Michael Montgomery/California WatchCells are clustered in the C unit at Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit.
State inmates with alleged ties to prison gangs will no longer be routinely locked in isolation units, and prisoners assigned to the controversial facilities will face shorter mandatory terms, according to policies unveiled today by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
If implemented, the regulations would cut the amount of time some inmates spend in the most restrictive isolation units from six years to two, provided they participate in special programming and remain “disciplinary free.” The new policies also open the possibility for hundreds of alleged prison gang associates to transfer out of the special facilities, known as Security Housing Units, if they have not been involved in criminal gang activity and fulfill other criteria.
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Stark conditions in the units were the focus of two large-scale hunger strikes last year, which at their peak attracted thousands of inmates in 13 prisons. Strike leaders suspended the protests after corrections officials conceded they had unfairly denied inmates personal items and said they were reassessing the rules and procedures governing the units.
Corrections Undersecretary Terri McDonald said the new regulations evolved from an internal 2007 study that made similar recommendations but was never implemented because of prison overcrowding. But she said overcrowding is easing as more offenders are being housed in county jails instead of state lockups under Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment initiative.
“This is all the result of our ability to have some open space in our prison system,” she said.
Under the plan, inmates accused of associating with prison gangs and other threat groups would be sent to the special units only if they were involved in serious violations or criminal gang activity. Inmates identified by prison staff as full-fledged gang members will be assigned to the units based on affiliation, as is the current practice.
McDonald said that of the 3,100 inmates housed in the state’s Security Housing Units under the current gang policies, about 2,000 had been validated as associates. She said some of those inmates could be transferred to regular prison yards following a close review of their records.
The new regulations detail a complex rewards system for inmates housed in the isolation units. They would be allowed more privileges, such phone calls, photographs and books, if they participate in a special “step-down” program. After two years in the program, the inmates would be allowed to join activities with other prisoners. After three years, the inmates would be allowed meals “consumed unrestrained … with other offenders.”
Many prisoners currently in Security Housing Units live alone and have little or no direct contact with other inmates or staff, unless they are shackled.
The new regulations also expand the classification system used to determine which inmates are locked in the Security Housing Units. Under current rules, an inmate must be identified or “validated” as a member of one of seven prison gangs. The new policy would target dangerous members of any group considered a threat to prison security, including street gangs, prison gangs and extremist groups.
"There's well over 400,000 gang members in the state of California, and those gang members frequently come to prison, and they bring their street gang politics," McDonald said.
Some prisoner rights advocates worry that the changes could lead to more inmates being housed in isolation units, rather than fewer.
“California will end up becoming more reliant on Security Housing Units or high-tech dungeons because we are expanding the definition of who can go into the facilities – namely, any prisoner who is in a gang or criminal organization of any kind,” said Charles Carbone, an attorney with California Prison Focus.
McDonald said the regulations could be adopted by the end of the year.