The global human rights group Amnesty International is calling on California to use fewer isolation units in its prison system.

In a study released Thursday, the human rights group called these units “cruel, degrading and inhumane.”

Michael Montgomery/KQED

Corrections officials isolate inmates they say are the “worst of the worst”–those who have committed violent crimes in prison or are deemed a member or associate of a prison gang. These inmates live in small cells 22-and-a-half hours a day.

Even the exercise yards are inhumane, said Amnesty International’s Angela Wright, who toured the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison. “They have high walls,” she told KPCC’s Julie Small. “There’s absolutely no view. There’s absolutely no equipment in them. They’re covered with a mesh across the top so that there’s even restricted access to sunlight.”

The report found that 500 of the inmates living in isolation at Pelican Bay have been there for a decade or more, and 78 of them for 20 years. Amnesty International says California should reserve isolation for only the most extreme behavior and for only short periods of time.

The use of isolation units has survived many court challenges, but California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is about to revise its policy, Undersecretary of Operations Terri McDonald told Small. She said inmates will be able to earn their way to a less restrictive environment, but not for another three years.

“While people may think it needs to go faster, we need to make sure our new policy isn’t endangering the orderly operation of our institutions.”

McDonald said the department will also refine its criteria for who gets sent to isolation units. She expects Corrections to release full details of the new policy this month.

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