Last year hundreds of inmates staged two hunger strikes that spread to 13 prisons in California. The prisoners were protesting conditions in super-maximum security units known as SHUs, where a majority of state prisoners are held in extreme isolation for alleged ties to prison gangs.
Last week, the State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a new set of policies aimed at overhauling how these units are managed, what prisoners are sent there, and how long they’re held in isolation.
The changes were spelled out in a Dept of Corrections document, embedded here and below.
We asked KQED’s Michael Montgomery, a longtime reporter of California prison issues, to annotate a key section of the document, cracking open some of the bureaucratic language to reveal the harsh isolation and deprivation in which some prisoners have been housed, as well as the rewards they are now being offered to toe the line and potentially exit these most restrictive of conditions. Rewards that, to a person at liberty, may seem poignantly meager or even absurd, but ones that the California Department of Corrections & Rehabiliation thinks will be incentive enough to coax good behavior.
Here is the crux of the policy. Click on the “view explanation” link to be taken to Montgomery’s analysis:
The SDP will establish an incentive based multi-step process for the management of STG offenders. This program will assign, transition, and monitor offenders who by their behavior have demonstrated the need for CDCR’s utilization of special strategies for their management. This program is designed for STG offenders who require structured activities and programming, who choose to discontinue criminal activity. Additionally, it affords offenders the opportunity to earn enhanced privileges proportionate to their ability to reintegrate and effectively interact with others. As an alternative to the SDP, offenders may choose to participate in the debriefing process at any time. As part of the program development, an assessment will be conducted to determine additional resource needs. CDCR will seek resources where available, to assist with this effort. View explanation
The STG SDP shall be normally completed in five steps and provides a process for offenders engaged in STG behavior to demonstrate their ability to refrain from criminal gang behavior, preparing them for return to a general population, or SNY program setting. The initial four steps are generally designed to be completed within 48 months. The fifth step which consists of observation and monitoring of behavior within the general population or SNY will normally be completed within the 12 months following Step 4. Each step will consist of programs and privileges that increase as the offender progresses through the SDP… View explanation
Participants in Steps 1, 2 and 3 will be reviewed by ICC at least every 180 days for evaluation of program participation. If, during the ICC review, it is determined that the offender has participated in the required programs for successful step completion, the offender may be considered for placement into the next successive step. Participants in Step 4 shall be reviewed by ICC at least every 90 days. The successful completion of each step will require a minimum of 12 months program participation. View explanation
SDP is the “Step-Down Program,” the type of carrot-and-stick system that has been used in other states to encourage inmates to change negative behavior, including violent conflicts with members of other races or prison groups.
The program would be set up to gradually give prisoners more “privileges” in exchange for following the rules. In addition to refraining from participating in gang activity and, presumably, committing racially motivated offenses, they will be be expected to take part in educational, self-help or anger management classes of the type offered to prisoners in the mainstream population, most likely alone in their cells.
The rewards component consists of things like phone calls, exercise equipment (currently prohibited), freedom from physical restraints, and the ability to participate in group activities.
Currently SHU inmates are almost always shackled when outside their cells, and inmates who successfully work their way through to the 3rd year of the new Step-Down Program will be afforded the privilege of being unshackled around other inmates. By the 4th year, they would be able to eat meals with other inmates “unrestrained.”
Other rewards: By the end of the 1st year, an inmate would be allowed one phone call home; that number increases to two by the second year. At the end of the 1st year, an inmate would also be allowed to send one photograph home.
The “STG” that is mentioned stands for “Security Threat Group,” made up of prison gangs and other prohibited groups. The number of groups whose members could face enhanced SHU terms is being widened under the new plan to include street gangs like the Crips and Bloods. This expansion of red-flagged groups is one reason prison advocates are worried that the new policy may actually result in an increase in the SHU population.
The “debriefing process” cited in the document refers to what is commonly called snitching. Inmates have felt that once you’re in the SHU as a gang member, the only way you can exit is to inform on other inmates. The corrections department says currently there is another way out of the SHU — refraining from any gang-related activity for six years. Under the new regulations, inmates will be able to work their way out of the SHU without explicitly renouncing any gang, though they will have to prove that they no longer take part in gang-related activities, can mix with inmates from other racial and ethnic groups, etc.
The SNY program cited here refers to “Sensitive Needs Yard.” The term refers to housing for prisoners who are vulnerable to assault, including gang dropouts and convicted pedophiles, child murderers and rapists.
The timeline laid out indicates that the minimum amount of time a prisoner can spend in a SHU is four years, unless he agrees to inform. That’s down from a six-year minimum.
However, Michael Montgomery says, a close reading of the proposal indicates that prisoners who are in the SHU facility at Pelican Bay, home of the notorious windowless isolation cells where last year’s prisoner strike started, would have to be transferred out of those units in two years, as they don’t include areas where inmates could participate in group activities unrestrained.
Many penal experts say two years should be the limit for solitary confinement. It may be that the department is seeking to reduce the time that inmates who are participating in the program spend in the SHU due to legal concerns associated with long-term isolation.
The new policy refers to refraining from “criminal gang behavior” as a prerequisite to reentering the mainstream prison population. This is a move toward the national norm within penitentiaries, in which isolation is restricted to those who have committed criminal offenses, as opposed to the loosely defined “gang affiliation” that has landed many inmates in California SHUs. Out of 3,100 inmates in isolation units, 2,000 have been labeled as gang “associates.” The department says it will do a case-by-case review of these so-designated prisoners, in consideration for transfer to less isolated units.
The new criteria may prevent inmates like Ernesto Lira from winding up in isolation. As reported by Montgomery last year, Lira was serving a sentence for drug possession in a low-security prison when he was sent to Pelican Bay for an “indeterminate” term because authorities contended he was an associate of a violent Latino group known as Nuestra Raza. Lira was never accused of doing anything tangible for the group, and the key piece of evidence against him was a drawing found in his locker that allegedly contained gang symbols. He eventually won a judgment in U.S. District Court against the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in part for psychological damage he suffered while locked in isolation.
The Step Down Program requires that an “Institutional Classification Committee” (ICC) evaluate a prisoner’s progress every 180 days in the first three years of the program in order to make a determination as to whether the prisoner can advance to the next step. Prisoner rights advocates have long argued these committees are rubber stamps for prison authorities and that prisoners do not receive a legitimate review.
So a big question for prisoner advocates around the new policy is whether these committees will be redirected to consider more information favorable to a prisoner’s case.