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SB 892 and AB 1652: Pelican Bay prisoner representatives speak to the California Assembly and Senate

May 9, 2014

by Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellano, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (R.N. Dewberry) and Antonio Guillen

Dear Members of the California Assembly and Senate:

We are writing to offer our position on the two bills pending before the Assembly and the Senate – SB 892 and AB 1652 – dealing with the solitary confinement and gang validation policies of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Pelican Bay SP fences, gates, razor wire, guard tower by Reuters-Corbis

Pelican Bay and other California prisons house some 14,000 people in solitary confinement, a far higher rate than anywhere else in the world. Thirty thousand prisoners throughout the state joined last year’s hunger strike to end longterm solitary, which threatens all the state’s prisoners with a punishment considered torture by the U.N. that is unrelated to their behavior. – Photo: Reuters-Corbis

We are California inmates who have been in solitary confinement for long periods of time, based on validation as alleged associates and members of prison gangs, rather than based on violent behavior. We undertook hunger strikes in 2011 and in 2013 in opposition to CDCR’s solitary confinement and gang validation practices as well as the inhumane conditions of CDCR’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). Together with thousands of inmates, we expressed the following five core demands:

  1. Substitute individual accountability for group punishment, indefinite SHU status and restricted privileges;
  2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
  3. Comply with U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement;
  4. Provide adequate food; and,
  5. Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.

Having carefully reviewed and considered Assembly Bill 1652, introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano on Feb. 11, 2014, as amended on April 3, 2014, and Senate Bill 892, introduced by Sen. Loni Hancock on Jan. 13, 2014, as amended on March 18 and April 2, we wish to offer the following comments:

I. Discussion of Ammiano’s AB 1652: AB 1652 addresses the very narrow but critical issue of eliminating CDCR’s policy of placing prisoners in solitary confinement for gang validation, rather than for commission of a serious offense. We support AB 1652. At the same time, we recommend that the bill be amended to include the following three additional provisions:

a. During assessment for SHU placement, the use of testimony (whether or not confidential) of an in-custody informant should be corroborated by an independent source before being relied upon to place someone in a SHU. Corroboration cannot be based upon the testimony of another in-custody informant unless such in-custody informant obtained the information independently from the first in-custody informant and the information is not based on hearsay. This is essentially the same principle now applied in criminal court cases since 2011 (see California Penal Code §1111.5).

b. An attorney-advocate should be made available (at no cost to the state) to inmates facing a sentence of more than 30 days in a SHU.

c. AB 1652 should implement provisions for increased oversight, studies, data collection and reporting back to the Legislature on the SHU classification process, the mental and physical wellbeing of inmates in SHUs, and the reasons why SHU inmates are denied reentry into the general population. Sen. Hancock’s SB 892 contains these provisions, which we recommend be included in AB 1652. Collecting and considering this data can lay the foundation for a future more comprehensive legislative evaluation of solitary confinement practices in California.

II. Discussion of Hancock’s SB 892: Although SB 892 appears to seek to achieve comprehensive CDCR reform on the issue of solitary confinement, there are several provisions of the bill that will adopt inhumane and widely condemned practices into state law. We will only support SB 892 if it is amended to include three critically important items:

a. The bill should incorporate the language of AB 1652 (or similar language) which eliminates the use of gang validation and minor rule violations as a justification for placing inmates in SHUs. As it stands currently, SB 892 does not eliminate SHU assignment for mere gang association and it does not eliminate indeterminate SHU terms. This is a critical issue and one of our core demands. The nationwide trend is clearly not to place prisoners in segregated housing units for alleged gang association without accompanying serious rule violations. Numerous states have moved in this direction for public safety reasons, for humane reasons and to cut costs. California should not move in the opposite direction.

b. As mentioned above, we recommend that language be added so that during assessment for SHU placement, the use of testimony (whether or not confidential) of an in-custody informant should be corroborated by an independent source before being relied upon to place someone in a SHU. Corroboration cannot be based upon the testimony of another in-custody informant unless such in-custody informant obtained the information independently from the first in-custody informant and the information is not based on hearsay. This is essentially the same principle now applied in criminal court cases since 2011 (see California Penal Code §1111.5).

c. As mentioned above, we recommend that language be added so that an attorney-advocate should be made available (at no cost to the state) to inmates facing a sentence of more than 30 days in a SHU.

Several provisions of SB 892 will adopt inhumane and widely condemned practices into state law.

We do not believe that the range of provisions in SB 892 related to review by the Office of the Inspector General of cases in which SHU placement is based on the testimony of a confidential informant, the appointment of ombudsmen, the requirement for a daily face-to-face encounter with CDCR employees, the appointment of an “advocate” for an inmate being processed for SHU placement, or the step-down program in the bill will make any measurable difference in CDCR solitary confinement practices.

The Inspector General is unlikely based upon review of a file to reverse decisions based on confidential informants. Ombudsmen will be of little value as long as inmates can be placed in SHUs for alleged gang association when they have engaged in no wrongdoing.

“Face-to-face” encounters already happen almost every day when our food is served or a psych tech walks past our cells.

Allowing an “advocate” to assist in the SHU assignment process will mean assignment of a guard who could care less about the result. And the proposed step-down program focuses on forcing prisoners to disavow alleged gang association or activities rather than on a behavior-based model considering whether the prisoner has violated rules while in the SHU. Despite these misguided and costly provisions in SB 892, we would support the bill if it is amended to include the provisions identified above.

The narrower and more focused (and less costly) AB 1652, particularly if amended as suggested above, would far better serve the public safety, prison security and the humane treatment of prisoners.

However, the narrower and more focused (and less costly) AB 1652, particularly if amended as suggested above, would far better serve the public safety, prison security and the humane treatment of prisoners. It’s a first but critically important step in the direction of a rational and humane policy. Further legislation could be considered in the next legislative session after CDCR data is collected by the legislature. Thank you for considering our comments and suggestions.

'SB 892 and AB 1652' signatures of 4 main reps 050914

The authors’ signatures as they appear in the original letter

Sincerely,

  • Todd Ashker, C-58191, PBSP SHU D4-121, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532
  • Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, PBSP SHU D1-121, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532
  • Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (R.N. Dewberry), C-35671, PBSP SHU D1-117, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532
  • Antonio Guillen, P-81948, PBSP SHU D2-106, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532

This letter is dated May 1, 2014.

 

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