Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had begun the process of implementing reforms the Department has crafted over the past year addressing the long-term solitary confinement of gang members in the California prison system.
California currently holds over 3,000 inmates in segregation units due to being identified by prison officials as being members of “security threat groups,” or, criminal prison gangs. In California, prisoners validated as members of the Aryan Brotherhood, Texas Syndicate, Mexican Mafia, Northern Structure, Nuestra Familia, Black Guerilla Family, or the Nazi Lowriders have until recently been subject to indeterminate terms in segregated housing units. Three prisons in California–Pelican Bay State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, and California Correctional Institution (Tehachapi)–contain Security Housing Units, where validated prison gang members are subject to at least 22 1/2 hours of isolation in their 8×10, often windowless, cells a day. Until the recent reforms are fully implemented, in order to be released from the SHU, inmates must either engage in “snitching” on other gang members and renounce gang activity or serve six years in the SHU without any evidence of gang activity before being considered “inactive” and can be returned to the general population. Inmates in these units have significantly greater chances of committing suicide and the deleterious effects of sensory deprivation and isolation on inmates mental health has been heavily documented.
CDCR argues that these units are critical in maintaining security in prison institutions and preventing criminal activity in the prison system. However, critics of the current system of dealing with gang members, including Amnesty International, have argued that reforms to the system are needed. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, among others, has argued that prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture. The conditions of the SHU prompted two large scale hunger strikes in California in 2011, in which thousands of California SHU and general population prisoners refused food for three weeks in July and September/October. The strikes prompted the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee to hold a hearing on solitary confinement. In February 2012, in a smaller scale hunger strike at Corcoran State Prison, one inmate, Christian Gomez, died.
In March 2012, the California Department of Corrections announced a package of reforms to the Security Housing Unit. Among them was the creation of a Step Down Program, in which SHU inmates could transition out of solitary confinement and back into general population housing within four years, in a system of gradually lessened restrictions and greater incentives (e.g., greater property and out-of-cell time).
The CDCR also indicated that as part of reforms there would be a review of inmates in the SHU as to whether or not continued SHU placement was appropriate. According to the LA Times reporting, 88 inmates thus far have been reviewed as of January 4th. Of them, 51 were to be immediately removed from the SHU and placed in general population. Twenty-five others were to be placed in the Step Down Program, and the remaining dozen inmates were to remain in status-quo segregation.
Despite these reforms, there remains significant criticism of the CDCR, particularly from people in prison themselves. Inmate leaders of the 2011 hunger strikes have insisted that the reforms are inadequate, arguing that placement in segregation amounts to torture and that segregation should only be used as response to behavioral problems, not simply involvement in prison gangs. In a letter dated December 3rd, from inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU, it is stated that failure to address inmate concerns “will be deemed to be just cause for our collective resumption of our non-violent, peaceful protest action(s).”
This echoes letters written to Solitary Watch in prior months, among which one inmate in Corcoran SHU, who participated in the 2011 hunger strikes, wrote: “The reality is there is a significant number of us for whom death holds no real fear, in fact, in some ways—as an alternative to another few decades of this—it holds some appeal. If it becomes necessary to take up peaceful protest again—and it’s unfortunately looking that way—you may be writing a lot more Christian Gomez articles…”
Pending in federal court is a lawsuit filed in May 2012 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of prisoners held for longer than 10 years in California SHUs. Over 500 inmates in California have been in the SHU for longer than 10 years, and 78 for over 20 years.
The CDCR reforms can be read in full here.