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California prisons reform isolation units, but inmates say changes are cosmetic

SHU Bunk

Rina Palta, KPCC

A bunk in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. (August, 2011)

California state prison officials rolled out a pilot program that makes changes to isolation units but inmates claim the reforms don't go far enough.

In the summer of 2011, many Californians became acquainted with the term "Security Housing Unit" (SHU) for the first time. That July, thousands of inmates around the state went on a lengthy hunger strike to protest conditions in the SHU's. The protests eventually resulting in an agreement between inmates and prison officials to expedite reforms in the units. Prison officials say the most serious of those reforms are now in effect, on a pilot basis, in prisons across the state. 

SHU's are the most restrictive prison cells in the state, originally built to deal with the leadership of prison gangs that wreak havoc behind prison walls. Inmates in the SHU are generally housed in single cells for 22 1/2 hours a day, take exercise time alone in a concrete courtyard, and have far less program opportunities and human interaction than inmates in the general prison population. Some describe SHU's as  "solitary confinement" or "isolation cells," a characterization disputed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CCDR).

Hunger-striking inmates asked the state for small changes, like access to different clothing and meals, but also asked for something huge: A way out. 

While some inmates in the SHU have been given specific sentences, having committed a crime such as murder while behind bars, 3,100 inmates in the SHU, particularly in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, are serving indefinite terms there because they've been pegged as prison gang members or affiliates. Until now, the only way out for those inmates has been a process called "debriefing," where the inmate tells gang officers everything they know about prison gangs, potentially pegging other inmates for SHU assignments.

This process has been criticized for two reasons. First, inmates say they're reluctant to participate because it jeopardizes their safety to be pegged as a "snitch," and second, some say the CDCR's list of validated prison gangs is dated, meaning inmates with tattoos associated with 1960s era prison gangs might end up in the SHU while those who're actually calling the shots in prison remain in the general population.

The new reforms seek to address both those issues.

Under the new program, CDCR has replaced the concept of a "prison gang" with a "security threat group," a more broad category. And prison officials are reviewing the case files of each inmate currently housed in the SHU to determine if they really need to be there. Going forward, inmates identified merely as security threat group associates (meaning, gang members but not gang leaders) will not be eligible for the SHU unless they have disciplinary issues. 

But the inmates who led the 2011 hunger strike are not optimistic about the reforms. In a letter dated October 10, 2012, and sent to a number of media outlets, four Pelican Bay SHU inmates wrote that officials remain "committed to keeping thousands of prisoners in costly SHU/Ad-Seg isolation cells for decades, solely based on status rather than a chargeable, charged offense and a finding of guilt for serious misconduct." 

They point out that at the minimum, the new policy still requires inmates to spend four years in a SHU before they have a chance of getting out, and the step-down program may still involve debriefing.

CDCR Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton says inmates may not have to start at the first step, so they may get out of the SHU in less than 3-4 years. 

The pilot program expires in two years, at which point the CDCR will have to decide whether or not to codify the new rules, meaning they'd need to go through an extensive public comment period. 

This story has been updated. 

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