In prisons throughout the country, perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement. In California alone, hundreds of prisoners are in Security Housing Units (SHUs) because they have been “validated” as gang members. The validation procedure used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employs such criteria as tattoos, reading materials, and associations with other prisoners (which can amount to as little as a greeting) to identify gang members.
It is a system clearly open to abuses. California Prison Focus, the prisoners’ rights organization based in Oakland, often documents these abuses in its newsletter, and even publishes a Prisoner Self-Help Manual to Challenge Gang Validation. The report on the Corcoran SHU in CPF’s Summer 2010 newsletter included the following:
Many prisoners report that they are validated as gang members with evidence that is clearly false or using procedures that do not follow the Castillo settlement… CPF has received hundreds of requests for its legal manual on how to challenge a prison gang validation, even though we ask for a $20 donation to cover costs. Prisoners generally report that the SHU cells are overflowing and Administrative Segregation Units are now being filled with prisoners with indeterminate SHU sentences. CDCR officials use the torturous conditions of SHU confinement against the prisoner in order to find out more about prison gangs. CDCR officials pressure prisoners to “debrief” (that is, implicate others who are involved in gang activities) so that they can get out of SHU and sent to a special needs yard.
Prisoner K reported several pieces of fabricated material used against him (details omitted in order not to identify the prisoner). He suggests that CSP-COR officials are trying to “break” mainline prisoners by plucking out those with any sort of “structure” (meaning psychological balance, ability to think for oneself and stand up for one’s rights) and trying to “break” them (psychologically) by keeping them in solitary confinement SHU cells.
Prisoner L reported that he was offered release from the SHU. When he arrived at general population housing, he was asked to sign a prepared statement that implicated another prisoner of being a member of a known prison gang. He refused to sign and was re-validated using over-six-year-old evidence from a prison where he was previously housed.
Prisoners and advocates say that in addition to making what CPF calls “false validations,” the CDCR keeps some prisoners in solitary indefinitely based on gang validations that are a decade or more old. This despite a federal court decision that was supposed to end such practices. The following essay is by Joseph Aragon, a 52-year-old prisoner who renounced his gang membership 13 years ago, but remains in Corcoran’s SHU–as he describes it, “in mindless limbo on indeterminate segregation status.”
(Thanks to Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project for forwarding this essay to us, and for maintaining her powerful collection of writings by prisoners.)
My name is Joseph Aragon a.k.a. Tlaoyotl and I am a California SHU inmate. I am a validated prison gang member and have been since 1994. California leads the nation in legalized and publicly condoned torture and isolation of its prison inmates. It hosts not one, but three segregated housing units–Corcoran State Prison-SHU, Tehatchipi Max State-SHU, and Pelican Bay Prison-Supermax SHU. They hold thousands of inmates in mindless limbo on indeterminate segregation status. I’ve spent many years in administrative segregation units throughout the state including the SHU’s of Pelican Bay and Corcoran State Prison where I currently reside.
The madness continues for once a prisoner is branded as a gang member, it’s a done deal. Don’t misunderstand me…I don’t claim innocence or pretend that I didn’t do things that brought me to the SHU. I was, in fact, a member of a brutal prison gang and prior to my indeterminate SHU. I had a position of authority and status within that infrastructure. I did things that brought about my validation as I was involved in a criminal conspiracy against other inmates and society in general. I deserved to be segregated. However in 1997, I defected from the organization and renounced my gang association and withdrew from all gang activity.
Yet here I sit 13 years later, still in segregation, although CDCR knows that I am a drop-out. I am designated as an inactive member of a prison gang I belonged to by the very bureaucracy that holds me on indeterminate status citing “continued association with a criminal conspiracy against other inmates,” even though I am ostracized by the very gang the administration claims that I continue to associate with. Because of my decision to defect I have actually become an enemy of the prison gang. Yet this administration claims that I am involved in an on-going criminal conspiracy, even though they have documents support my defection and that I am on a “hit list.” From my perspective, I see an endless maze of bureaucracy bent on keeping prisoners within these SHU units. They gotta keep the beds filled so they don’t risk having to close the SHU. units.
I have been trying to get out of my validation for many years without success. It’s a slow and frustrating process with twists and turns and roadblocks. I am 52 years old and continue to the suffer punitive isolation I was first introduced to at 35 within the walls of California’s SHU units. Furthermore, CDCR just passed a new law in January (1-25-10) SBX-18 that takes all good time credit earning ability from validated gang members, but no one else in the SHU. This is total discrimination of an entire class without due process and adds from months to years to the lengths of sentences. Additionally, CDCR has adopted a new policy for giving indeterminate SHU sentences to inmates by deeming them as “program failures” (usually, 3 successive rules violation reports of the same offense) and then slamming them in the SHU. This is in response to the mass drop-outs from all of California’s prison gangs—gotta fill them beds! Otherwise, CDCR cannot justify all the money spent on staffing.
But let’s talk about the SHU’s where prisoner’s rights are close to non-existent and services provided to prisoners under the Constitution and CDCR’s own regulations are at a bare minimum if at all. Many are the days that we go without a shower or without yard or exercise. 24 hour periods locked in a cell, more often than not for consecutive days. The administration will use any little excuse they can to keep us locked in our cells. We lose showers, yard and medical on a regular basis.
I spent the better part of 2008 and part of 2009 in a cell without any glass in a 2 foot by 4 foot window frame. I had to use the blanket I was issued as a window covering. I slept with all my clothes on a bare mattress so I could have two sheets to cover myself with. I also lived with huge cockroaches and mice and had to secure my food items by hanging them in a t-shirt from the ceiling vent to keep bugs and rodents out. I’ve had to drink water with toxic levels of arsenic and selenium well above federal standards. If this is not torture, I don’t know what is.
I have seen many fall victim to isolation and sensory deprivation of the SHU. environment. The indifference is mind boggling. The prevailing attitude by co’s is that “we’re garbage and so what if you don’t get treated humanely, who cares?” I actually heard a guard say, “We used to be able to beat the crap out of them, but they cried to the courts, so now we get in trouble if we touch them.” That attitude is prevalent within the CDCR system of justice. I survive by keeping my mind outside of the madness and focusing on me, through my studies (both Christian and secular), focusing on my outside contacts including family, friends and professional associations and focusing on my health and fitness. I feel I have come through somewhat unscathed. But not completely. I think once I hit the streets some deep-seated issues will eventually come into focus that I will have to deal with. The good thing is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have an outdate of 1-9-2012 and a probable SHU release date of 1-30-2011. Although I am not holding my breath on that one, I have had too many false hopes to even go there.
Due to Federal Court litigation, in the Steven Castillo lawsuit, CDCR adopted a policy that requires them to consider an inmate for release from the SHU after 6 years of inactive gang status. At the time of my D.R. B. (Departmental Review Board), I had 12 years as an inactive gang member, and was validated as such. I had 10 points which makes me a low level one custody inmate. I had not had a rule violation report since 1994 (the one that initially put me in the SHU), yet I was denied release based on the fact that the Director felt I still had undue influence with the prison gangs I was formerly part of. In other words, in spite of the Castillo settlement, the hearing was a sham.
However they do release active gang members after 6 years of inactivity. They do so because they know that active gang members will go out to the mainline and resume gang activity, thus supplying more bodies for validation. It’s a known fact that almost all active gang members released come back and bring new bodies with them. When I went to D.R.B. there 17 active gang members released and the 3 drop-outs denied. A drop-out by definition is not going to resume gang activity, so there is no reason to release him. Instead, he is left with the choice of staying in the SHU or going to the debriefing program so that they can squeeze out every ounce of information they can. That process is a nightmare in itself.
California prison officials perpetuate torture through on-going and never-ending solitary confinement approach to corrections. We need to stop the madness. Thank you.
In solidarity, Joseph Aragon
G-08220, P.O. Box 3476 4A3L47R, Corcoran, CA 93212
New address, September 2010: Joseph Aragon GO8220, Kern Valley State Prison T4U, P.O. Box 5101 D7-211U, Delano, CA 93216