As inmates in California Security Housing Units (SHUs) and Administrative Segregation Units prepare for another hunger strike on September 26 in response to what they see as an inadequate response by the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR), some informative figures have come out this month regarding California’s segregation policies in Pelican Bay State Prison and elsewhere.
Earlier this month, CDCR released figures regarding Pelican Bay SHU inmates. Over 1100 inmates of Pelican Bay’s 3400 inmates are currently in the SHU. Of them, over 513 have served 10 or more years in the SHU, and of those 513, 78 have been in the SHU for 20 or more years. In addition, 544 SHU inmates have been there for more than five but less than 10 years. These figures generally confirm CDCR Undersecretary of Operations Scott Kernan’s testimony before the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee on August 23 that the average time in the SHU is 6.8 years.
Statewide, according to Kernan’s testimony, there are over 3000 inmates in SHUs across California, though it is unclear as to whether or not inmates in Administrative Segregation Units are included in that figure.
According to California Watch, based on CDCR data, only 671 inmates since 1999 have qualified for a transitional program that allows validated gang members to return to general population cells from SHUs if they “show no signs of gang behavior for six years.” It is because of the difficulty of programming out of the SHU that many inmates have commented that the options a typical SHU inmate has for getting out of the SHU are “Debrief, Parole, or Die.”
While Scott Kernan repeatedly claimed during the August 23 hearing that a primary function of the SHUs have been to separate violent or otherwise disruptive gang members from the general population, the hearings also highlighted several instances where the grounds for SHU placement were at best questionable. These included several cases of inmates being validated as gang members due to possessing certain books, corresponding with gang members without any evidence of gang activity, and being identified as gang members by inmates debriefing to get out of the SHU even if no gang membership had been otherwise firmly established.
In Pelican Bay, according to the Los Angeles Times, all but 26 inmates in the SHU were held on the grounds of the gang validation process. This gang validation process often keeps inmates in the SHU for six years during which they must not have any strikes against their record in terms of gang membership, though the recently released figures suggest that over half of SHU inmates do, for whatever reason, get an extended stay in the SHU, sometimes over two decades.
According to California Watch, CDCR is discussing possible “changes in the classification system used to determine which inmates are locked in the state’s controversial Security Housing Units. The move could mean more inmates are assigned to the windowless, isolated units but for shorter time periods, provided they participate in special programming and remain ‘disciplinary free.'” The CDCR actually plans to expand the “category of inmates who can be assigned to the Security Housing Units for ‘indeterminate terms.'” At the same time, it says it will “focus on inmates from any threat group who are involved in violent or ‘criminal enterprise-type’ behavior, and not prisoners who associate with active gang members but are not involved in serious infractions.”
California Watch quotes Attorney Charles Carbone, who has represented inmates in California’s SHUs and testified at the recent Assembly hearings. Carbone “says the plan could lead to improvements, but only if it is fully funded and implemented with close supervision by stakeholders outside the corrections system. Otherwise, Carbone says, the outcome simply could be more inmates locked in isolation.”
The latest statement from the hunger strike organizers in Pelican Bay’s SHU characterizes CDCR’s statements as “propaganda, lies, and vague double talk promises of change in time.” They continue: “SHU prisoners are dissatisfied with CDCR’s response to their formal complaint and (5) core demands, and therefore will continue to resist via peaceful protest indefinitely, until actual changes are implemented.”