Changes sought in state prison isolation policies

  • State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, questions prison officials about the use of solitary confinement in California prisons during a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committees at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. Lawmakers held the the first in a series of planned joint hearings of the two committees in response to a massive inmate hunger strike this summer protesting conditions for gang leaders held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison and three other state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO — Democratic lawmakers on key policy committees said Wednesday that they want to limit California's practice of keeping hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement for years, sometimes decades, as a way of controlling violent prison gangs.

They held the first in a planned series of hearings in response to an inmate hunger strike this summer that at one point involved more than 30,000 of the 133,000 inmates in state prisons.

The inmates were protesting conditions for gang leaders held in isolation at Pelican Bay and three other prisons.

More than 4,000 inmates are currently in the isolation units. Nearly 1,000 have been there for more than five years. Of those, nearly 200 have spent more than 10 years in the unit, and more than 100 have been there at least 15 years. Eighty-four gang leaders have been in isolation for at least two decades, and 23 have served more than a quarter-century in the units.

They spend as many as 22 hours of each day alone in tiny cells, are fed through slots in the doors, exercise in fenced enclosures and are confined in cages the size of telephone booths while they receive treatment outside the units.

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