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California’s prison system weighs changes to solitary confinement

The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 10 September 2006.
The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 10 September 2006.

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At any given time, roughly 12,000 inmates in California prisons spend their time in isolated units with little opportunity for human contact. Inmates assigned to Security Housing Units - or SHUs - have been deemed  too violent to be placed in general population and can spend up to 23 hours a day in isolation. Violations that can place an inmate in the SHU include prison gang affiliations, attacks on prison staff and violent mental health issues.

Last summer, prisoners staged a widespread hunger strike in protest of conditions inside the SHUs and the often vague timelines for getting out. Many of the prisoners have been kept in isolation for years, or even decades.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, has been working on some changes for how prison officials identify gang members and sentence them to isolation.

The CDCR is also incorporating a "step-down" program, that allows inmates to reintegrate into the general prison population from isolation within three to four years.

State legislators have cast doubt on the proposals, saying they don't go far enough to address the system's fundamental problems.

Why does California house so many inmates in isolation? What are Security Housing Units used for and how can they be reformed? Do the CDCR’s proposals go far enough to address the big picture?


Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley and chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee

Scott Kernan,  Retired Undersecretary of Operations, California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Margo Schlanger, professor of law at the University of Michigan