Prison officials: Potential gang policy changes could shorten isolation time

The "Secure Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Julie Small/KPCC

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California prison officials have announced plans to revise policies for controlling prison gangs. Last week they said they want to refine criteria for deciding who poses a threat — and gets isolated in what’s called Security Housing Units or “the SHU.”

Inmates in the SHU are restricted to their cells 22.5 hours a day, allowed little contact with families, and no phone calls. Last July inmates in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison initiated a hunger strike to demand changes to the policies. Six thousand prisoners statewide joined the protest.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation labels inmates as “gang leaders” or “affiliates” based on a set of criteria that can include having a gang tattoo, socializing with gang members, and committing a gang crime. Once prison officials “affiliate” an inmate with a prison gang — that inmate can be sent to a security housing Unit. The minimum term is six years, unless the inmate “debriefs” by dropping the gang and telling prison officials all about it. Two thousand inmates in the SHU have opted to “debrief” — others fear retaliation.

Corrections Undersecretary Terri McDonald says the departments decided to offer inmates another way out: through good behavior.

“Our hope is it reduces our SHU gang population” McDonald said. "It’s designed to have inmates out programming and reduce the influence the gangs have on offenders.”

California houses roughly 4,000 inmates in the SHU. McDonald said under the new proposal inmates could earn their way to a less restrictive environment within four years and eventually return to the general population or to a protective custody yard.

But attorney Charles Carbone fears the proposed changes would result in more widespread use of the SHU within California's prisons.

“This can, if it’s implemented, vastly expand the number of California prisoners that are placed in solitary confinement, or our version of it, which is the Security Housing Unit.” Carbone said.

Carbone successfully challenged CDCR’s gang policies in court. He says the new plan broadens the definition of a gang to include street gangs or any group of more than two inmates deemed a threat to prison security. Carbonne says that’s a Catch-22 because the Department routinely labels inmates as street gang members based on their race and where they were committed when they enter prison. Carbone says the proposed changes would stigmatize even more prisoners with “erroneous labels.”

Roughly 4,000 California inmates are in the SHU. Most have been in for years, hundreds for over a decade.

If the new policy’s adopted prison officials have indicated they'd review all the inmates currently in the isolation units to see if they’re eligible for a step-down program.

Prison officials say they will wait to hear back from stakeholders before moving forward with the plan. Formal adoption of new regulations could take at least a year.