By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California lawmakers concerned about solitary confinement in the state's troubled prison system promised at a hearing on Wednesday to seek to reform the state's practice of keeping inmates in near-isolation for decades.
The hearing took place amid increasing attention to California's prison policies by human rights organizations, which say solitary confinement for such long periods of time is torture.
"An 8-by-10 foot cell, no human contact, no chance to see the moon or the stars or the sun, or hear the birds for years and decades? That's torture," said prisoner advocate Keith James of Los Angeles.
Of the roughly 120,000 inmates in the California system, 4,054 are held almost 24 hours a day in poured concrete rooms no larger than 100 square feet (9.3 square meters), according to testimony at the hearing. About 100 inmates have been in the units for more than 20 years, and an undisclosed number have been kept there for 30 years or more, officials said.
Inmates protested the indefinite detention by starting a hunger strike in July that lasted two months and at its peak attracted 30,000 prisoners. The hunger strike prompted the hearings held on Wednesday.
Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who co-chaired the hearing, nodded his assent when a speaker said solitary confinement should be "wiped off the face of the earth."
California is already struggling with other issues in its 34-prison system, including compliance with an order by a panel of federal judges to reduce severe overcrowding. A federal receiver oversees medical care, and mental health care is watched by a court-appointed monitor.
It was not immediately clear what the lawmakers would be able to achieve, in part because Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has taken a relatively conservative stance on prison issues.
Thousands of California inmates are housed in near-isolation at a time when states are increasingly questioning the efficacy and use of such policies, American Civil Liberties Union prison expert Margaret Winter said at the hearing.
Being held in solitary confinement can lead to severe mental disorders, Winter said. "Human beings are social animals," Winter said. "Being subjected to prolonged social isolation causes extreme psychic punishment and pain."
Keramet Reiter, a professor at U.C. Irvine who studies prison issues, says solitary confinement is over-used in California. The state is also an outlier in its use of indeterminate sentencing for people in the units, she said.
Moreover, Reiter said, the practice may be exacerbating another of the state's chronic problems - the difficulty that inmates have upon trying to assimilate after they are released.
After being isolated, "prisoners have trouble making basic decisions," Reiter said. "They have a hard time in crowds."
Last year, the state put in place reforms aimed at allowing some inmates to gradually "step down" from the isolation units, a process that has put hundreds in the pipeline for an eventual move to a more social housing setting. Prisoners are sent to the units indefinitely if they are determined to be members of prison gangs. Others are also sent there for such infractions as fighting, but for a more limited time.
Under questioning, Michael Stainer, director of adult institutions for the state's correctional system conceded that inmates had been disciplined for participating in the hunger strike, which he called a "mass disturbance."
The few interactions many inmates have with others include the moments when they pass fellow prisoners on the way to solitary exercise yards, according to testimony by state Inspector General Robert Barton. Some of the prisoners shared their modest quarters with other inmates, he said.
Group therapy is also available, but prisoners must sit in individual enclosures called "treatment modules," Stainer said. Prisoners eat in their cells and exercise in a roughly 150-square-foot yard, officials said.
Ammiano, who nodded in assent as a speaker urged the lawmakers to wipe solitary confinement off the face of the earth, promised to develop legislation to further reform the system.
"Until there's action, we're going to continue to scrutinize and hold your feet to the fire," he told prison officials.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Lisa Shumaker)