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California Eases Conditions at Death Row Disciplinary Unit

SACRAMENTO (AP) — California has settled a lawsuit alleging mistreatment of death row inmates who were kept in solitary confinement for years only because of their purported gang affiliations.

Six San Quentin State Prison inmates sued in 2015, saying they were being held indefinitely under inhumane and degrading conditions in what prison officials call the “adjustment center.” One inmate had been there for 26 years and two others for more than a decade when the lawsuit was filed.

The settlement obtained by The Associated Press says the state no longer will keep inmates in the center just for being gang members.

About 100 inmates were held when the lawsuit was filed. The number has since dropped to less than 10, said Dan Siegel, an Oakland-based attorney who filed the lawsuit.

“I think that this settlement provides for a more humane treatment of prisoners who are in that very difficult situation, facing the death penalty,” Siegel said Monday.

Inmates can still be sent to the windowless cells if they are considered an immediate danger to the prison or others, or if they have at least three infractions within five years for offenses including fighting or possessing drugs or cellphones. The length of their disciplinary sentences can be increased by half if they are gang members.

But the maximum length of time in the adjustment center is five years, with a review every six months to see if they can be released. They also can have certain property taken away as punishment for no more than 90 days.

The adjustment center is one of three units in the nation’s largest death row, which has 749 condemned inmates.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton said she couldn’t comment because the settlement has not been signed by one of the six inmates who sued, though court records list the lawsuit as being “settled in full.” Siegel said it is not clear if the lack of one inmate’s signature will affect the settlement.

The lawsuit is patterned after a class-action lawsuit that the state settled in September 2015. California agreed then to end its unlimited isolation of imprisoned gang leaders, a practice that once kept hundreds of inmates in isolation for a decade or longer.

“The safety of California prisons in terms of risks to staff and other prisoners has really not been enhanced by keeping people in solitary,” Siegel said.

The state will pay inmates’ attorneys $245,000 under the agreement.