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More inmates, shorter terms possible in isolation lockup

Michael Montgomery/California WatchLast month's hunger strike was launched by inmates housed in the D facility of Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit.

Corrections officials are studying changes in the classification system used to determine which inmates are locked in the state’s controversial Security Housing Units. 

The move could mean more inmates are assigned to the windowless, isolated units but for shorter time periods, provided they participate in special programming and remain "disciplinary free."

Conditions in the state’s four Security Housing Units were the focus of a three-week hunger strike that ended July 20 after corrections officials conceded they had unfairly denied inmates personal items such as calendars, sweats and exercise equipment. Officials also promised a broad re-assessment of rules and procedures governing the units.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation already has notified prison wardens that inmates in the Security Housing Units will be allowed more personal items as "earned privileges" beginning Oct. 1.

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However, officials also expect to have bigger policy changes ready for review by the Legislature and other stakeholders within the next two months, including expanding the category of inmates who can be assigned to the Security Housing Units for "indeterminate terms."

Under the current policy, an inmate must be identified or “validated” as a member of one of seven prison gangs to be housed in a Security Housing Unit indefinitely. Those groups are:

  • The Mexican Mafia (also known as La Eme), a Latino group whose members identify with Southern California
  • Nuestra Familia, a rival Latino group whose members identity with Northern California
  • Nuestra Raza (Northern Structure), a Nuestra Familia spinoff group
  • Aryan Brotherhood, a white-power group
  • Nazi Low Riders, an Aryan Brotherhood spinoff group
  • The Black Guerrilla Family, an African American group founded in the early 1970s
  • Texas Syndicate, a Latino group originally drawn from immigrants from Mexico

Corrections officials now are looking to use the Security Housing Units to target dangerous members of any group considered a threat to prison security, including street gangs, prisons gangs and extremist groups.

“That would permit us to look at all of the subgroups that are in the system today,” said Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan.

Kernan said the strategy, which is still being reviewed, would allow the department to focus on inmates from any threat group who are involved in violent or "criminal enterprise-type" behavior, and not prisoners who associate with active gang members but are not involved in serious infractions.

A 2007 study commissioned by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recommended establishing “Security Threat Groups” and focusing on the biggest troublemakers inside those groups so inmates are not locked in the Security Housing Units merely for alleged affiliation with a prison gang.

The study said California prisons should move from “a label-based model that focuses on prison gangs to a behavior-based model that focuses on actions that threaten the security and safety of the institutions, its employees and other inmates.”

The study also said changing policy “will require significant departmental resources and a cultural shift among its employees.”

However, simply housing more inmates in the Security Housing Units was not the solution, according to the panel. It urged the department to move the inmates through the system as quickly and safely as possible by assigning them to fixed terms no longer than four years.

“If they continue to accumulate more and more inmates in these units, they’ll need to build another Pelican Bay (State Prison),” said David Ward, a retired University of Minnesota sociologist who served on the panel.

The study outlined five phases spanning four years that lead to an inmate's release from a special housing unit. The program begins with the inmate confined to a stark cell with few personal items. Privileges increase with good behavior. 

By the end of the second year, the inmate is allowed a cellmate. By the third year, the inmate is allowed more time out of his cell, including exercise in a yard with a group of inmates.

Kernan said the department is looking closely at the phased step-down program proposed in the study.

While conceding that policy changes “could mean that we have more offenders in SHU-type programs as we go forward," he said some of the inmates could serve out their terms in transitional facilities where conditions would be closer to regular cellblocks.

He said the department is considering expanding bed space or creating new high-security facilities at existing prisons to accommodate a larger population, as well as developing more transitional facilities adjacent to general population yards.

Inmates would be transferred to the transitional units only as part of a step-down program that focuses on improving behavior and reintegrating inmates into the general prison population. Kernan said some inmates passing through a step-down program would not be required to “debrief,” a process most inmates consider snitching.

Ending the the department's debriefing policy was a key demand of the hunger strikers, though the department says inmates can return to a regular prison cell if they show no signs of gang behavior for six years. Known as the "inactive program," the policy has been criticized by the department's own experts, and only 671 inmates have qualified since 1999, according to department data.

Prisoner rights advocates are skeptical about the department's evolving strategy for the Security Housing Units.

Attorney Charles Carbone, who has been involved in numerous inmate lawsuits over conditions in the special units, says the plan could lead to improvements, but only if it is fully funded and implemented with close supervision by stakeholders outside the corrections system. Otherwise, Carbone says, the outcome simply could be more inmates locked in isolation.

"We wouldn't be fixing anything," he said. "We would worsen the problem."

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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