focused on the challenges of obtaining and enforcing a positive settlement for his prisoner clients in 2013 and 2014. He described how he had to overcome objections from the state when he wanted to consult directly with the prisoners to ensure the proposed settlement terms were acceptable to them. He also discussed how much effort was required to monitor and reinforce the agreement, and the considerable work still to be done to eliminate abusive solitary confinement practices in the California state prison system as well as nationally.
Professor Lobel concluded by encouraging students to consider legal careers in helping marginalized populations such as prisoners, giving as an example two of his recent former students who started a prisoner rights advocacy center on a shoestring budget that has now won several important cases and grown to include a staff of additional lawyers. His enthusiastic message was that if they could succeed in living their dream of starting their own civil rights litigation practice, the students attending the law talk could too, offering his Pitt Law contact information to anyone who wanted to follow up with any questions.