In response to the statewide prison hunger strike in July, the Public Safety Committee of the California State Assembly, chaired by State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, met on Tuesday to discuss the conditions in California’s Secure Housing Units.
The hearing began at approximately 1:30 PM.
Assemblyman Ammiano opened his remarks saying, “Recent events brought these units to the forefront. We want to ensure that these units are administrated in such a manner to maximize the security of the inmates in the units, general population inmates, prison staff and the public generally.”
Glenda Rojas, a family member of a Pelican Bay inmate, spoke about her cousin’s experience. “The system of validation is wildly out of control,” she said. She discussed how false accusations resulted in her cousin being placed into the SHU for ten months. She talked about the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation’s bureaucratic delays, intimidation, and generally making it difficult to challenge the validation.
Afterwards, Earl Fears a former Corcoran SHU inmate, spoke out against the SHU. “Things that I did going to prison caused me to one time going to the SHU program…when I was in the SHU program..I felt that ‘this right here has got to be crazy.’ I did 18 years in and out of prison but a SHU program was the bottom of the pits…What I witnessed in this short time I feel that…when you hear a cry, a man cry, a gangster cry, a killer cry, a con and an ex-con cry, there’s got to be a reason. I feel that those who started the hunger strike–they had to be willing to get their voice out for someone to hear it for someone to be willing to lay down and die just for someone to hear the situation what goes on in the SHU program they must be serious. Just small thing in the SHU program just causes people to yell or beat against the walls…”
He also condemned the practice of withholding shower and exercise privileges as punishment against inmates already in a psychologically stressful situation. He talked about how the pain of solitary confinement and not having someone to talk to leads to emotional anguish and the damage that can cause in the long-term.
“I know you said there’s regulations…and that it’s not everyday prisoners that are sent to the SHU program but they still are human. And someone needs to look into it.”
William McGarvey, a reverend and representative of Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, testified on the spiritual perspective and gave a history of solitary confinement and it’s roots in Quaker efforts to reform prisoners.
“Prisoners suffer and our communities suffer when prisoners…return to our communities…psychologically broken.”
McGarvey raised the placement into solitary of Native Americans and Rastafarians for refusing to cut their hair or remove dreadlocks, respectively. He also spoke about Islamophobia and how it has contributed to a ballooning solitary population in federal prisons: “60-75% in CMU’s (Communication Management Units) are Muslim.”
“[Solitary confinement results in] the destruction of the human spirit of the human spirit,” McGarvey said.
At 2:05, Charles Carbone, a San Francisco prisoner rights lawyer with extensive experience representing gang members, stated that SHU’s undermine both prison and community safety.
Carbone blasted the bureaucracy of the CDCR and in particular those tasked with reviewing the legitimacy of gang validation: “Their record of overturning those gang validation packets is next to nil.”
Carbone criticized the validation process–including the double counting of incidents on the “three point” system to validate inmates, and the use of trivial evidence to validate someone, citing a case in possessing the book “The Art of War” served as grounds for validation.
He also cited $56,000 per inmate in costs that SHU units incur.
At 2:15, Craig Haney, a professor of psychology and a nationally recognized expert on solitary confinement, made several points. Officials should have known since the 1980s that a prison like Pelican Bay will “expose inmates to psychologically dangerous conditions of confinement.”
Haney quoted the opinion of Judge Henderson in the Madrid v. Gomez case: that Pelican Bay State Prison “may press the outer borders of what most humans can psychologically tolerate.”
Haney pointed out that the only human contact of inmates in solitary is the “incidental brushing up against prison guards” as they handcuff them for transport to cages for exercise.
“There is now clear and convincing evidence,” according to Haney, that the SHU model of dealing with gangs doesn’t work and may even make things worse. He cited increases in gang violence over the past few decades as indicating the ineffectiveness of SHU use in curbing such violence.
Laura Magnani of the American Friends and Service Committee then spoke. She began by quoting the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, and noted that SHU’s cost at least “twice as much” as general population.
She then read a portion of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Article 1 Section 1:
“Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person…”
In the case of women, Magnani stated that segregation can be an “extreme form of oppression and trauma” particularly for women who have a prior history of abuse at the hands of men. The lack of privacy for women in institutions guarded by largely male was also condemned by Magnani.
Magnani pointed to violent cell extractions, hogtying and contraband searches as “not only violate international treaties but our own sense of human decencies.”
She went on to make various recommendations, including restoring the right of reporters to enter and interview prisoners, saying, “Free press is one of the most important safe guard against abuses.”
She also called for the implementation of limits a person can be held in isolation and encouraged constant review of whether confinement necessary.
At 2:30, Dorsey Nunn of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children/All of Us or None spoke.
He recounted a meeting with an inmate at Pelican Bay who has been in PBSB since 1988, who knew about Abu Graib abuses and questioned the difference between the torture of Abu Graib and the outrage it inspired versus the conditions of solitary confinement in United States prisons.
The inmate, an African American who, in 20 years, had only legally spoken to one other African American, had been thrown into disciplinary segregation for attempting to speak to another.
Nunn questioned the deprivation of human contact and the ability of someone to do something as simple as speak to someone of the same race.
He also challenged the validation system, notably the confidential nature of debriefings and the inability of those accused of being gang members to confront their accusers.
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and an authority on the mental health effects of solitary, was next. “The prisoners demands are very reasonable. They’re actually common sense.” He said the CDCR is “absolutely not” in compliance with the report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, despite claims to the contrary. “For prisoners needs to be blatantly ignored—the process has to be secret. And otherwise citizens would be upset.”
He echoed calls for lifting of the media bans.
“While the Department of Corrrections will say they are implementing changes…they actually haven’t done a thing since 2007.”
Remarking on the claims that the CDCR “need these supermax” facilities, he noted the increase in violence within the prison system. He went on to speak about Mississippi and its dramatic reduction in segregation units and the accompanies decreases in incidents.
“There needs to be conduct based assignment” in California prisons, “what we have is not conduct that gets you in there, but the assumption that you’re a gang member.”
“In any state prison system…over half of the actual successful suicides in the entire prison system involve the 2-6% that are in segregation…Suicide and acting out have their roots in the despair of segregation,” Kupers said.
“There need to be alternatives to debriefing,” Kupers stated, pointing to the high recidivism rates that result from inmates being released straight from solitary without any time spent in the general prison population.
At 2:52, CDCR officials arrived to speak and answer questions.
Scott Kernan, Undersecretary of Operations, represented the CDCR. He immediately defended the practice of segregation on the grounds that it allows CDCR to control violent gang members and that segregation is “critical” to allow other inmates to program successfully and get out.
He noted that 3,000 out of 165,000 California inmates were in solitary.
He defended segregation by noting that various courts have upheld the practice.
“What might be a human rights violation is the violence that gangs perpetuation—not segregation,” he said.
“The department agrees that we can and should make some changes to SHU policies,” he said, and stated that the CDCR and “within months not years” will make changes, primarily through the implementation of “behavior based systems.” Such a system would entail a step-down process and will encourage inmates to “earn their way out of the system.”
In response to a question by Ammiano regarding the slow speed of reform in CDCR policies, Kernan replied, “We’re going through the worst economic situation since the Great Depression”
“Are you making changes?” asked Ammiano.
“The inmates have a choice to come out of the system,” Kernan said and indicated that of those inmates who have been validated “99% of them will say you got it right. He also stated that “we will continue to have a debriefing process” and that keeping it “will not dissuade someone from getting out of the gang” as “they will be able by their own behavior work their way out of the SHU.”
In response to the confidentiality of the debriefing process, Kernan answered that “we will continue to use confidential informants.”
Regarding a question as to whether or not anonymous accusers will be given an opportunity to face their accusers, Kernan replied, “No Sir” and went on to say “we are going to make it as fair as we possibly can.”
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner commented in response to Kernan’s remarks that “the data that we heard indicates that once a prisoner is in the SHU at Pelican Bay it is very infrequent for them to be moved out. I see a bit of a disconnect between your answer…”
Kernan repeatedly indicated that the average stay in the SHU is 6.8 years and that “what I said was that offenders in the SHU with mountains of documentation of their violations inmates involving themselves in terrible assaults on inmates and staff…”
Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell commented: “I was cautiously optimistic about hearing [what you had to say]…I have to say I am concerned, quite frankly I’m disappointed” by Kernan’s defense of the status quo.
In response, Kernan stressed the need for current standards in order to curb gang violence.
Mitchell followed up and asked if there were and checks and balances when it came to the validation process. Kernan indicated that all decisions are made within the CDCR with cooperation between prison officials and CDCR administrators, to which Mitchell responded that CDCR has more say than the judiciary.
Public Comment began at 3:34. A sample of those who spoke and what was said:
Julie Tackett spoke and told the story of Bryan. You can read more of Bryan’s story here.
James Harris of the Socialist Workers Party spoke out calling for the abolition of the SHU.
Gail Brown with Life Support Alliance stressed the need for stakeholders to be included in the process of reform.
“Hariett”, a sister-in-law of an inmate in solitary for 25 years, asked how her 65 year old brother-in-law could possibly be a gang member anymore after 25 years in solitary.
Manuel LaFontane a former prisoner stated that the CDCR’s comments before the hearing were “a smokescreen to get away with inhumanity.” He recounted an experience in prison in which a prison guard told him “We are the gang.” He left with the question: “Does the fact that we cab label someone mean we can torture them?”
Amber, sister of PBSP inmate, asserted that inmates were willing to lose their lives for what they felt was right.
Carol Travis, of Walnut Creek, who had the opportunity to interview multiple inmates at Pelican Bay described the emotional experience as “profound and surprising.”
Dolores Canales, mother of a son in the SHU for 10 years: “They do have dignity and they want to be heard.”
Some speakers described reasons for their loved ones being placed in solitary. Among them: exercising with validated gang member, and for having a book by George Jackson. Many spoke to the ease of being placed in the gang database.
A representative of the California Network of Mental Health Clients stated that “the conditions in the SHU’s are so deleterious to mental and physical health that many more people experience mental health issues in the SHU and in the community when and if they improve” and declared support for reform.
A Ventura Youth Facility parole officer pointed to the commonality of problems in the juvenile prison system and said to the assembly-members, “If you’re not compelled by the stories here I don’t know what will.”
A representative of the Critical Resistance spoke, saying “Long term broad based action necessary. We the people and residents of California… are making it clear that we want changes to the prison system….”
A story was told of an inmate not allowed to donate his kidney because he was in the SHU—resulting in the intended recipient dying. The inmate had been sent to solitary due to possessing a book that suggested gang ties.
A member of the San Quentin Six spoke on behalf of 66-year old Hugo Pinell who has been in solitary for 40 years despite not having a disciplinary write up for over 30 years.
Public comment went on until 4:48 and the hearing thereafter adjourned.
Ammiano has said that there will be future hearings on the issue.
The full hearing can be viewed on video on the California Channel.