At hearing, prison officials says Pelican Bay isolation policies will change

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Julie Small/KPCC

Demonstrators protested outside the state capitol against the California Department of Corrections' policies of isolating inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison on Tuesday, August 23, 2011.

California prisons have isolated gang bosses in stark conditions for years, sometimes for decades. But last month’s inmate hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border has prompted a review of the way dangerous inmates are housed. And now a top state prison official has told Sacramento lawmakers to expect changes.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation locks up more than 3,000 inmates in Security Housing Units or “SHUs.” They spend nearly 23 hours a day in their cells. Scott Kernan, the corrections undersecretary for operations, told a legislative hearing Wednesday that most of the inmates in the SHU are gang leaders who terrorized other prisoners and staff.

"Murders, extortion, rape, drugs are examples of the criminal activity that required the department to do something," he said.

Four hundred thirty five inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison have been in the SHU for more than a decade. Seventy-eight have been in for more than two decades. The only way out of the SHU is to renounce the gang. Inmates call that policy “torture.”

"I felt myself literally losing my mind," said Jerry Elster at a rally on the capitol before the hearing.

Elster spent years in and out of solitary confinement at the California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi where he was serving time for second degree murder.

"I started hallucinating, y’know, I started hearing voices, I felt real, real alone and the depression was just beginning to close in on me," he said.

Undersecretary Kernan met with inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU who went on a hunger strike last month to demand changes. He promised lawmakers a “substantial change” to SHU policies that could be initiated "in the short term."

"The process would permit inmates to earn their way out of the system by their behavior. And it would require the department to document when that is not the case," he said.

Kernan says corrections will continue to use confidential sources to determine who runs the gangs, and who gets sent to the SHU.

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