In 2011, thousands of California state prisoners engaged in a hunger strike to end long term solitary confinement and to demand changes to the way that prisoners are assigned to these torturous units, known as SHUs (security housing units). The corrections department (CDCR) agreed to make changes, which it rolled out in November, 2012. CDCR’s public relations strategy is to persuade lawmakers, judges and the general public that its new program is a vast improvement . However, the new program keeps most of the objectionable elements of the old program and adds some new elements which make it even worse.
The Step Down Program: a new way to perpetuate long term solitary confinement: Under the old rules, the only way to get out of the SHU was to “parole, snitch or die”, or be found “inactive” as a gang member or associate (a rare finding). The new policy offers a new way out: the Step Down Program, a 4 step program which takes a minimum of three or four years. The first 2-3 years are spent in solitary confinement, with no education or other programming. The prisoner is required to demonstrate “progress” by, among other things, filling out workbooks showing changed attitudes. The one workbook we have seen is condescending and judgmental. Whether a prisoner progresses to the next step is a discretionary decision; a prisoner can also be sent back to an earlier step. As a result, release from the SHU is still a discretionary and arbitrary decision of prison administrators; lifetime solitary confinement remains possible.
Coerced secret evidence: alive and well: The hated “debriefing” program remains alive and well under the new rules. Under this program, a SHU prisoner can get out of the SHU by confessing his/her own gang involvement and identifying other prisoners’ gang involvement. This information is used to place other prisoners in the SHU or retain them there. Targeted prisoners are not entitled to know who has named them, or the specifics of the accusation. It is almost impossible to defend oneself against secret charges.
Guilt by association: alive and well: Under the old policies, prisoners were assigned a six year SHU term for simply being affiliated (as a member or associate) with a prison gang. The prisoner did not have to break any prison rule. Prisoners were validated for possessing art work or political readings, signing a greeting card, exercising with other prisoners or saying hello to another prisoner. Under the new rules, this same evidence can be used to prove a prisoner is a member, and membership alone justifies a SHU term.
New disciplinary program: association evidence becomes cite-able behavior: Under the old rules, possessing certain artwork or literature was used as evidence of gang association. Prisoners and advocates objected, saying that SHU placement should only be for gang behavior. CDCR’s responded in its new program by labeling such evidence as gang “behavior” in its new rules. Guards can now cite prisoners for rules violations for possessing these items and punishment can be imposed. Citations for serious rules violations (115s) can extend prisoners’ SHU term and harm their chance of being paroled.
Widening the net: Under the old policies, a prisoner could be placed in the SHU for affiliation with any of seven prison gangs. Under the new rules, any grouping of three or more prisoners can be added to the list as a “security threat group”, membership in which can result in a SHU term. The coining of this new provocative term, with nuanced reference to terrorism, is deeply troubling; the expansion of the SHU-eligible population is of grave concern.
Rubber-stamping: alive and well: Although CDCR has inserted a new stage of review for SHU placements, this review is still within the confines of the prison system, where the dominant culture is to rubber-stamp the gang unit’s decisions. CDCR has not changed its culture. Publicly and internally, CDCR still considers SHU prisoners to be “the worst of the worst” and continues to justify the SHU’s torturous conditions as necessary for the “safety and security of the institution.” Independent oversight is necessary to curtail CDCR’s excesses.
Re-evaluations of current SHU prisoners : shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic: As part of the resolution of the 2011 hunger strikes, CDCR agreed to re-evaluate the SHU placement of current SHU prisoners, using its new criteria. CDCR is reviewing associates first and reports that over half of its initial reviews are resulting in assignments to general population. This reclassification is a huge victory and is proof of the unfairness of the old SHU policies, but is no proof of fairness of the new policies. While we celebrate each prisoner’s return to general population, there is no guarantee that these prisoners will not be returned to the SHU in the future. Meanwhile, each prisoner’s SHU cell will immediately be filled by another prisoner. CDCR has no plans to reduce SHU beds.
Too little has changed for California prisoners under CDCR’s “new and improved” gang management policy. Other strategies would be more successful in addressing the concerns about prison gangs. In 2012, SHU prisoners themselves issued a call to end hostilities between prisoner groups, which has resulted in reduced prisoner violence throughout the prison system. Expansion of educational and vocational opportunities inside all prisons, as the prisoners are demanding, would reduce conflict and stress. We call on all people of good will to support the prisoners’ demands.
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