By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - A lawsuit contending California's practice of keeping prisoners in near-solitary confinement for years is unconstitutional moved forward on Wednesday at a hearing to clarify the issues that will be heard and set dates for an upcoming trial.
The suit is the latest in a series of moves by human rights activists to end or curtail the use of near-isolation in California, which keeps inmates with ties to prison gangs in small concrete cells for a minimum of 22 1/2 hours per day, according to court documents.
"It really is the most stark kind of warehousing of human beings that you can imagine," said Rachel Herzing, a spokeswoman for activists supporting the prisoners. "There are hundreds of people in these conditions right now in the prison system."
The lawsuit, filed in 2012, alleges the solitary confinement of inmates in California violates the U.S. constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment and torture.
Last summer, inmates protested the indefinite detention by starting a hunger strike in July that lasted two months and at its peak attracted 30,000 prisoners. Several of the leaders of the strike are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was set Wednesday to begin trial on Dec. 7.
Of the roughly 120,000 inmates in the California system, 4,054 were held almost 24 hours a day in poured concrete rooms no larger than 100 square feet (9.3 square meters) as of last October, according to testimony at a legislative hearing. About 100 inmates had been in the units for more than 20 years, and an undisclosed number have been kept there for 30 years or more, officials testified.
Since then, the state has implemented new procedures for deciding which inmates must live in these security housing units, and begun the sometimes years-long process of allowing some to rejoin the general prison population.
Some prisoners in the units are allowed to live with roommates, although in these cases both inmates are kept in the cells together for 22 1/2 hours or more per day and fed meals through a slot in the door, as are the ones housed alone.
The focus of the lawsuit is the security housing unit at the state's notorious Pelican Bay prison near the Oregon border, where 539 inmates are currently housed, 227 of them for more than ten years, according to the state.
On Monday, federal Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that inmates who have been in the Pelican Bay units for more than ten years, or are there on indefinite sentences, can be part of the suit as a class action.
She divided them into two groups - those who have the right to sue under the Eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and those who may sue under the 14th Amendment contending that they have been deprived of their due process rights.
Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state was reviewing Monday's order, and had no comment.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Jim Loney)