Almost a month ago we reported of a historic settlement ending Ashker v. Brown, the class action suit regarding conditions in solitary confinement. What remains is to figure out exactly what the settlement means. And who better to illuminate the matter than UC Irvine's Keramet Reiter, an expert on solitary confinement and the editor of the recently published anthology Extreme Punishment?
In a recent blog post at Social Justice, Reiter argues that the settlement is a good first step, but there is plenty more to do:
The settlement attracted national attention and is still being celebrated by prisoners, their families, and legal advocates. Perhaps it will be a model for other states to reduce or eliminate prison conditions the United Nations has conclusively defined as torture. One settlement agreement, however, cannot sweep away decades of abusive prison policies. First, it is a settlement, not a legal opinion. At best, the settlement is a non-binding model of what other jurisdictions might attempt. Second, even though prison officials withdrew many of their claims about the dangerousness of SHU prisoners by agreeing to the provisions of the Ashker settlement, these beliefs have hardly been renounced. The genuine fear prison guards experience in coping with hunger strikes, managing mental illness, or dealing with prisoners like Hugo Pinell must be acknowledged and addressed, so that they are motivated to strategize to support, rather than resist, reform. Third, the data collection and monitoring associated with the settlement is scheduled to conclude in two years—and may never be made public in the first place. The practice of solitary confinement has historically been defined by discretion and invisibility, and is therefore hard to investigate, control, and reform. So the practice of solitary confinement could easily retreat back into the shadows in two years, absent longer-term requirements to institutionalize transparency.
We plan to continue monitoring the post-Ashker developments.