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Prison officials move to improve isolation units

Michael Montgomery/California WatchPelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit

State corrections officials are moving forward with a major policy initiative that could improve conditions and reduce the length of time some inmates spend in controversial isolation units. The changes are being proposed amid threats of another hunger strike by inmates who spearheaded one last month at Pelican Bay State Prison.

The policy changes, which still are being worked out, are in line with proposals highlighted in an internal study completed in 2007 by a panel of experts appointed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to interviews and documents. The panel’s recommendations included:

  • Moving to a conduct-based model that punishes inmates for tangible offenses, rather than for mere affiliation with a gang. This approach is widely used in other states and by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
  • 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

Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan said the department is doing more than conducting another assessment of current policy.

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“I’m not talking about another study,” he said. “I’m talking about making some changes that make the process much more in tune and in line with national best practices. And that’s what the secretary is going to do.”

Kernan conceded there are “holes” in the department's policies for gang management and its use of the Security Housing Units. He also said the state was wrong to deny some personal items to inmates housed in the special facilities.

“I think it’s a sign of strength that the department looked at that (Security Housing Unit policy) and was able to admit their mistakes and that we’re moving forward,” he said.

The policy overhaul could include substantive changes in gang validation criteria and the practice known as debriefing, which requires inmates to divulge gang secrets in order to return to a regular prison cell.

“We need to come up with a justifiable due-process validation process and debriefing process that makes sense and that’s consistent with the rest of the nation,” Kernan said.

Prison experts say California’s current policy is outdated, inefficient, legally vulnerable and often targets gang associates who do not pose a major security risk while leaving more dangerous inmates housed in the general prison population.

Inmate rights groups say the policies are inhumane, leaving some inmates languishing in isolation for decades. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have called on California to adopt practices used in other states, where inmates are locked in isolation only if they commit serious, tangible offenses and for fixed terms. 

Kernan emphasized the changes are not a response to last month’s hunger strike and are aimed at improving security for inmates and staff. He said the department is taking a cautious approach and is not considering a mass release of inmates from the Security Housing Units into the general prison population.

“Any (policy) modification could very well result in serious spikes in violence in the system,” he said.  “So we have to do this right.”

Kernan also said the changes would depend on the governor’s realignment plan being successfully implemented and would need buy-in from the Legislature, unions and other stakeholders.

Inmates and advocates said that during the hunger strike, Kernan spoke of major policy changes, but in a July 20 memo, he states only that the department was “reviewing” gang validation and debriefing policies. Department sources said the memo was intended to focus on “minor changes that did not require stakeholder review.”

Kernan is expected to testify Tuesday before the Assembly's Public Safety Committee. The hearing was called in response to the inmate hunger strike.

During a media tour at Pelican Bay yesterday, acting Warden Greg Lewis declined to go into detail about the new policy and said any changes would move slowly. 

“Change is like an aircraft carrier. It takes many miles to turn an aircraft carrier,” he said. “It (the plan) is going to be thoroughly vetted, thoroughly reviewed. And I foresee some change. I really do.”

Kernan is scheduled to meet strike leaders at Pelican Bay tomorrow, with Donald Specter, head of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. Kernan said he will inform inmates about the department’s long-term goals and will emphasize that it could take months to develop a detailed new policy for the Security Housing Units. 

But within weeks, a new system could be in place to allow inmates in the Security Housing Units to earn privileges, such as phone calls to family members, craft items and exercise equipment, he said.

However, it remains unclear whether inmates will be swayed by the department’s new initiative. Pelican Bay inmate and hunger strike leader George Franco wrote a letter warning of new protests if corrections officials don’t move swiftly on changes.

“We’re only waiting to see if he (Kernan) will keep his word. If not, we will re-enact our hunger strike indefinitely and there is nothing they can say to any of us, period,” Franco wrote.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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