Southern California breaking news and trends

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).

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Civil rights group sues California over the state's Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison

SHU Bunk

Rina Palta, KPCC

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

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed suit in federal court Thursday on behalf of California prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Units, the most isolated, restrictive prison cells in the state. 

Inmates in the SHU (pronounced "shoo") spend 22 and a half hours in their cells each day and have more limited access to other prisoners, visitors, and programming than inmates in the general population. They're mostly kept one person to each cell and exercise once a day in a concrete, enclosed space. 

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials have said that conditions in the SHU are admitedly restrictive, but with good reason. SHUs are CDCR's primary method for combatting prison gangs, which they say wreak havoc on the prison population and have close ties to criminal street gangs.

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