Jelson25/Wikimedia CommonsPelican Bay inmates agreed to end a three-week hunger strike, prison officials said.
Inmates at California’s highest-security lockup agreed to end a three-week hunger strike that appeared to be gathering momentum despite an apparent lack of concessions from corrections officials.
In a statement, Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, announced that strike leaders in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit agreed to end their action “after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management.”
Officials said hundreds of inmates in three other prisons still were refusing food as of this afternoon.
The changes cited by Cate included providing inmates with winter caps, wall calendars and proctors for college education programs.
However, he sidestepped the question of whether the corrections department will consider overhauling its controversial use of the windowless Security Housing Units, where some alleged prison gang leaders have been locked for decades.
Help us do more.
Officials said the plans referenced in Cate’s statement include a comprehensive assessment of “gang management and secured housing” policies by the Division of Adult Institutions.
But it’s unclear whether that review, which was outlined earlier this year in a planning document [PDF], will lead to any major changes.
A previous department study that proposed overhauling gang policies and reducing the length of time inmates spend in Security Housing Units was mothballed, according to internal documents and interviews.
The proposals were made in a 2007 internal report drawn up by a panel of national prison experts, including a former assistant director of the state corrections department. The panel’s recommendations included:
- Moving to a behavior-based model that punishes inmates for tangible offenses, rather than for mere affiliation with a gang
- Ending the practice of indefinite detention of alleged prison gang members and associates in the Security Housing Units
- Ending the practice of automatically sending validated prison gang members and associates to the Security Housing Units
- Creating a “step-down” program inside the Security Housing Units to encourage positive behavior by offering incentives, such as special programs
- Ending the distinction between prison gangs and other threat groups to give the department more flexibility in determining inmate placement in the Security Housing Units
According to a cover letter that accompanied the report, the policy changes were intended to “decrease gang-related activity and reduce the time spent in special housing units.”
“The idea is to make sure there’s movement and that people whose conduct has improved have a chance to get out of the Security Housing Units,” said David Ward, a retired University of Minnesota sociologist who served on the expert panel. “In some cases, you’ve had inmates in these units for decades. That is very unusual.”
The panel’s recommendations initially got the support of top corrections officials. John Dovey, former director of California’s adult prisons, said the proposals offered an effective way to encourage behavioral changes among some of the system’s most difficult inmates.
“It’s a phased system,” he said. “The more you progress, the more you get. But it’s very strict. You screw up, or you’re less than honest or trying to fool us, you go all the way back to the beginning.”
But after Dovey left the department, the plan was shelved, according to state officials.
In an interview earlier this year, Cate indicated the state was unlikely to make any major changes in the Security Housing Units, such as introducing a step-down program for inmates.
“We still know there are guys trying to run gangs out of Pelican Bay, out of those SHUs, and I still believe public safety requires us to absolutely hammer those guys,” Cate said. “We've got all sorts of inmates who have demonstrated a willingness to comply with the rules, and we don't have enough money to get them all the rehabilitative programs that they need. And so the guys in the SHU will have to wait."