Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Constitution


January 31, 2014 @ 8:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Berkeley law, Room 351
2850 Telegraph Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94705

Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the


Brown Bag Presentation by

Jules Lobel, Professor of Law, University of Pittsburgh

California currently holds several thousand prisoners in solitary confinement in what are known as Special Housing Units (SHU’s) throughout the state. Over 1000 of those prisoners confined in isolation at housed at Pelican Bay State Penitentiary SHU. These prisoners live in 80 square foot windowless cells. Their cells have solid steel doors perforated with small holes with permit some air to circulate and an extremely limited view into the hallway. The prisoners remain in their cells for 22  to 24 hours a day. They only leave their cells to shower, or for exercise in a somewhat larger cell that does get fresh air and very limited sunlight. They never see birds, trees, grass, and only rarely see other people. They receive no phone calls and can make no phone calls to the outside world. They have virtually no programming.

About 500 of these prisoners have been in solitary in these conditions for over a decade. Almost one hundred of them have lived in these conditions for over 20 years. Several years after Pelican Bay was opened, a class action lawsuit challenging solitary confinement as practiced at Pelican Bay was tried in federal court. The Federal District Court Judge refused to enjoin the State’s use of solitary confinement generally, but did hold that mentally ill prisoners, or those at risk for serious mental illness could not be placed there. Professor Lobel is lead counsel in a lawsuit that again – 20 years later- challenges California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay.

This talk raises questions of how we define the “cruel and unusual” punishment prohibited by the Constitution. Is solitary confinement cruel for constitutional and moral purposes only if it can be shown that the prisoner is either seriously mentally ill or will become mentally ill? What is the relationship between mental and physical pain imposed on prisoners for purposes of the Eighth Amendment?  What makes a practice cruel – should it require a showing of serious mental or physical harm at all?  What are “unusual” practices – are practices that we might recognize as cruel but are nonetheless widespread such as solitary confinement – unconstitutional? Should our society accept prolonged solitary confinement as a means to make prisons less violent?

Please RSVP to  Subject: RSVP – Jules Lobel Presentation.

Sponsored by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy.

Elaine T. Mui

Center Administrator

Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy

(formerly Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity)

Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice

University of California, Berkeley

School of Law


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