By Michael Montgomery
[original blog post available at CaliforniaWatch.org]
State corrections officials are moving forward with a major policy initiative that could improve conditions and reduce the length of time some inmates spend in controversial isolation units. The changes are being proposed amid threats of another hunger strike by inmates who spearheaded one last month at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The policy changes, which still are being worked out, are in line with proposals highlighted in an internal study completed in 2007 by a panel of experts appointed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to interviews and documents. The panel’s recommendations included:
- Moving to a conduct-based model that punishes inmates for tangible offenses, rather than for mere affiliation with a gang. This approach is widely used in other states and by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
- Ending the practice of indefinite detention of alleged prison gang members and associates in the Security Housing Units
- Ending the practice of automatically sending validated prison gang members and associates to the Security Housing Units
- Creating a “step-down” program inside the Security Housing Units to encourage positive behavior by offering incentives, such as special programs
- Ending the distinction between prison gangs and other threat groups to give the department more flexibility in determining inmate placement in the Security Housing Units
Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan said the department is doing more than conducting another assessment of current policy.
“I’m not talking about another study,” he said. “I’m talking about making some changes that make the process much more in tune and in line with national best practices. And that’s what the secretary is going to do.”
Kernan conceded there are “holes” in the department’s policies for gang management and its use of the Security Housing Units. He also said the state was wrong to deny some personal items to inmates housed in the special facilities.
“I think it’s a sign of strength that the department looked at that (Security Housing Unit policy) and was able to admit their mistakes and that we’re moving forward,” he said.
The policy overhaul could include substantive changes in gang validation criteria and the practice known as debriefing, which requires inmates to divulge gang secrets in order to return to a regular prison cell.
“We need to come up with a justifiable due-process validation process and debriefing process that makes sense and that’s consistent with the rest of the nation,” Kernan said.
Prison experts say California’s current policy is outdated, inefficient, legally vulnerable and often targets gang associates who do not pose a major security risk while leaving more dangerous inmates housed in the general prison population.
Inmate rights groups say the policies are inhumane, leaving some inmates languishing in isolation for decades. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have called on California to adopt practices used in other states, where inmates are locked in isolation only if they commit serious, tangible offenses and for fixed terms.
Kernan emphasized the changes are not a response to last month’s hunger strike and are aimed at improving security for inmates and staff. He said the department is taking a cautious approach and is not considering a mass release of inmates from the Security Housing Units into the general prison population.
“Any (policy) modification could very well result in serious spikes in violence in the system,” he said. “So we have to do this right.”
Kernan also said the changes would depend on the governor’s realignment plan being successfully implemented and would need buy-in from the Legislature, unions and other stakeholders.
Inmates and advocates said that during the hunger strike, Kernan spoke of major policy changes, but in a July 20 memo, he states only that the department was “reviewing” gang validation and debriefing policies. Department sources said the memo was intended to focus on “minor changes that did not require stakeholder review.”
Kernan is expected to testify Tuesday before the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee. The hearing was called in response to the inmate hunger strike.
During a media tour at Pelican Bay yesterday, acting Warden Greg Lewis declined to go into detail about the new policy and said any changes would move slowly.
“Change is like an aircraft carrier. It takes many miles to turn an aircraft carrier,” he said. “It (the plan) is going to be thoroughly vetted, thoroughly reviewed. And I foresee some change. I really do.”
Kernan is scheduled to meet strike leaders at Pelican Bay tomorrow, with Donald Specter, head of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. Kernan said he will inform inmates about the department’s long-term goals and will emphasize that it could take months to develop a detailed new policy for the Security Housing Units.
But within weeks, a new system could be in place to allow inmates in the Security Housing Units to earn privileges, such as phone calls to family members, craft items and exercise equipment, he said.
However, it remains unclear whether inmates will be swayed by the department’s new initiative. Pelican Bay inmate and hunger strike leader George Franco wrote a letter warning of new protests if corrections officials don’t move swiftly on changes.
“We’re only waiting to see if he (Kernan) will keep his word. If not, we will re-enact our hunger strike indefinitely and there is nothing they can say to any of us, period,” Franco wrote.
Franco’s entire letter, and accompanying documents, are included and transcribed below.
KQED has not verified facts in the letter, and note that CDCR Undersecretary’s name is Scott Kernan.
Here is a transcription of Mr. Franco’s letter:
Mr. Montgomery, I am in receipt of your postcard on ___ In a few words: he promised the whole five core demands. I thank you for taking the time out to write to me and it will be my pleasure to answer all your questions, because what we need out there more than anything is the truth.
Meeting 1: on 7-14-2011 we had our first negotiation with the CDCR secretary Scott Kerhan, it was me and three other negotiators. I personally represented the Mexican (Northern District – optional). Mr. Scott Kernan was very demanding and disrespectful towards us therefore, the negotiators went “no where” we explained to our mediation team what occurred and what to do as a result of this meeting.
Meeting II: on 7-18-2011, c/o Ellery approached one of the negotiators saying that he was sent down to ask the three negotiators if they would meet with Associate Warden K.I. McGuyer, Captain Wood, due to the New Afrikan negotiator being transferred early that morning on 7-18-2011 at 5:30 AM. We insisted that we would not go out to meet with them unless there was a New Afrikan representative. The c/o Ellery made several trips explaining our position. Then the associate warden K.L. McGuyer came down himself along with Captain Wood. They asked one of the negotiators would they agree to meet with undersecretary Scott Kernan, tomorrow on 7-19-2011, the negotiators said only if a substitute New Afrikan could take the place of the one you all transferred abruptly. He said yes!!
Meeting III: Did not take place on 7-19-2011, because Undersecretary Scott Kernan did not show up, but he did show up on 7-20-2011.
Meeting III: on 7-20-2011 in the board of prison term-room all four principal negotiators met face to face with Undersecretary Scott Kernan along with the following officials: Director George Giurbino, Warden G.D. Lewis, Associate Warden K.L. McGuyer, and eight COIS correctional officers.
The first thing Mr. Kernan, asked us to do is end the hunger strike and we said, we cannot do that without our five core demands being met, Mr. Kernan said its impossible for me to meet all of your five core demands with all that’s going on with the hunger strike. We said that we are making our sacrifice due to the 25 years of torturing and suffering we have endured. Mr. Kernan then said I agree with all of your five core demands, “everything you all asked for you should of received/had a long time ago,” but I cannot give you all five core demands over night.
Mr. Kernan, was very agitated/anxious, he then said I will give you all your five core demands, we said when, he said in two to three weeks I’ll come back up (from 7-20-2011) and we will progressively attack this but all five will be given. We said what can you give us right now? Before you come back up to implement 1 thru 5 he said you can have all of five. Many of us haven’t talked to our families in over 20 years and some in 10 to 40 yrs. Then he lied and propagated something else (i.e. calendar, proctor, and watch cap) this pissed everyone off but we remain united and ready. He did this to try and demoralize our support. But if he don’t keep his word all he did is played on CDCR administration. Because we’re only waiting to see if he will keep his word. If not we will reenact our hunger strike indefinitely and there is nothing they can say to any of us period.
CDCR Cate/Kernan, also put fake five core demands see enclosed memo he signed 7-20-2011. Also see our real five core demands that we “Pelican Bay human rights movement” stand by demands. It should be clear that we negotiators had a 3 ∏ hour meeting with Scott Kernan and his chronies.
In respects to changing (SHU) policy he said that they were already in the process of changing policy as to long term solitary confinement he’s a joke he even went so far to tell us “let’s keep our business between us we do not need no class action lawsuit we can rectify this ourselves.” Just prisoners and officials they’re attempting to exclude our mediation team. They CDCR said they’re moving from information base placement in solitary confinement to behavior/conduct placement into solitary confinement. But he said our five core demands will be implemented bottomline.
Note: I been in (SHU) on an indeterminate SHU since beginning of 1992. For conspiracy to commit harm to others safety. This info was given by informant(s). Every six yrs I could appear before a committee to see if I’m eligible for the six yrs. Non-active so that I can be sent to a mainline but before this six yr. period an institutional gang investigator (IGI) with search property in cell and for some reason will always use something a picture, drawing, pattern, address plus some so called valid info to use to extend the six yr non-active period all over again. It’s a cycle we all go through. If I choose to debrief: snitch-rat I would be let out to a mainline but that is not my belief. I would never have a person put in SHU. So like I said only option to get out of SHU is either snitch, die or parole.
The conditions/policies are so abused I was put on mail restriction meaning I have to appear before a special committee every 6 months with a list of names/addresses so they can consider having them put on my approved correspondence list. I was put on this mail restriction back in 5-18-2011. I was not given a writeup for any so called CDCR mail violations. This is another tactic IGI uses to cut off our communications with family, relatives, and friends. Us prisoners and our families, relatives, and friends are accused/penalized for so called conducting illegal/gang activities. Children to grandparents have been accused of such “?”.
Note: Please send copies of our original (5) core demands also a copy of Kernan’s non-sense (5) core demands. ‘Thank you.’ One more item of evidence to present to you this CDC 128-B chrono is what is given to us and a similar one to whoevers mail got stopped by CDCR. Shot caller press pertains to having inmates compete for a financial prize on best poems, stories, literature its harmless. You see on the left hand side all the little squares that IGI can use/abuse to cut off our communications. This tactic also scares off people to communicate with us further. This tactic also scares off people to communicate with us further. This tactic is abused it penalizes, violates peoples 1st amendment right. This form stated being used when the short corridor was established. All these different options can be fabricated for violations in order to have our mail stopped/confiscated. You can check with this shot caller press in Portland Or. To get a better insight of what they print. “This is it.”
Michael Montgomery is an investigative reporter with KQED and California Watch. Read more from California Watch here.