Department of Corrections and RehabilitationMule Creek State Prison
Esteban Nunez received a huge break a week ago when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the 22-year-old’s sentence for manslaughter, reducing his prison time by more than half.
It was the second decision regarding Nunez’s incarceration that benefited the young man, son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.
The first break came in June, when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation assigned him to serve his time in Mule Creek State Prison, a facility south of Sacramento comprised of three "sensitive needs yards."
These yards are designated for inmates whose safety would likely be at risk if placed with the general population at the state’s other prisons.
“It’s known as one of the more habitable places, comparatively speaking,” said Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office.
A few months after Nunez was placed at Mule Creek, an administrative assistant at the prison was sent a new Kindle from the Nunez family, the Sacramento Bee reported. The gift was returned. Nunez now "shares a cell with a Sacramento politico who also asked Schwarzenegger for a sentence reduction but didn't get it: Roberto Vellanoweth, the ex-Schwarzenegger appointee who killed four people in a drunken driving crash in 2007."
Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and assault with deadly force last year in connection with the stabbing death of a San Diego State University student. He received a 16-year prison sentence, the maximum under state law. Schwarzenegger’s action, taken during his final hours as governor, reduced Nunez’s term to seven years. Of that, the inmate must serve nearly six years before receiving release and parole.
Nunez is serving his time at Mule Creek in Ione with a wide variety of inmates.
Terry Thornton, a prison spokeswoman, said corrections officials use sensitive needs yards to safeguard inmates convicted of child molestation (regular targets of prison violence), or whose high-profile makes them vulnerable.
“Like you’re the son of the Assembly speaker,” she said.
Every inmate goes through the same screening process before the corrections department assigns them to a detention facility, Thornton said. Prisoners can request placement in a special needs yard.
The department would not disclose records related to Nunez's screening process, citing state regulations [PDF] (see § 3261.2) that prohibit their release.
Mule Creek and special needs yards at other California prisons have become popular in recent years. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2005:
Demand for (special needs yard) space is growing unrelentingly. Since 1998, when the practice of setting aside whole yards for protective custody began, the SNY population has grown from less than 1,000 to more than 13,000 – almost 9% of adult male inmates, by far the largest protective-custody population in state history.
Inmates requesting sensitive-needs yards must explain why they need protective custody, and their claims are investigated by prison staff. Prison reception centers in Chino, Delano and Wasco report a combined 1,400 new inmates awaiting SNY assignments.
That demand has been particularly high among prisoners who’ve dropped out of gangs but fear bodily injury for doing so.
The Times story explained that, “for the first time on California prison yards, large numbers of Northern and Southern California Latinos, blacks and whites, Bloods and Crips, Nazi Lowriders and Aryan Brotherhood members all live together. And all of them coexist with homosexuals, sex offenders, former police officers and informants.”
While the facility is considered a safer place to do time, that doesn’t mean it is comfortable.
Mule Creek’s overcrowding is worse than at most California prisons. At the end of December, the corrections department counted 3,531 prisoners [PDF] housed at the facility, which was built to hold 1,700 people.
An Amador County grand jury report [PDF] two years ago noted that the prison's gymnasium had been converted into inmate quarters. The arrangement made Mule Creek less secure for guards and prisoners.
“It’s not a nice place to be,” Specter said. “It’s just better than other places.”