Prison officials tout changes in security unit policies, but inmate advocates aren't convinced

The exercise yard at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The exercise yard at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Source: Department of Corrections

Officials with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told a state legislative committee that they've begun moving some inmates held for long stretches in high security housing units back into the general prison population.

CDCR Deputy Director Michael Stainer told the Assembly Public Safety Committee that out of 144 reviews of inmates, CDCR determined that 75 could be safely released from Security Housing Units - or "SHUs" - into the general population. Another 52 inmates are eligible for a new "step down" program that spells out how inmates can earn their way out of SHUs.

Corrections officials began reviewing the cases of SHU inmates last October as part of a pilot program to reform gang management policies.

But Stainer also said most inmates held in SHUs had earned their way in because they “demonstrated their inability to be safely integrated with other offenders mainly by way of violence against staff or other inmates.”

"Step down" program

California isolates 3,800 inmates from the general prison population. Four state prisons have SHUs, among them Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border.

Inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU call it “the hell hole.” They spend 22 1/2 hours a day inside their cells. They get 90 minutes a day to shower or to exercise inside a concrete yard with high walls that allow no direct sunlight. 

Stainer said 2,400 inmates held indefinitely in SHUs had been identified as affiliates of prison gangs that he described as “some of the most dangerous, predatory and sophisticated criminal organizations in the nation.” 

But prisoners and their advocates told lawmakers that CDCR has no proof to back up that claim. They said the department's recent review of SHU inmates that allowed dozens to move into the general prison population shows past determinations were wrong about many inmates held in the high security units.

CDCR's creation of a "step down" program was among the demands made by SHU inmates during a hunger strike by hundreds of prisoners at Pelican Bay in 2011. The strike to protest conditions spread to 6500 inmates statewide, and was among the largest inmate protests in state history.

Previous CDCR policy offered SHU inmates a switch to the general prison population if they renounced gang membership and told prison officials all they knew about their gang. CDCR called the process “debriefing," but inmates called it “snitching” and claimed it put them and their families at risk.

Prisoner advocates doubt progress

The inmates ended their strike after Corrections officials promised to review gang management policies and to provide SHU inmates with access to education, art materials and exercise equipment.

Stainer told the committee that CDCR has revised gang management regulations and is waiting for formal approval of the changes. He said 1,100 SHU inmates are now enrolled in education courses. SHU inmates can also earn additional privileges - including permission to send a photo to family members or make a personal phone call once a year.

Prisoner family members and advocates who testified at the hearing called the improvements superficial. They want the department to end long term isolation of all prisoners, something they call a form of torture.

Laura Magnani with the American Friends Service Committee asked the legislature to cap the length of stays in SHU.

“We need to think seriously about what we’re doing to people,” she said.

Irene Huerta read a letter from her husband Gabriel, one of the Pelican Bay inmates who led the hunger strike in 2011. In his letter, Huerta - who's been in the isolation since 1986 and is currently in the Pelican Bay SHU - wrote that life in the unit is "like being locked in the trunk of a car with just enough weather stripping removed so you can breathe. And enough food and water stuffed in so you can physically survive.”

Assemblyman and committee chair Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) convened the hearing a couple weeks after he toured Pelican Bay State Prison. He said he gave CDCR credit for making changes in SHU policies, but he also said this wouldn’t be the last hearing on the matter.