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

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

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.

People get to the SHU one of two ways: either they've committed a new crime while in prison (like assault or murder); or they're deemed prison gang members or "affiliates." Those convicted of a crime serve a fixed sentence, those in the SHU because of gang affiliations are kept there indefinitely. Currently, Pelican Bay's SHU has 1,128. In August 2011, Warden Greg Lewis said about 95 percent of SHU inmates were serving indefinite terms.

Currently, the way back to a lower level cell for these inmates is a process called "debriefing," which amounts to telling prison officials everything the inmate knows about prison gangs. Inmates can also get out if they demonstrate having no gang activity for six years. 

On a press tour of Pelican Bay last year, prison officials said debriefing allows them to know the inmate is no longer a gang threat and also provides useful information in dealing with a major prison problem. Restricted communications—which officals say does not amount to "solitary confinement"—is used to keep gang "shot callers" from passing on orders and information to subordinates. 

Last July, inmates in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, the state's highest security prison started a hunger strike that spread into prisons throughout the state. They complained about food and access to programs in the SHU, but their major complaint was the debriefing process, which they say puts a target on their backs and essentially uses "solitary confinement" to coerce them for information. 

At the time, then-CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan travelled to Pelican Bay to meet with leaders of the hunger strike and reached a tentative compromise, including an agreement by the state to reexamine its process for labelling inmates "gang members" and to reexamine its debriefing process.

In an email Thursday, CDCR Press Secretary Jeffrey Callison said that the process for reforming the SHUs has been underway for years, and described the planned new gang management system as "behavior based." Callison said "it will use a weighted system for the offender validation process and will create a Step-Down Program to provide a process for offenders to demonstrate their ability to refrain from criminal gang behavior and to prepare them for housing in a less restrictive environment." He also said, "CDCR will increase privileges for inmates housed in a Security Housing Unit (SHU) who refrain from criminal gang behavior."

Callison declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Thursday, on a call with press, Jules Lobel, president of the CCR and lead attorney on the new suit, said changes have not come quickly enough. The case, Ruiz v. Brown, will center around claims that the SHU at Pelican Bay violates the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and "that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process."

The issue has come up before in federal court in California. The 1990 case Madrid v. Gomez challenged conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison, exposing abuses and the prison and prompting over a decade of reform there. Lobel said while the court said there was nothing unconstitutional about using SHUs for shorter periods, like 2 or 3 years, the issue of prolonged use of SHUs, for years and decades, is not an issue that's reached federal court in California before.

Note: This post has been updated with most recent SHU population numbers.