Facing a federal lawsuit, state corrections officials are moving forward with a plan to transfer hundreds of alleged prison gang members from controversial isolation units to regular lockups around the state.
The first group of 45 inmates will be removed from the state’s Security Housing Units in the coming weeks, said Kelly Harrington, associate director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He said some of the inmates have spent more than 20 years locked in the special units.
“The priority has been to look at individuals who have been in the Security Housing Units the longest,” he said. “The goal is to reduce the number of inmates in the security housing units as safely as possible.”
As part of a new policy announced earlier this year, the inmates are not being required to renounce the gangs or snitch on other members, a practice known as “debriefing.” Instead, the prisoners must show they are no longer involved in gang-related activity as defined by new departmental guidelines.
Another 21 inmates will be placed in a “step-down” program that focuses on improving behavior and reintegrating inmates into the general prison population. Harrington said inmates could pass through the program within four years.
Since October, corrections officials have reviewed the files of 77 inmates currently housed in five security housing units, including 16 prisoners being held at Pelican Bay State Prison, the focus of a class-action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and several other legal organizations on behalf of 10 inmates.
The suit claims that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for placement in the Security Housing Units violates the prisoners’ right to due process.
The lawsuit alleges that…
California’s uniquely harsh regime of prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay is inhumane and debilitating. Plaintiffs and class members languish, typically alone, in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell, for 22 and one-half to 24 hours a day. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. Defendants persistently deny these men the normal human contact necessary for a person’s mental and physical well-being. These tormenting and prolonged conditions of confinement have produced harmful and predictable psychological deterioration among Plaintiffs and class members.
Corrections officials insist conditions at Pelican Bay are humane and have withstood legal challenges. Now, they are trying to show that no inmate will spend more than four years in the special unit unless he is actively involved in gangs. Officials hope to complete the review of nearly a thousand cases within the next six months.
In February, a federal judge is expected to rule on a motion to dismiss the suit.