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Judge damns California's `new Alcatraz'

As America rushes to build new prisons to cater for tough new sentencing laws, a federal judge has issued a damning indictment of one of its show-piece institutions, a maximum-security jail used as a prototype by other states.

Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that Pelican Bay State Prison, a steel-and-concrete fortress in northern California, persistently inflicted "senseless suffering" on inmates, including caging them outside in small cages during cold weather, and holding themin "foetal restraints" - with their wrists and ankles chained together. Two prisoners were shot dead by guards, even though they were not the targets, said the judge.

The case is being seen by US-based human rights and prison monitoring groups as a further reminder of the United States' failure to comply with UN accords on minimum standards for prisoner treatment and an international covenant banning torture. "These are normally simply ignored by the US courts," said Alvin Bronstein, of the American Civil Liberties Union's Prison Project.

They view the level of brutality as particularly alarming, given the rapid increase of the US prison population, which last year rose above the 1m mark for the first time. It is forecast to grow to 2m by 2000, largely because of new "three strikes" laws under which repeat offenders can trigger life sentences.

The US District judge's 345-page ruling, issued in response to a class action suit brought by inmates, paints a horrific picture of conditions in the state-run Pelican Bay, warning that they could cause some inmates to have mental breakdowns. In its "se c urity housing unit", about 1,500 prisoners are held in windowless cells, where some are deprived of all but the barest human contact for several years. The use of sensory deprivation and isolation "may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psych ologically tolerate", said the judge.

Built in 1989 near California's border with Oregon, Pelican Bay has acquired a reputation as a modern-day Alcatraz.However, Californian officials have viewed it with pride, giving tours to officials from other states who have used it as a model.

It was designed to house the worst offenders, although its 3,800 inmates range from murderers and rapists to drunk drivers. The judge gave California's Department of Corrections four months to introduce dramatic improvements and threatened to impose his own plan if nothing is done. David Steuer, representing the inmates, said the judge's ruling proves that the prison violates a ban in the US Constitution against inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.