Judges spend their lives consigning their fellow creatures to prison; and when some whisper reaches them that prisons are horribly cruel and destructive places, and that no creature fit to live should be sent there, they only remark calmly that prisons are not meant to be comfortable, which is no doubt the consideration that reconciled Pontius Pilate to the practice of crucifixion.[1]


The Security Housing Unit[2] at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, California, is the last stop in California's penal system. It was in this unit that Vaughn Dortch, a prisoner with a life-long history of mental problems, was confined after a conviction for grand theft. There, the stark conditions of isolation caused his mental condition to "dramatically deteriorate,"[3] to the point that he "smeared himself repeatedly with feces and urine."[4] Prison officials took Vaughn to the infirmary to bathe him and asked a medical technician, Irven McMillan, if he "want[ed] a part of this bath."[5] McMillan responded that "he would take some of the `brush end,' referring to a hard bristle brush which is wrapped in a towel and used to clean an inmate."[6] McMillan asked a supervisor for help, but she refused.[7] Ultimately, six guards wearing rubber gloves held Vaughn, with his hands cuffed behind his back, in a tub of scalding water.[8] His attorney later estimated the temperature to be about 125 degrees.[9] McMillan proceeded with the bath while one officer pushed down on Vaughn's shoulder and held his arms in place. After about fifteen minutes,[10] when Vaughn was finally allowed to stand, his skin peeled off in sheets, "hanging in large clumps around his legs."[11] Nurse Barbara Kuroda later testified without rebuttal that she heard a guard say about the black inmate that it "looks like we're going to have a white boy before this is through, . . . his skin is so dirty and so rotten, it's all fallen off."[12] Vaughn received no anesthetic for more than forty-five minutes,[13] eventually collapsed from weakness, and was taken to the emergency room. There he went into shock and almost died.[14] Pelican Bay Warden Charles Marshall attributed the incident to an "inexperienced staff" and "the difficulties of opening a new prison."[15]

Vaughn Dortch was almost burned to death by prison employees in a correctional facility which former California Governor George Deukmejian called "a model for the rest of the nation."[16] Unfortunately, this may be true. More and more states are building "supermax"[17] facilities like Pelican Bay, abandoning even the most cursory attempts at rehabilitating prisoners.[18]

This Comment argues that, rather than being a model for the rest of the nation, as Governor Deukmejian and Warden Marshall would have us believe, Pelican Bay State Prison inflicts unacceptable psychological trauma on inmates confined in the virtually unrelieved isolation of the Security Housing and Violence Control Units. In some cases, the constant isolation deprives inmates of sanity itself. The severe sensory deprivation experienced by Pelican Bay inmates as a result of this isolation violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution in that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.[19]

Part II provides a brief history of the American penitentiary as background for a critical examination of Pelican Bay State Prison. Part III describes the physical aspects of Pelican Bay and the general conditions of confinement within the Security Housing Unit (SHU) and the Violence Control Unit (VCU). Part IV discusses the history of the Pelican Bay inmate class action suit and the outcome of the suit.[20] This Part argues that the decision does not go far enough because it fails to declare the SHU unconstitutional for all inmates. Part V describes the documented effects of extreme sensory deprivation on prisoners in solitary confinement, including the seminal study done by Stuart Grassian, M.D., at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole. Part VI demonstrates that the particular effects of sensory deprivation on prisoners within the SHU, including both the psychological and psychiatric consequences, violate the Eighth Amendment. This Part includes documented incidents of inmate psychosis,[21] suicidal ideation,[22] self-mutilation, and delusions[23] and argues that the conscious, wanton deprivation of inmate mental health in this environment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In support of this argument, this Part also sets out the legal predicates to a finding of constitutional liability for Pelican Bay prison officials. The Comment concludes with a summary of the argument and a discussion of the negative societal effects that result when psychologically damaged SHU inmates are released directly into our cities and towns.


A. The Birth of the American Penitentiary

1. The Pennsylvania System

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. . . . Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.[24]

Pelican Bay State Prison's direct ancestors can be found in the early Pennsylvania penitentiaries which, ironically, were the result of a prison reform movement led by American Quakers.[25] The Quakers believed that the ideal way to reform criminals was to lock them in cells and leave them in total isolation.[26] In forced isolation, prisoners would have nothing to do but consider the evil of their prior bad acts, repent, and reform themselves.[27] The Quakers believed that if a prisoner were to receive "kindness and proper direction" during his period of confinement, he could begin the process of rehabilitation.[28] The first "complete penitentiary institutions" to implement the Quaker ideals, then known as the "Pennsylvania System," were the Western Penitentiary near Pittsburgh, built in 1829, and the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, built in 1836.[29] These two Pennsylvania prisons formed the "first planned sovereign system of penitentiaries in the world."[30]

In a system that presaged Pelican Bay, the Pennsylvania prisons isolated each prisoner for his entire sentence.[31] Convicts spent their sentences in total isolation, remaining confined in their cells at mealtimes and while working. They were permitted to speak with only a limited number of prison guards and a few preselected visitors.[32] They did not know the identities of their fellow prisoners and extreme measures were taken to preserve this separate system. Rothman reports that "[o]fficials placed hoods over the head of a new prisoner when marching him to his cell so he would not see or be seen by other inmates."[33]

In 1854, the Inspectors of the Western Penitentiary System gave this glowing report:

Shut out from a tumultuous world, and separated from those equally guilty with himself [the prisoner] can indulge his remorse unseen, and find ample opportunity for reflection and reformation. His daily intercourse is with good men, who, in administering to his necessities, animate his crushed hopes, and pour into his ear the oil of joy and consolation.[34]

Not all visitors to the Pennsylvania prisons were so favorably impressed. Charles Dickens, after a visit to Eastern in 1842, mentioned nothing of men animated by the "oil of joy and consolation." Indeed, he described a very different scene:

[T]he dull repose and quiet that prevails is awful. . . . Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. . . . He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the meantime dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.[35]

The black hood has been abandoned, but Pelican Bay reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.[36]

2. The Auburn System

While the Pennsylvania system was being widely touted by pamphleteers, a public outcry was also heard in New York for a more humanitarian system of treating criminals. Auburn Prison was built in 1816 by New York officials who hoped to avoid the well-advertised failures of the Pennsylvania system.[37] Nonetheless, Pennsylvania concepts were clearly manifested in the design of Auburn's solitary confinement wing. This unit was finished in 1821 and almost immediately became the primary model for American prisons.[38]

Auburn officials implemented a classification system in which the most dangerous criminals were kept in solitary confinement for their entire sentence. Prisoners considered capable of being reformed were housed by the "congregate method."[39] Congregate prisoners slept alone in a cell at night, but worked together in a workshop during the day.[40] They were forbidden to speak to or even look at their fellow inmates while in their cells, at meals, or on the job.[41]

Supporters of Auburn's congregate system emphasized the dreadful effects of the constant and unrelieved isolation of prisoners in the Pennsylvania system.[42] New York reformers insisted that it was unnatural to keep men in solitary confinement, day after day, year after year; "indeed, it was so unnatural that it bred insanity."[43] Auburn officials had firsthand knowledge of the truth of this statement: in the first group of eighty-three "hardened prisoners" confined in solitary, "five died and others went insane."[44]

One can scarcely dispute that the motives of the Quaker reformers were humane. Nonetheless, "instead of communing with God and becoming purified, the men they imprisoned went insane, committed suicide or died due to the extreme conditions."[45] The progeny of the early prisons—Pelican Bay State Prison and countless others—survive and proliferate. Reliance upon solitary and harsh conditions of confinement is once again the order of the day. Despite the obvious lessons to be learned from the Pennsylvania and Auburn experiences, there is an accelerating movement to house prisoners classified as violent or disruptive in desolate, separate "supermax" facilities.[46] There, as is shown below, many sink into despair and insanity.


The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.[47]

A. "Skeleton Bay"

In 1842, Charles Dickens denounced the Eastern Penitentiary in Pennsylvania as a remote prison which imposed "secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay."[48] However, officials in the early systems earnestly believed their methods were effective tools of rehabilitation and reform.[49] Today, prison administrators and legislators have lost patience with rehabilitation as a penological goal.[50] The new mission is punishment.[51] When prisoners are violent or difficult to manage, this means that they must be controlled in separate, rigid institutions like Pelican Bay—institutions which bear a striking similarity to the Pennsylvania prisons.

Pelican Bay is a modern prison and employs cutting-edge technology and security devices.[52] There are no rat-infested cells or unsanitary supplies at Pelican Bay. But behind the newly-minted walls and shiny equipment lies a prison that is indifferent to the limited, but basic and elemental, rights that incarcerated persons—including "the worst of the worst"[53]—retain under the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution.

"Pelican Bay" sounds as though it might be a picturesque tourist resort or a quaint fishing village surrounded by redwoods in Northern California. However, there is nothing picturesque or quaint about Pelican Bay. Barring execution, the worst punishment California imposes on its criminals is a sentence at the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison.

"The x-shaped, two-story, reinforced concrete . . . lockup, which sprawls over a remote 270-acre clearing of the Malarkey Forest, northeast of Crescent City, California, is reputed to be the most modern and secure penal facility in the country."[54] Armed guards look down from vantage points above the yard and in control booths in each housing unit.[55] The prison is part of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), which manages the nation's largest prison system.[56] One out of every five CDC inmates suffers from "mental problems or brain damage,"[57] and CDC lost preliminary rounds of two class action lawsuits over the care of mentally ill prisoners.[58] Given these numbers, it seems incredible that Pelican Bay, where "a fairly significant number of criminals . . . are sociopathic,"[59] was open for more than two and one-half years before it had a full-time psychiatrist.[60]

Pelican Bay houses approximately 3,680 prisoners, a number which changes daily. Approximately 1,580 of these inmates are confined to the windowless cells of the SHU.[61] The Security Housing Unit within Pelican Bay was ostensibly designed to house only the most difficult inmates.[62] Inmates alleged to be gang members are confined to the SHU for their entire terms. Prison officials routinely tell prisoners accused of gang affiliation that the only way out of the SHU is to "snitch, parole or die."[63] Within the SHU, there is an internal wing, known as the Violence Control Unit (VCU), which houses approximately forty to fifty prisoners.[64] After months and years in solitary confinement within the SHU and the VCU, inmates deteriorate, just as inmates did in the antiquated Pennsylvania system.

B. General Conditions Within the SHU

From the outside, the SHU resembles a "massive concrete bunker."[65] From the inside, it is a "windowless labyrinth of cells and halls, sealed off from the outside world by walls, gates, and guards."[66] The overall effect of the SHU is "one of stark sterility and unremitting monotony."[67] The physical environment reinforces a sense of isolation and detachment from the outside world and, for custody personnel, creates a "palpable distance from ordinary compunctions, inhibitions and community norms."[68]

SHU prisoners are isolated in small cells for twenty-two and one-half hours a day,[69] separated by three locked doors from an armed control booth officer.[70] The inmates can see no other prisoners, nor can they see outdoors. They are watched on screens in a central control room. Their movements are monitored by video cameras. Cell doors open and close electronically. The ceiling is covered with heavy screening on one side and heavy plastic on the other.[71] The filtered light that seeps through the screen is the closest the SHU prisoners ever get to feeling sunlight—no direct sunlight ever reaches these cells. The National Prison Project describes the SHU as follows:

Each concrete cell contains a concrete stool, concrete bed, concrete writing table, and a toilet and sink made of heavy stainless steel. Nothing is allowed on the walls. The cells of SHU prisoners are lined with opaque materials, so that prisoners cannot see out. Prisoners never walk freely, they never emerge from their cells without being handcuffed and in chains. They shuffle to the law library single file, chained to each other at the ankles . . . . Toothpaste is removed from the tube. There is no unread mail.[72]

The design of the SHU's cell doors calls for their construction in heavy gauge perforated metal. Although the prison officials probably chose this material to prevent the inmates from throwing things through their cell doors, the heavy metal reinforces the isolative nature of the SHU by blocking any available light, as well as the inmate's vision.[73] In fact, the SHU was purposefully designed to reduce "visual stimulation."[74]

The cells are contained in eight-cell units known as "pods," with four 500-foot corridors that are also monitored by video. Each set of four corridors is viewed from a control room from which all video transmissions are monitored by control booth officers. In addition, the cells within the pods contain speakers and microphones which permit communications between control booth officers and inmates.[75] Many prisoners believe that their conversations are monitored.[76]

Unlike most prisoners, SHU inmates are fed in their cells on trays, twice a day.[77] The meals are placed on tray slots in the cell doors to be eaten inside. When Dr. Craig Haney made his first visit to the prison, he was told by a guard that this was the only design flaw in the prison—that they had not figured out a way to "automatically" feed the prisoners, eliminating any need for contact with them whatsoever.[78] SHU inmates are permitted to shower three times per week.[79] The inmates are not allowed to take classes, do not work,[80] and are not permitted to smoke.[81]

SHU inmates may exercise unshackled outside their cells for a maximum of ninety minutes per day in an area known as the "dog-walk."[82] The exercise space measures twenty-eight by twelve feet and has twenty-foot walls.[83] At any other time the prisoners leave their cells, they must be in waist restraints and handcuffs, and have an armed double escort.[84] Before and after "exercise," an inmate must stand naked at the front of the control booth and undergo a visual strip search by a control booth officer, which may be seen by other officers, inmates, and "whomever else happens to be in the open area around the outside of the control booth."[85]

The term "exercise yard" is a euphemism. In reality, it is "a small bare concrete room with high ceilings," which is attached to the end of each pod.[86] The pens "are more suggestive of satellite cells than areas for exercise or recreation."[87] "In the control booth, the televised images of several inmates, each in separate exercise cages, show them walking around and around the perimeter of their concrete yards, like laboratory animals engaged in mindless and repetitive activity."[88] Chief U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who presided over Madrid v. Gomez, saw inmates simply pacing around the edges of the pen.[89] He described the image as "hauntingly similar to that of caged felines pacing in a zoo."[90]

With the exception of those inmates who are double-celled,[91] whenever SHU inmates are in the presence of another person, they are in chains at both the waist and ankles. They are even chained during their classification hearings.[92]

Thus, with minor and insignificant exceptions, the life of a SHU inmate is lived within the confines of an eighty square foot cell, a space that may be shared with another prisoner whose life is similarly circumscribed. This degree of isolation and deprivation of virtually all meaningful human contact is degrading, dehumanizing, and results in a significant risk to inmate mental health. Simply put, these conditions drive men insane.


Since Pelican Bay State Prison opened in 1989, prisoners have flooded the courts with complaints, the most serious of which came from the SHU. Referring to the number of petitions filed, Judge Henderson said, "It was just very dramatic. There was a sense on the court that it required heightened scrutiny on our part."[93] In July 1991, only two years after the prison opened, federal judges from the Northern District of California met with Charles Marshall, warden of Pelican Bay, and two attorneys from the California Attorney General's office.[94] Judge Henderson appointed Wilson, Sonsini, a Palo Alto firm, to represent one inmate; the case was subsequently converted into a class action suit due to the "extreme conditions" at Pelican Bay.[95]

In a complaint filed by Wilson, Sonsini and the Prison Law Office,[96] the inmate plaintiffs alleged that deliberate use of excessive force, isolation, failure to provide medical care and meaningful access to the courts, and violations of due process in segregation assignments violated their rights under the First, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.[97] The isolation or sensory deprivation claim generated considerable attention,[98] not only because of the seriousness of the issue, but also because the Pelican Bay SHU is considered a state-of-the-art facility and a potential model for other similar prisons around the country.[99]

After a three-month bench trial,[100] Judge Henderson found that the inmates were entitled to relief on a significant number of their claims. The court's decision was rendered in a thoughtful, well-reasoned, compassionate opinion and was probably more expansive than even the most optimistic inmate advocate would have believed possible. The court found that Pelican Bay officials failed to provide inmates with constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care. Pelican Bay officials were also found to have permitted and condoned a pattern of excessive force. Additionally, the court found that, with respect to the SHU,

[Pelican Bay officials] cross the constitutional line when they force certain subgroups of the prison population, including the mentally ill, to endure the conditions in the SHU, despite knowing that the likely consequence for such inmates is serious injury to their mental health, and despite the fact that certain conditions in the SHU have a relationship to legitimate security interests that is tangential at best.[101]

The court held that conditions in the SHU violate Eighth Amendment standards when those conditions are imposed on inmates who are "already mentally ill, as well as persons with borderline personality disorders, brain damage or mental retardation, impulse-ridden personalities, or a history of prior psychiatric problems or chronic depression."[102] Continued confinement in the SHU deprives these inmates of a "minimal civilized level of one of life's necessities."[103]

It is indisputable that Judge Henderson's decision will prevent a great deal of suffering for a great many prisoners. If Vaughn Dortch were sentenced to Pelican Bay today, he could not be confined in the SHU. However, the opinion has one critical shortcoming: it fails to condemn the harsh conditions of confinement in the SHU for all inmates. Although Judge Henderson acknowledged that the "extreme social isolation . . . found in the Pelican Bay SHU will likely inflict some degree of psychological trauma upon most inmates confined there for more than brief periods,"[104] he nonetheless concluded that "for many inmates, it does not appear that the degree of mental injury suffered significantly exceeds the kind of generalized psychological pain that courts have found compatible with Eighth Amendment standards."[105] Consequently, the court refused to find that the current conditions in the SHU are per se violative of the Eighth Amendment with respect to all potential inmates.[106]

Judge Henderson rightly realized that the specified inmates for whom the SHU violates the Eighth Amendment "are not required to endure the horrific suffering of a serious mental illness or major exacerbation of an existing mental illness before obtaining relief."[107] However, he concluded that an adequate mental health care system, when implemented, will provide sufficient monitoring to alert Pelican Bay officials when a SHU inmate who is not in one of the enumerated categories develops a serious mental illness.[108] This conclusion is suspect.

The Madrid court made two important mistakes in analyzing the sensory deprivation claim: (1) the court failed to assess correctly the magnitude of the risk to inmate mental health from confinement in the SHU;[109] and (2) the court based its conclusion of the magnitude of the risk for unspecified inmates on a faulty medical premise. That faulty premise is "the somewhat simplistic assumption that there is one continuous spectrum between mental health and mental illness, and that the tolerance of sensory deprivation conditions correlates linearly with the continuum."[110] The risk to inmates outside the categories specified by Judge Henderson is substantiated by the Walpole study detailed in the following Part, by medical research, and by the observations of mental health experts who have interviewed Pelican Bay inmates.[111] These materials offer compelling proof that conditions in the SHU are a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In support of the argument that the SHU violates the Eighth Amendment, the following Part sets out the substantial risks inherent in profound, prolonged sensory deprivation for prisoners in general, and for SHU inmates in particular.


Give me some work to do, or I shall go raving mad.[113]

When Dr. Craig Haney reported the findings and conclusions from his interviews with SHU inmates, he observed that:

A century and a half ago, social commentators like Dickens and de Tocqueville marveled at the willingness of American society to incarcerate its least favored citizens in "despotic" places of solitary confinement. De Tocqueville understood that complete isolation from others "produces a deeper effect on the soul of the convict," an effect that he worried might prove disabling when the convict was released into free society.[114]

De Tocqueville's concern once was shared by the United States Supreme Court, which, more than one hundred years ago, characterized solitary confinement as an "infamous punishment" because of its ill effects:

A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service. . . . [I]t is within the memory of many persons interested in prison discipline that . . . its main feature of solitary confinement was found to be too severe.[115]

The medical studies detailed below show that the early indictments of solitary confinement by the Supreme Court, Dickens, and de Tocqueville were well founded.

A. Sensory Deprivation Generally

It is well established that sensory deprivation can produce "major psychological effects on [humans]."[116] In studies on sensory deprivation in the 1950s,[117] now considered classic, subjects were placed in settings designed to reduce all external stimuli. For example, researchers frequently used lightproof, soundproof rooms, and surrounded the patients' arms and hands with cardboard tubes to reduce tactile sensation. Characteristic symptoms were exhibited in these settings: perceptual distortions; visual, auditory, and olfactory illusions; vivid fantasies often accompanied by "strikingly valid" hallucinations; derealization experiences;[118] and hyper-responsitivity to external stimuli.[119] Many subjects did not tolerate the experience well, and, in these subjects, researchers observed a characteristic syndrome that included these symptoms. However, the syndrome was also accompanied by symptoms of "cognitive impairment . . . , massive free-floating anxiety, extreme motor restlessness, emergence of primitive aggressive fantasies, often accompanied by fearful hallucinations, with decreasing capacity to maintain observing, reality-testing ego functions."[120] In some cases, subjects also developed "overt psychosis" accompanied by "persecutory delusions"; in some, subjects suffered "a marked dissociative catatonic-like stupor with mutism."[121] There was little doubt that the symptoms were the product of sensory deprivation because, in most reported cases, they subsided with "striking rapidity" when the experiments were terminated.[122] However, in a few cases, "serious symptomatology" remained after the experiments had ended.[123]

This series of symptoms has been described in a number of ways. One common label is "Reduced Environmental Stimulation," or "RES." Significantly, "the complex of symptoms associated with RES is rarely, if ever, observed in other psychotic syndromes or in humans not subject to RES, a point which [prison officials] did not refute with any specificity."[124]

B. Sensory Deprivation in the Prison Environment

1. The Walpole Study[125]

For persons in prolonged and profound solitary confinement within the prison environment, the symptoms associated with sensory deprivation are equally, if not more, destructive than the symptoms exhibited by patients in clinical settings.[126] The damaging effects on prisoners are well documented.

As early as the nineteenth century, psychopathological reactions of prisoners in solitary confinement were described by German clinicians.[127] In the 1830s, "statistical evidence began to indicate an increased incidence of physical morbidity and mortality as well as of insanity, among prisoners exposed to especially rigid forms of solitary confinement."[128] The German studies "contributed altogether thousands of descriptions of psychosis associated with solitary confinement."[129] More recent literature also almost uniformly describes or speculates that solitary confinement has serious psychopathological consequences for inmates.[130] Observations of U.S. prison inmates are consistent with the early German studies. In particular, an important clinical observation of fourteen inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole conducted by Stuart Grassian, M.D.,[131] revealed the serious psychiatric consequences of solitary confinement.[132] The resulting clinical information indicated that inmates who were confined in profound isolation experienced hyper-responsitivity,[133] perceptual distortions, hallucinations, massive free-floating anxiety, and difficulties with thinking, concentration, memory, and impulse control.[134] Synthesizing his Walpole observations, the older German reports, and more recent medical literature, Dr. Grassian determined that the symptoms exhibited by inmates who experience prolonged exposure to solitary confinement "form a major, clinically distinguishable psychiatric syndrome."[135] The Walpole study also indicated that "[t]he specific psychiatric symptoms reported were strikingly consistent among the inmates."[136] For example, of the fourteen inmates interviewed, eleven exhibited generalized hyper-responsitivity, but all eleven denied experiencing this symptom when not in isolation.[137]

One of the most disturbing observations in the Walpole study was that six inmates—almost half of those interviewed—reported "the emergence of primitive aggressive fantasies of revenge, torture, and mutilation of the prison guards."[138] Each of these inmates described the fantasies as "frightening" and "uncontrollable."[139]

Prior to the Walpole study, an argument had been made that solitary confinement entailed far less perceptual deprivation than was present in formal experiments and thus should not produce a serious sensory deprivation syndrome. This argument had particular relevance to the Walpole study because the Walpole findings indicated that several inmates tolerated solitary confinement fairly well before the solid steel door was added to their cells and before mail, television, and radio privileges were revoked. The important contribution of the Walpole study is that it established that the "profundity of sensory deprivation" is a critical variable.[140] Experimental studies had already determined that other variable factors, such as the duration of confinement, were significant. For example, in formal experiments, relatively short periods of sensory deprivation had not been found to be detrimental, but under more prolonged situations, "serious symptomatology" developed.[141] At Walpole, however, some inmates became symptomatic only after a significant number of days in profound solitary confinement, while others became "grossly symptomatic in only a few hours."[142]

Some studies suggest that an individual's psychological makeup will directly affect his tolerance of sensory deprivation to a certain extent.[143] However, "massive free-floating anxiety" seems to occur universally and the "evolution of simple hallucinations into complex, formed hallucinations with some degree of loss of reality testing occurs with high frequency."[144] In solitary confinement, personality types that are found within prison populations "may be especially vulnerable to psychopathologic effects of sensory deprivation."[145] Prisoners who commit infractions that result in their assignment to sensory deprivation units like Walpole's DDU and Pelican Bay's SHU and VCU include "some of those who are most vulnerable of all."[146]

It is doubtful that any screening process implemented by Pelican Bay prison officials can predict with a satisfactory degree of accuracy which of these inmates are particularly vulnerable. The Walpole study reflected consistent symptoms among the inmates studied, yet those inmates were not preselected by overt psychiatric status.[147] Even so, all of the major symptoms reported by the German clinicians,[148] based solely on their observations of prisoners who were preselected because they suffered "gross psychotic symptoms,"[149] were also observed in the Walpole population.[150]

These results led Dr. Grassian to conclude that "the use of solitary confinement carries major psychiatric risks."[151] The following section demonstrates that these major psychiatric risks, inherent in the conditions of confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, violate the Eighth Amendment rights of all current and future SHU inmates.


The Eighth Amendment, in only three words, imposes the constitutional limitation upon punishments: they cannot be "cruel and unusual."[152]

A. Constitutional Requirements for an Eighth Amendment Claim

A prison official violates the Eighth Amendment only when two requirements are met. First, the allegedly unconstitutional punishment—here, sensory deprivation—"must be, objectively, sufficiently serious."[153] A prison official's act or omission must result in the denial of "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities,"[154] and inmates must show that they are confined under conditions that impose a substantial risk of serious harm.[155] The risk of harm must be "unreasonable" in that the challenged conditions are "sure," "very likely," or "imminent[ly] likely" to cause "serious" damage to the inmate's future health, and the risk must be one that society considers "so grave that it violates contemporary standards of decency to expose anyone unwillingly to such a risk."[156] Even when a condition infringes a specific constitutional guarantee, it must be evaluated in the light of the central objective of prison administration: safeguarding institutional security.[157]

The second requirement—the subjective component—follows from the principle that "only the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain implicates the Eighth Amendment."[158] To violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, a prison official must have a "sufficiently culpable state of mind."[159] In prison conditions cases, the state of mind is one of "deliberate indifference" to inmate health or safety.[160] After Farmer v. Brennan,161 "deliberate indifference" means that the official must know of and disregard an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.[162] The Farmer court rejected the civil law definition of recklessness[163] in favor of the criminal law definition, which permits a finding of recklessness only when a person disregards a risk of harm of which he is aware.

Thus, in prison litigation, the Court now requires a criminal level of culpability for prison officials who are sued in civil litigation.[164] The Farmer Court attempted to justify this result by noting that the criminal standard of subjective recklessness has long been applied to defendants in First Amendment cases concerning plaintiffs who are public figures.[165] However, the result of the application of subjective recklessness in libel and defamation cases, as compared to prison conditions cases, escaped the Farmer majority: Applying the higher standard to the defendant in a defamation case substantially fortifies the First Amendment protections of free speech and a free press; applying the higher standard in a prison conditions case substantially weakens the Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

For most prison conditions cases, the Farmer standard presents a heavy burden of proof for inmate-plaintiffs. However, for the Pelican Bay sensory deprivation claim, the standard was met without difficulty. As is shown in Part VI.C below, Pelican Bay was built despite the fact that CDC officials had actual prior knowledge of the dangerous consequences of such extreme conditions of confinement.

The objective and subjective components of the SHU inmates' sensory deprivation claims are addressed separately in the following sections, which illustrate that the level of sensory deprivation imposed on SHU inmates presents an objectively serious, excessive risk to their health and was imposed by officials who actually knew of and disregarded that risk.

B. Inmate Sensory Deprivation in the SHU Violates the Objective Component of an Eighth Amendment Claim

The first step in analyzing a prisoner's Eighth Amendment claim must be scrutiny of the actual conditions under challenge.[166] In Madrid, the conditions within the SHU were shown to be markedly more severe than those at Walpole prison where Dr. Grassian conducted his seminal study on the effects of solitary confinement.[167] For example, Dr. Craig Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of maximum security prisons, found that all SHU prisoners "endure an unprecedented degree of involuntary, enforced idleness."[168] The severity of conditions within the SHU has had a devastating impact upon the inmates, as detailed in this section.

1. Psychological Consequences of Confinement in the SHU

It must be stressed that the SHU is not unconstitutional because the inmates may suffer "generalized `psychological pain'—i.e., the loneliness, frustration, depression, or extreme boredom" that frequently accompanies a prison term.[169] The Madrid court explained:

The Eighth Amendment simply does not guarantee that inmates will not suffer some psychological effects from incarceration or segregation. However, if the particular conditions of confinement cause a serious mental illness, greatly exacerbate mental illness, or deprive inmates of their sanity, then [prison officials] have deprived inmates of a basic necessity of human existence—indeed, they have crossed into the realm of psychological torture.[170]

This section illustrates that Pelican Bay officials did, in fact, cross into that realm. Dr. Grassian, who conducted the Walpole study, and Dr. Haney made a number of visits to Pelican Bay and conducted separate studies on the effects of sensory deprivation on SHU inmates.[171] Dr. Haney interviewed 100 randomly chosen SHU inmates, using a "highly structured questionnaire."[172] Inmates were asked a series of twenty-seven questions, drawn from existing RES[173] literature. The questions "focused on symptoms of psychological distress and the negative effects of prolonged social isolation including confused thought processes, hallucinations, irrational anger, emotional flatness, violent fantasies, social withdrawal, oversensitivity to stimuli, and chronic depression."[174] A majority of SHU inmates reported a number of these symptoms, and many reported "a constellation of symptoms that appears to be related to developing mood or emotional disorders."[175] Pelican Bay Senior Staff Psychologist Ted Ruggles also observed a connection between placement in the SHU and the mental health of certain inmates: "There was a psychiatric deterioration that occurred in correlation with placement on SHU [for some inmates], and I'm not altogether sure what caused it."[176] Perhaps Mr. Ruggles was being disingenuous: It seems obvious that what caused the inmates' deterioration was the SHU itself. The following section explains this conclusion.

a. The Degree and Duration of Isolation of SHU Inmates

Dr. Haney observed that the "overall level of long-term social deprivation within these units [SHU and VCU] is nearly total and, in many ways, represents the destructive essence of this kind of confinement. Men in these units are deprived of human contact, touch and affection for years on end."[177] Many have not had visits from family or friends in "years."[178] The mail service is so bad that it took one inmate seven and one-half weeks to learn that his son had died.[179] Inmate isolation from the social world, to which most of them will return, could scarcely be more complete.

Interaction between SHU inmates and prison staff is kept to an absolute minimum and occurs only on very "unnatural" terms.[180] Tension in the SHU, a result of a pattern of excessive force by correction officers,[181] further constrains the ability of staff and inmates to participate in normal relations.[182] Institutional routines ensure that prisoners are within close proximity of staff only when being fed, visually searched through the window of the control booth before going to the "yard," or being placed in chains and escorted elsewhere within the prison.[183] At trial, the prison's expert witness, Dr. Dvoskin, testified that the SHU "attempted to reduce physical contact between inmates and staff to the extent possible, as much probably [as] anyplace I've seen in a segregation environment."[184]

Unlike CDC officials, most corrections experts believe in the importance of maintaining an inmate's "social connectedness and social ties" for the purposes of long-term adjustment, "both in and out of prison."[185] This basic rationale was ignored at Pelican Bay. Dr. Haney found that "the psychological significance of this level of longterm social deprivation cannot be overstated."[186] He also noted that "[m]ost people are so disoriented by the loss of social context that they become highly malleable, unnaturally sensitive, and vulnerable to the influence of those who control the environment around them."[187] Indeed, one might surmise that this is the very purpose of Pelican Bay.

b. Psychological Effects on SHU Inmates

Long-term confinement of inmates under extreme conditions has certain predictable psychological results. Although not every inmate manifests negative psychological effects to the same degree, as was demonstrated by the Walpole study, and one cannot specify exactly when the destructive consequences will begin to appear, few inmates "escape unscathed."[188] Over the course of an inmate's confinement in the SHU, "the more damaging parts of adaptation to this kind of environment begin to emerge and become more obvious."[189]

One such adjustment results from the totality of control inside Pelican Bay. Imprisonment by its nature makes inmates dependent upon institutional routines to guide their behavior. However, the degree of control in Pelican Bay "is extreme enough to produce a qualitatively different adaptation."[190] Dr. Haney's studies at Pelican Bay indicated that "eventually many prisoners become entirely dependent upon the structure and routines of the institution for the control of their behavior."[191] Some inmates in the SHU become dependent upon the prison staff to "limit their behavior"—their actions are so "completely circumscribed" during confinement, "they begin to lose the ability to set limits for themselves."[192]

Dr. Haney's research indicated that other inmates "suffer an opposite but related reaction, caused by the same . . . circumstances. These prisoners lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose—because they have been [denied] any opportunity to do so for such prolonged periods of time."[193] In "extreme cases," inmates experience a sense of "profound despair and hopelessness."[194]

Ironically, "total social isolation can lead . . . to social withdrawal."[195] In solitary confinement, some inmates further withdraw into themselves in an attempt to adjust to the deprivation of all social contact.[196] Unfortunately, this effect "snowballs": as the inmates become "increasingly unfamiliar and uncomfortable with social interaction, they are further alienated from others and disoriented in their presence."[197]

Without social contact and social context, inmates report an air of unreality to existence in the SHU.[198] Some inmates act out simply to provoke a response from their environment, "proving to themselves that they still exist, that they are still alive and capable of eliciting a human response—however hostile—from other human beings."[199] Occasionally, another pattern emerges:

The line between [the inmates'] own thought processes and the bizarre reality around [them] becomes increasingly tenuous. . . . [F]or some [inmates], the environment around them is so painful and so painfully impossible to make sense of, that they create their own reality, one seemingly "crazy" but easier for them to tolerate and make sense of. Thus, they live in a world of fantasy instead of the world of control, surveillance, and inhumanity that has been imposed upon them by the explicit and conscious policies of the correctional authorities.[200]

Other inmates suffer "intolerable levels of frustration" due to the "deprivations, the restrictions, and the totality of control."[201] Because these feelings of frustration are aggravated by "the complete absence of activity or meaningful outlets through which they can vent this frustration, [the frustration] can lead to outright anger and then to rage."[202] Some inmates "lash out violently against the people whom they hold responsible for the frustration and deprivation that fills their lives."[203] Ultimately, an inmate's expression of frustration is "marked by irrationality," in the sense that it leads the inmate into behavior that "further insure[s] [his] continued mistreatment."[204] But, as Dr. Haney found, "the levels of deprivation are so profound, and the resulting frustration so immediate and overwhelming, that for some this lesson is unlikely ever to be learned."[205] Haney concluded that this downward spiral can only be halted by "drastic changes" in the inmate environment, changes that will produce less painful and damaging conditions of confinement.[206]

Observers at Pelican Bay have found the magnitude of oppressive control unmatched by any prison in America. Dr. Grassian found the SHU to be "a nightmarish, ghoulish place, with inmates howling through the night, [with] inmates who smashed their heads against the wall, who repeatedly cut themselves, who smeared themselves with their own feces."[207] SHU inmates repeatedly voiced fears to Dr. Haney of physical mistreatment and brutality on a "widespread and frequent basis":[208]

They speak of physical intimidation and the fear of violence at the hands of correctional officers. These concerns extend beyond the physical intimidation that is structured into the design of the units themselves—the totality of restraint, the presence of guards who are all clad in heavy flak jackets inside the units, the use of chains to move prisoners out of their cells, and the constant presence of control officers armed with assault rifles slung across their chests[209] as they monitor prisoners within their housing units.[210]

Most of these inmates have witnessed the brutal "cell extractions" which are part of life in the SHU.[211] They could not help but see that this dangerous practice was often directed at inmates with obvious psychiatric problems that prevented them from conforming to SHU rules or responding to commands.[212] One prisoner told Dr. Haney that he was constantly frightened that the guards were "going to hurt him."[213] The inmate "stuck his toothbrush in the door of his cell so they couldn't come inside."[214] He vowed to "hang myself or stop eating [and] starve to death" to escape the SHU.[215] The high frequency of similar remarks by other inmates led Drs. Haney and Grassian to conclude that the potential for "psychic stressors"—part and parcel of an inmate's life in the SHU—to bring about various forms of psychopathology is "clear-cut."[216]

2. Psychiatric Consequences of Confinement in the SHU

Many studies emphasize the role of social isolation as a correlate of mental illness.[217] When prisoners become "profoundly lethargic in the face of a monotonous, empty existence, . . . lethargy [may] . . . shade into despondency and, finally, to clinical depression."[218] The experience of one inmate, who had no psychiatric history before solitary confinement, illustrates the devastating effect that the SHU can have on inmate mental health. Within several weeks of his transfer to the SHU, this inmate had difficulty with "insomnia, suicidal and homicidal thoughts, and claustrophobic fears."[219] He subsequently developed a "brief confusional, paranoid psychosis."[220]

Dr. Haney's findings, consistent with the clinical findings of Dr. Grassian, led him to conclude that the SHU was among the worst units in the entire U.S. penal system in terms of "inmate mental illness and pathological symptoms."[221] In the course of Dr. Haney's interviews, many inmates spoke of their "inability to handle the stress" associated with confinement in the SHU.[222] Some fared so badly that "they had no memory of ever having functioned well, or had little awareness that their present level of functioning was tenuous, fragile, and psychotic."[223] Among the psychiatric disorders diagnosed by both Dr. Grassian and Dr. Haney in SHU inmates was the problem of impulse control: "Acting-out personalities often resort to their habitual acting-out defenses, and when these defenses prove ineffective in terminating their sensory restriction, episodes of uncontrollable, destructive, often self-mutilatory behavior may supervene."[224] "Many prisoners" reported this behavior to Dr. Haney—a number of inmates showed Haney scars on their arms and necks where they had cut themselves.[225] One prisoner casually mentioned to Dr. Haney that "[he had] been slicing on [his] arms for years, sometimes four times a day, just to see the blood flow."[226]

Inmates who may be suicidal fare poorly within the SHU. If they actually attempt suicide, they may be written up for disciplinary infractions. In the most astounding example of this practice, Pelican Bay officials punished one inmate after he killed himself. Early one morning in 1991, Pelican Bay guards found inmate Alfredo Conde hanging by his shoelaces from a ventilation duct in his cell. Conde, a twenty-nine-year-old rapist, left a letter for his wife: "As always, I am here in this same dark place, and I am a little worried because I do not have any hope." Several days after his death, Conde "apparently received a disciplinary write-up . . . for committing suicide."[227] This practice was defended by Dr. Louis Beerman, chief psychologist for the prison system's mental health branch: "[Suicide attempts] can be looked at as an infraction. We have a lot of manipulation in the system for various reasons, and we don't want to encourage that manipulation."[228]

Those prisoners who are merely contemplating suicide fare no better at Pelican Bay. One suicidal prisoner who is also deaf told Dr. Haney that he was cell-extracted because he could not hear the officers call count.[229] This inmate now sleeps on the floor of his cell "so that the officers can see my skin."[230] Paranoia and delusions are common: prisoners express concern that the guards are poisoning their food.[231] Another prisoner, who reported that he heard voices and saw "little furry things," slashed his wrists more than once.[232] Rather than transferring this inmate to a proper mental health facility where he could receive treatment—because "obviously none is available at Pelican Bay"—CDC officials shuttled him "back and forth between the VCU and SHU units."[233] In the VCU, "he saw a demon who knew his name and frequently spoke to him."[234] During the course of this inmate's interview, he reported that "voices were cursing at him" for talking with Dr. Haney.[235]

The syndrome that Dr. Grassian first identified in Walpole inmates as a result of sensory deprivation has been renamed for the facility in which it most clearly manifests itself: it is now described as the "SHU Syndrome."[236] At trial, Dr. Haney testified that pathological symptoms of SHU inmates caused by the severe prison environment are in some ways higher than those of psychiatric patients who were confined in an East German prison camp during World War II.[237]

3. The SHU Poses a Substantial Risk of Injury to All Inmates

Both Dr. Haney and Dr. Grassian concluded that the profundity and duration of sensory deprivation and the resulting effects were a serious risk to inmate health. Of course, the effects will not be the same for every inmate. Not all inmates will reach the "point of psychotic disorganization that [is seen] in some . . . other prisoners."[238] However, it is "simplistic" to assume that tolerance of sensory deprivation always correlates with mental health.[239] The premise dictates that if marginally functional nonpsychotics tolerate sensory deprivation less well than more psychologically well-integrated persons, then by extrapolation, the more disturbed and psychotic inmate should be the least tolerant of all. One group of investigators has determined that this extrapolation is unreliable. In a study on sensory deprivation conducted by Drs. Grunebaum, Freedman and Greenblatt, the researchers prescreened forty-three subjects and found that seven were suffering from "personality deviations."[240] Three of the seven, diagnosed as schizoid, all "tolerated the experiment well and generally found the experience pleasant and undisturbing."[241] Another study found that "[n]ormal subjects find great difficulty in adapting to or tolerating the stress of sensory isolation."[242]

Drs. Grassian and Friedman concluded that basic and important trends emerge from the various studies. The profundity and duration of sensory deprivation are "clearly important variables," which influence the response of an individual to sensory deprivation.[243] The profundity and duration of confinement in the SHU is acute for all prisoners.[244] "Greater degrees of deprivation and longer deprivation seem to produce a characteristic response in nonpsychotic subjects."[245] These responses include perceptual changes such as the loss of perceptual constancy, perceptual illusions, simple hallucinations, hyper-responsitivity, and the emergence of vivid fantasies.[246] The development of other symptoms seems to depend significantly upon pre-existing personality organization.[247]

These studies indicate that, at the very least, the healthiest SHU inmate runs a substantial risk of experiencing complex, formed hallucinations, developing hyper-responsitivity and vivid fantasies, and suffering massive free-floating anxiety. In Madrid, Judge Henderson ruled that these responses were not "extreme" enough to warrant a finding that the SHU is per se unconstitutional because of the significant level of sensory deprivation.[248] In other words, for Judge Henderson, these risks are ones that society chooses to tolerate.[249] That conclusion is suspect. It is questionable whether any responsible segment of our society would approve a prison that subjects inmates to the conditions in the SHU, knowing that such serious psychological consequences are likely to befall these inmates. If Judge Henderson is correct, our society tolerates prison conditions that are so severe that they may cause inmates to hear voices when there are no voices to be heard,[250] to believe that they are losing their vision,[251] to experience "frightening, visual hallucinations,"[252] or to develop a preoccupation with "entities" or "demons."[253] This cannot be the case in a society that calls itself "civilized."

C. Pelican Bay Officials Were Deliberately Indifferent to the Excessive Risk to Inmate Mental Health

"To violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, a prison official must have a sufficiently culpable state of mind."[254] No matter how reprehensible the conditions in the SHU may be, CDC officials cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment unless the officials knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.[255]

Conditions of confinement in the "lockup" units in four of California's maximum security prisons have been the catalyst for a full twenty years of litigation.[256] In an evidentiary hearing before Judge Stanley Weigel, who presided over both Wright v. Enomoto and Toussaint v. Rushen, litigated in 1976 and 1983 respectively, the state's attorneys and corrections officials were present during expert testimony from a number of witnesses about the harmful effects of the punitive solitary confinement imposed on prisoners in the challenged facilities.[257] With the exception of some minor quibbling over data by CDC employees, this testimony went "unanswered and unrebutted."[258] Only a few years later, while a federal monitor was still in place to oversee conditions in these units, CDC began construction of Pelican Bay, a prison that was in many ways much worse than the other facilities. This construction was undertaken in deliberate indifference to the extensive record on the effects of solitary confinement known to officials from the prior litigation.[259] Despite the radical plan for Pelican Bay, CDC did not seek any outside opinions on the psychological and psychiatric consequences of housing prisoners under the proposed system. Nor did they engage in any public debate.[260]

Documents filed in the Pelican Bay litigation also indicate that prison officials had actual knowledge of the dangerous effects of RES prior to the opening of the prison. Warden Marshall, for example, knew before the SHU opened that RES was a potential risk for inmates and had "`some concerns that [mental decompensation in the SHU] was always a possibility.'"[261] CDC's Mental Health Services Branch (MHSB) considered the potential effects of RES on prisoners confined in the Pelican Bay SHU in a September 26, 1989 memorandum entitled "Possible Effects of Reduced Environmental Stimulation on Inmates Confined to the Pelican Bay State Prison."[262] The memorandum recommended ways to mitigate these known effects.[263] Unfortunately, CDC officials essentially disregarded the recommendations of the MHSB.[264]

At the trial of the Pelican Bay class action suit, testimony was given by a Mr. Park, a consultant to the California legislature on prisons. In 1987, when the plans for Pelican Bay were still on the drawing board, Mr. Park also warned CDC officials of the dangers of minimal psychiatric staffing in a high-security prison, especially in light of the "very well-known experience that mentally-ill prisoners tend to get placed into higher-security units," like the SHU.[265] California officials ignored Mr. Park just as they had ignored the MHSB. This willful disregard led to tragic consequences.[266]

The predictions of the MHSB and Mr. Park did, indeed, come to pass. There is no dispute that some prisoners in the SHU became overtly psychotic.[267] "As time progressed, [prison officials] were aware that some inmates were developing serious psychiatric problems or suffering a serious exacerbation of an existing mental illness after transfer to the SHU."[268] Despite this experience and despite CDC's prior knowledge of the fact that RES conditions have the potential to adversely affect inmate mental health, officials made no effort to investigate whether SHU conditions were in fact affecting inmates adversely.[269] Instead, most inmates who experienced severe effects from the conditions in the SHU were "medicated with psychotropic drugs or ignored."[270]

In sum, CDC officials deliberately failed to alleviate the harshness of the prison design, failed to provide an adequate screening system for inmate mental illness, failed to monitor inmate mental health, failed to establish a level system for classifying inmates by mental condition, and failed to implement any type of program that might alleviate the known risks, such as an anger management program.[271] CDC officials did nothing to lessen or reduce the serious risks that may result from sensory deprivation, despite their actual knowledge of these risks. As a result, Pelican Bay is a very damaging, and constitutionally impermissible, place to live.

D. A Screening Process Cannot Save the SHU

Judge Henderson's ruling in Madrid is troublesome in another aspect. He believes that an adequate screening process will ensure that mentally ill inmates who must remain in the SHU or who will be sentenced to the SHU in the future do not fall by the wayside.[272] The findings in the order itself, however, indicate that Pelican Bay officials have consistently failed to recognize or admit that inmates were suffering serious mental problems. In fact, Judge Henderson ruled that the mental health care system at Pelican Bay was constitutionally inadequate.[273]

In point of fact, SHU inmates who were mentally ill were repeatedly accused of malingering by officials.[274] Indeed, the court expressly noted Dr. Grassian's finding that the staff had an almost "obsessive preoccupation . . . with the possibility that an inmate might be manipulating, which significantly impairs their capacity to recognize severe mental illness."[275]

Prisoners who do not engage in flagrant, aggressive, violent, or suicidal behavior may nevertheless be seriously ill. Testimony at trial revealed that absent some extreme behavior, inmates "could stay in that cell for a long period of time, just nobody pays much attention to them . . . [m]onths maybe."[276] These examples of willful ignorance by the prison officials do little to create confidence in any future "screening process."

In addition to the fact that Judge Henderson's decision manifests an unreasonable reliance on prison custodial staff, the decision also reflects an unreasonable reliance on an inmate's ability to recognize and report a developing mental health problem:

While mentally competent inmates can be relied upon to self-report most medical ailments, mentally ill prisoners may not seek out help where the nature of their mental illness makes them unable to recognize their illness or ask for assistance. Nor are family or friends usually around to notice developing mental problems or help inmates seek treatment.[277]

It is a fact of prison life that inmates struggle to conceal their weaknesses and rarely admit to psychic damage or pain. This behavior is "part of a prisoner ethic in which preserving dignity and autonomy, and minimizing vulnerability, is highly valued."[278] As a result, early manifestations of psychological effects of sensory deprivation upon prisoners may often be "effectively concealed" or ignored.[279]

There is literally nothing in the history of CDC that merits the belief that prison officials can or will protect a SHU inmate from the deterioration and decompensation that almost inevitably occurs there. CDC failed to provide a system for adequate mental health care screening at Pelican Bay despite the department's prior litigation experience in which federal district courts had imposed similar measures at other CDC facilities.[280] Nonetheless, Judge Henderson believes that the future will be different. In light of CDC's past performance, this belief can only be characterized as overly optimistic. Such misplaced optimism is cold comfort for the inmates left behind in the stark isolation of the SHU.[281]


When evaluating a claim that solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment, courts look to long-abiding standards and principles enunciated by the Supreme Court in cases such as Weems v. United States,[282] Trop v. Dulles,[283] and Gregg v. Georgia.[284] They also must look to the recent pronouncements in Wilson v. Seiter[285] and Farmer v. Brennan.[286] Applying these standards to the conditions of confinement in the SHU, the inescapable conclusion is that these stark and desolate conditions violate both the spirit and the letter of the Eighth Amendment. They are barbarous by almost any lucid measure. Our system of justice gives the judiciary and the penal system the power to punish those persons convicted of a crime in a court of law; it does not give them the right to drive those persons insane.

At the trial of the Eighth Amendment claim, the primary defense offered by prison officials for housing inmates in this manner was the tired refrain that "it is working."[287] Not only is this argument undermined by statistics that show a decline in violence since 1984, five years prior to the opening of Pelican Bay,[288] it is, more importantly, not a defense to an Eighth Amendment claim.[289]

Admittedly, the mental impact of a challenged condition should be considered in conjunction with penological considerations.[290] However, "a condition that is sufficiently harmful to inmates or otherwise reprehensible to civilized society will at some point yield to constitutional restraints, even if the condition has some penological justification."[291] Thus, CDC's insistence that the SHU is "working" as a secure environment for disruptive prisoners "does not and cannot determine whether the SHU passes constitutional muster."[292] Prison officials may not create unconstitutional conditions that deprive inmates of a basic human need for the overall benefit to the prison system, even when those benefits are shown.[293] Pelican Bay may intimidate and harm prisoners, but it cannot survive under the guise of the Eighth Amendment.

In addition to the constitutional implications, confinement of inmates in this harsh and oppressive manner has dire ramifications for our communities. When prisoners who have been deprived of meaningful social contact begin to shun all forms of interaction, withdraw more deeply into themselves, and cease initiating social interaction, they require psychiatric attention. At Pelican Bay, they may get little or none. Realistically, these prisoners cannot be expected to adjust to confinement within the general prison population or in free society. Nonetheless, these inmates may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.[294]

All current and future SHU inmates are entitled to injunctive relief to reduce the unreasonable risk of harm to their present and future health caused by the conditions of their existence. Their extreme isolation must be alleviated. Our courts have the authority and the duty to ensure that the Constitution does not stop at the prison gate, but inures to the benefit of all, even to those who must live behind prison walls.[295] Abdication of this duty is not only reprehensible, but also ill advised. The deprivation of basic human needs is not merely unnecessarily cruel and unusual, it is calculated to retard, if not prevent, the process of a prisoner's rehabilitation.[296] Such an outcome harms us all.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun;
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God, nor Son of Man,
Ever should look upon!
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,

. . .
Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust is turned to dust
In Humanity's Machine.