Support SF BayView
Donate or Subscribe to SF Bay View
Follow Us Twitter Facebook

California Assembly reviews solitary confinement policies as prisoners threaten new hunger strike

February 27, 2013

by Sal Rodriguez

On Monday, Feb. 25, the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, chaired by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, held a hearing on the state’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). The hearing comes 18 months after the committee held a similar hearing prompted by a three-week long hunger strike in June 2011 that involved thousands of California prisoners across the state.

Calif. Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing on SHUs 022513 by Sheila Pinkel, web
Every seat was filled for the California Assembly Public Safety Committee’s historic hearing on SHUs Feb. 25, and dozens more watched on TV in an overflow room. – Photo: Sheila Pinkel
The 2011 hearing, which was followed by an additional three-week long hunger strike in September and October 2011, lead to significant attention on the controversial SHU system. Chief among the demands of the hunger strikers was an end to long term solitary confinement and the controversial gang validation process. Corrections officials have officially stated that reforms first announced in March 2012 were considered and crafted independently of the demands of the hunger strikers.

Monday’s hearing focused on the implementation of new CDCR policies and considerations of their appropriateness.

In California, prisoners determined (“validated”) by prison investigators (Institutional Gang Investigators, or IGI) to be members or associates of one of seven prison gangs are placed in a SHU at one of three prisons: Pelican Bay State Prison, Corcoran State Prison and Tehachapi State Prison. Prisoners in the SHU typically spend 22 1/2 hours in solitary confinement, being allowed out for exercise and showering on an infrequent basis. At Pelican Bay State Prison, a SHU cell has been described as a “small cement prison cell. Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet … You can’t move more than 8 feet in one direction.”

Currently, over 3,000 prisoners in California are held in a SHU. More are held in Administrative Segregation Units (Ad Seg), which are designed similarly to the SHU, pending openings of SHU cells. Prisoners validated as gang members or associates have been held for indeterminate terms in the SHU, with over 500 prisoners having spent over 10 years in isolated confinement and over 70 prisoners having spent over 20 years in the SHU.

Until recently, the policies around SHU confinement of gang validated prisoners required that prisoners prove that they have not been active in gang activity for six years, or they must “snitch” on fellow prisoners in order to be transferred out of the SHU.

Monday’s hearing focused on the implementation of new CDCR policies and considerations of their appropriateness.

At Monday’s hearing, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Deputy Director in charge of the Division of Adult Institutions Michael Stainer defended the gang validation as a necessary component to institutional and public safety. It was argued that restricted housing is necessary to curtail the ability of gang leaders to continue to operate their criminal enterprises, order murders and orchestrate attacks within the prisons and on the streets.

Also at issue have been the criteria used for gang validation. As the August 2011 hearing revealed, prisoners may be validated for reasons ranging from the use of “confidential informants” to possession of reading materials. The latter has been noted, for Black prisoners, to lead to SHU terms in part for possession of Black nationalist literature and writings pertaining to deceased California prisoner George Jackson, founder of the Black Guerilla Family, the sole Black prison “gang” that leads to indeterminate SHU terms.

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, a vocal critic of CDCR policy at the 2011 hearing, commented that as an African-American with tattoos who reads political literature, even she could be validated as a gang member and thus a security threat under the criteria currently in place.

Lobby Day after Assembly SHU hearing 022613 by Sheila Pinkel, web
The day after the hearing was Lobby Day. Dolores Canales of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement reports: “CFASC had a very productive day lobbying with CURB and bringing up the hearing and the issue of solitary confinement. It was surprising to hear how many legislators were in their offices watching the hearing. Sen. Ron Calderon said they have “never seen a hearing like the one yesterday” and “it was the talk of the offices; everyone was talking about it.” “A lot of light was shed.” – Photo: Sheila Pinkel
Assemblyman Ammiano also critiqued the current process on the grounds that the current system of gang validation is conducted completely internally by individual prisons, without independent oversight. CDCR Associate Director Kelly Harrington explained that while the process is internal, it does constitute effective due process.

In March 2012, the CDCR announced that it was in the process of crafting new policy for the SHU. Chief among the new proposals has been the creation of a Step Down Program, in which prisoners in the SHU may transition out of the SHU over a four year period of gradually increasing privileges, such as visitation and out-of-cell time.

Further, CDCR has announced a review of all prisoners in the SHU to determine whether or not it is necessary to keep them confined there. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that, as of Feb. 21, 144 SHU prisoners had been reviewed and that 78 had been transferred to the general population, while an additional 52 were to be placed in the Step Down Program.

Asked how long the reviews of all SHU prisoners is expected to take, Stainer replied that it would take a “few years.”

Prisoner Terrance White, incarcerated in Ad Seg at North Kern State Prison, told the San Francisco Bay View in late December 2012 that prison officials appeared to be slowing down the rate of gang validations, clearing prisoners to have cell mates and releasing prisoners to general population.

When asked if the fact that so many prisoners have been released from the SHU means there is an underlying flaw with the current process, Stainer denied this.

Among CDCR’s revised policies is a change to the point system that enables prisoners to be validated as gang members or associates. Formerly, the point system made it possible to be placed in the SHU, for example, for a combination of a confidential informant telling prison investigators that a prisoner is a gang member plus drawings and tattoos. The revised policies, according to CDCR, made the process of “source items” more strict and demanding.

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, a vocal critic of CDCR policy at the 2011 hearing, commented that as an African-American with tattoos who reads political literature, even she could be validated as a gang member and thus a security threat under the criteria currently in place.

Assemblyman Ammiano asked, “In the new rules, aren’t you using the same kinds of evidence to gang validate – tattoos, art, books?” He went on to comment that the revised “point system seems even worse than the old system.”

Attorney Charles Carbone, who has litigated on behalf of SHU prisoners and testified at the 2011 hearing, blasted the CDCR’s revised policies. Carbone argued that the revised system allows for an expanded definition of gang activity and thus would make it easier for prisoners to be placed in the SHU. He specifically commented that refusal to make one’s bed or possessing artwork may be factored into the consideration of placing prisoners in the SHU.

Pelican Bay SHU 'The Morgue' by Michael David Russell, web
This is the view of the Pelican Bay SHU by a man who is spending his 23rd year there and calls it “The Morgue.” – Drawing: Michael David Russell, C-90473, PBSP SHU D7-217, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532.
Prisoners have been skeptical of the reforms. In an undated letter published by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition on Feb. 14, 2013, hunger strike leaders announced that they were planning to launch a work stoppage and hunger strike starting on July 8 if CDCR did not comply with various demands. The prisoners, said by CDCR to be high ranking members of the Black Guerilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia, reiterated their 2011 demands for an end to solitary confinement, improved nutrition and educational opportunities and listed dozens more demands.

Several family members of prisoners in the SHU spoke at the hearing, including Marie Levin, sister of SHU prisoner Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, who was deemed a member of the Black Guerilla Family over two decades ago. Levin testified that her brother, like many others in the SHU, is a threat to no one and echoed concerns that the current policies may only serve to keep her brother in segregation at Pelican Bay. Jamaa is among a few Pelican Bay SHU prisoners who has a cellmate, Mutope Duguma, though both report that they have been in solitary confinement for far longer periods of time. They share a cell designed for only one prisoner.

Michelle Martinez spoke of her husband, who has been incarcerated for 31 years, and has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay for 26 years. Martinez stated that prisoners and even prison guards have not observed the implementation of revised policies. She recalls that her husband asked a perplexed corrections officer why he had not been reviewed yet, despite the fact that he had spent so long in the SHU and should have been among the first to be reviewed. Martinez expressed doubts that the current system will change.

Irene Huerta testified on behalf of her husband Gabriel, who has been in the SHU since 1986 and is currently incarcerated at Pelican Bay. Gabriel has previously submitted testimony to the United States Senate, excerpts of which can be read here. Huerta quoted her husband as saying, “Every time you act like a human being and talk to another human being, it’s called gang activity.”

Prisoners have been skeptical of the reforms. In an undated letter published by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition on Feb. 14, 2013, hunger strike leaders announced that they were planning to launch a work stoppage and hunger strike starting on July 8 if CDCR did not comply with various demands.

Cynthia Machado, sister of the late Alex Machado, was among two dozen individuals to speak during a public comment period. She spoke of her brother’s experience in the California prison system. Alex Machado was validated as an associate of the Mexican Mafia, a charge that he vigorously denied, and was ultimately sent to Pelican Bay in 2010.

Alex Machado, known for having been an intelligent man who assisted fellow prisoners with legal work, is documented to have mentally deteriorated in solitary confinement before committing suicide on Oct. 24, 2011. His story, which was first published by Solitary Watch, was cited by Amnesty International as an example of what prolonged solitary confinement can do to prisoners. Cynthia Machado questioned the rehabilitative value of the California prison system.

Assemblyman Ammiano has promised further hearings on the controversial Security Housing Units. Solitary Watch will continue to provide updates on the situation in California as information becomes available. Here is a recent video from KQED, featuring an interview with a Pelican Bay SHU prisoner and includes footage of the exercise yard.

Sal Rodriguez is reporter, researcher and social media manager for Solitary Watch: News from a Nation in Lockdown, where this story first appeared. Email him at sal_solitaryw@yahoo.com.

Tags

Filed Under: Prison Stories
Tags:

6 thoughts on “California Assembly reviews solitary confinement policies as prisoners threaten new hunger strike

  1. @carltoersbijns

    Keeping this matter in the public eye is the long term solution to change ~ When hearings such as these are made a matter or record, things begin to change behind closed doors and the mindset is more acceptble to alternatives and less resistance to what is being expressed by those that are sharing their knowlege and no longer a total control concept by the CDCR. This is the beginning of the end of prolonged solitary confinement in CA as other states take notice and look at their own systems before ending up in court like CA

    Reply
  2. Christine Thomas

    Thanks for this excellent coverage on the torture that goes on behind the walls of California's prisons. Special thanks to Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano and Holly Mitchell

    Reply
  3. sundiata tate

    noone should be held in solitary confinement without human contact for decades or years piled upon years. it is inhumane! it does not only torture the person it also torture their loved ones! there is no justification for such inhumanity and who claim that there is need to be subjected to such torture so that they can see for themselve what it is to be denied ones humanity! let's do something about it.

    Reply
  4. VALERIE SILVA

    I HAVE LIVED WITH A MAN THAT WAS IN PRISON AND IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR OVER 10 YEARS AND HE IS VERY ANGRY AND BITTER TOWARDS EVERYONE. HE DOESN'T KNOW HOW TO INTER ACT WITH OTHERS. I TRONGLY AGREE THAT SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IS THE WORST PLACE TO PUT A PERSON IT IS VERY INHUMANE!!!!!!! THERE'S NO REASON FOR A PERSON TO BE IN THERE FOR THAT LONG…. WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE DO THEY NOT SEE WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN THERE????

    Reply
  5. ZULEMA BARAJAS

    ES INHUMANO ES ALGO ESPANTOSO QUE NADIEN DEBE PASAR, Y NO DEBE SER ACEPTADO, ES SENTARSE Y ESPERAR A QUE SE MUERA LA PERSONA PARA QUE YA NO SUFRA. COMO PUEDEN VIOLAR LOS DERECHOS HUMANOS, ES UN PAIS QUE DEFIENDE A LOS ANIMALES Y PERMITE QUE MATEN EL CEREBRO DE LOS PRISIONEROS, QUE MATAN LENTAMENTE A LAS FAMILIAS DE LOS QUE ESTAN EN ESE PROGRAMA Y NOS DEJAN CON EL DOLOR Y LA IMPOTENCIA DE NO PODER HACER NADA,

    Reply

Leave a Reply

BayView Classifieds - ads, opportunities, announcements
San Francisco Comcast