Advocacy Groups Wary of New Plan for Prison Isolation Units

The units to be modified house 3,000 of the system's most dangerous criminals.

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    TK
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    A view of the California State Prison at San Quentin. There are four special units that house dangerous criminals that are slated to be modified.

    State corrections officials are moving forward with a plan for handling prison gangs and other violent groups, including changing rules that have kept some inmates locked in special isolation units for decades. 

    But the initiative is raising concern among prisoner rights advocates and some experts who worry that it will do little to improve stark conditions or cut the backlog of inmates awaiting placement into the units.

    “There’s nothing I can see in this policy that will change the flow of inmates into these very expensive facilities,” said David Ward, a retired University of Minnesota sociologist who served on an influential 2007 expert panel appointed by the state to study how California manages prison gangs.

    At issue are California’s four Security Housing Units, which are designed to isolate the state’s most dangerous inmates, including those connected to violent prison gangs. The units routinely have been denounced as inhumane by civil rights groups and were the focus of widespread hunger strikes last year.

    Early next month, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will begin modifying operations in the special units under a plan that has been in development for more than a year. The department has asserted that nearly all 3,000 inmates being held in the facilities – at Pelican Bay State Prison, California State Prison Corcoran, the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi and California State Prison Sacramento – are active in prison gangs.

    “We've had years of violence in our facilities and in the community that have been driven by prison gangs," said Terri McDonald, the department's undersecretary of operations. "We're going to implement this policy in a thoughtful, measured way to ensure institutional and community security."

    Formal changes to state regulations could take several years, she said. In the meantime, the department is implementing the policy on a pilot basis.

    Under the plan, inmates are eligible to work their way out of the special units in three to four years if they complete special programs alongside prisoners from rival groups and do not engage in gang “behavior or activities.” McDonald said inmates will not be required to divulge inside information about the gangs in order to earn transfers out of the units, a controversial practice known as “debriefing.”

    Other changes include new criteria to determine who can be sent to the units.

    Under current rules, an inmate is automatically placed in a Security Housing Unit if he is identified as a member or associate of one of seven prison gangs. According to a policy draft released by the corrections department in March, prison gang associates would be sent to isolation units only if they were “engaged in serious criminal gang behavior or a pattern of violent behavior.” The department also would target dangerous members of any group considered a threat to prison security, including street gangs and extremist groups.

    The changes will give prison staff more flexibility in dealing with a range of “security threat groups,” according to an Aug. 30 corrections department notice sent to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the powerful union representing prison guards.

    The new policies will put California more closely in line with “recognized national standards and strategies,” staving off the “inevitable litigation and court mandated changes the State would face by remaining exclusively reliant on the current … system,” according to the document.

    But revisions in a June 29 corrections document obtained by California Watch suggest that officials are moving away from the narrower focus on specific criminal or violent acts. Rather, they appear to be reviving controversial guidelines that have allowed authorities to send inmates to the special units for violations such as gang-related tattoos and drawings.

    The updated version of the policy relies on a number of factors to determine whether an inmate already identified as an associate of a security threat group would be placed in isolation – roughly two-thirds of the inmates currently in the special units are classified as associates. In addition to violent acts such as murder and assault, prison officials would consider an inmate’s disciplinary record, including:

    • Security threat group-related tattoos and/or body markings
    • Clothing worn “with the intent to intimidate, promote membership or depict affiliation in a security threat group”
    • The leading or incitement of a disturbance, riot or strike
    • Possession of artwork showing security threat group symbols
    • Use of hand signs, gestures, handshakes and slogans that specifically relate to a security threat group

    Advocacy groups have long complained that the evidence used by the corrections department, like tattoos and drawings, often is vague and inaccurate. They also say the process does not always identify men involved in violent or illegal acts.

    "The department's approach continues to be guilt by association," said Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office.

    But McDonald said the guidelines are a useful tool in identifying high-risk inmates active in violent gangs.

    "When you put a gang tattoo on your body, you are saying to the inmate community, 'I'm a member of this gang; I represent the values of this gang.'  It's a purposeful act," she said. "You're propagating gang behavior in the prisons, and you're creating a risk to the institution and the community."

    Still, McDonald said she expects some inmates now being held in the special units could qualify for transfer under the new policy.

    A special committee already has begun to review the case files of nearly every inmate at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit using the department's new gang-related disciplinary criteria. The first reviews could be finished next month, after officials complete a visit to Pelican Bay.

    “I believe there will be inmates who are reviewed in the case-by-case reviews … who, based on their willingness not to be engaged in gang behavior, will be released out to a general-population prison setting,” McDonald said.

    She said that initially, the reviews will focus on inmates who have been held in the special units the longest. According to department data released last year, some 500 prisoners have been locked in isolation for more than a decade.

    Charles Carbone, a prominent prisoner rights attorney, said the new policy lacks credibility, and it would be difficult for the department to persuade inmates to participate in the programs.

    “The promised reforms are a power grab,” he said. “They give the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation more authority and power to track more prisoners for gang activity and to place, ultimately, more in supermax prison settings. This is not a scaling back of supermax prisons as is being done in other states.”

    In May, lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of Pelican Bay inmates who have served more than 10 years in the prison’s Security Housing Unit, claiming their prolonged isolation in windowless cells violated due process and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. A federal judge has scheduled a case management conference for December.

    View this story on California Watch

    This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.