Friday, September 13, 2013

Ashker v. Brown: Solitary Confinement Lawsuit Seeking Class Certification

The struggle against long-term solitary confinement continues even after the end of the hunger strike. A group of inmates is suing Gov. Brown and CDCR, hoping for an injunction to end gang validations, confinement based on flimsy evidence, and solitary confinement for long periods of time. They did not get a preliminary injunction, but the motion to dismiss was denied as well.

In the lawsuit, the inmates bring up two types of constitutional arguments:

Due Process arguments, addressing the process by which people are placed in solitary confinement indefinitely. One can end up in solitary confinement for a defined period of time, for a violation of prison rules; this lawsuit addresses a different category of cases, in which people are classified as gang members based on problematic and scant evidence and placed in solitary confinement with no end in sight. If the court accepts this claim, it will order an overhaul of CDCR regulations regarding gang validation.

Eighth Amendment arguments, addressing the physical and mental health risks involved in confining human beings in segregated conditions for more than ten years. There is a solid body of evidence regarding the horrific and irreversible impact of spending dozens of years in a small cell by oneself for 22.5 hours a day, with no human contact, on a person's body and psyche (see fact sheet). If the court accepts this claim, the best case scenario is a cap on using solitary confinement for periods exceeding ten years.

The first step in court is to have the lawsuit class certified under Federal Rule 23. What that means, in legal parlance, is that the lawsuit becomes a petition on behalf of a group of inmates, rather than the individual petitioners. With regard to the due process argument, the appropriate class consists of all inmates who are in solitary confinement for an indefinite period following a gang validation process. With regard to the Eighth Amendment argument, the appropriate class consists of anyone doing time in solitary for more than ten years. Here's the petition for class certification.

Under Rule 23, the inmates will have to prove that they are too numerous a group to litigate individually, and that the representative inmates bringing the suit are adequate representatives with claims that are typical to the entire group. This has been a problem in the past sometimes, when inmates brought up common law questions that would require individually-tailored legal responses. It does not seem that this is the case here. What the petitioners are seeking is a change in validation policy and a cap on confinement length, a remedy that would address the concerns of the entire class. So, the petition for class certification seems to have a fairly good chance. As to the merits of the suit, we'll continue following it.

Interested in attending the oral argument? 

When: Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 at 2:00 p.m.
Where: Oakland Courthouse, Courtroom 2, 4th floor, 1301 Clay Street, Oakland, CA, 94612 before Chief District Judge Claudia Wilken.

The Center for Constitutional Rights wants people to attend the hearing. If you plan on showing up, do your best to arrive 30 minutes to one hour early, in order to go through security. Everyone will need a current form of identification in order to get inside the building.

For those of you who can't make it, the CCC blog will cover the oral argument.
Thanks to my colleague Morris Ratner for our conversation about class certification.

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