For release from SHU, California requires cognitive restructuring – decades of good behavior not enough

by California Prison Watch

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is proposing new regulations on “security threat groups” (STG) or “gangs,” which will be implemented after a regular public hearing, to be held on April 3. The Step Down Program, which CDCR has been executing as a pilot program, is apparently being added to CDCR’s vast number of regulations.

The implementation of the official Step Down Program comes while a second legislative hearing on Feb. 11 has been organized, where CDCR’s “gang management” policies will be discussed or, as it is officially called on the agenda, “CDCRs Proposed New Policies on Inmate Segregation.”

Hugo-Pinell-SQ-6, For release from SHU, California requires cognitive restructuring – decades of good behavior not enough, Abolition Now! What is worrying about all these regulations and rules when we scan through them to see if there are any ameliorations for those inside the SHUs is that CDCR keeps spinning the fact that human rights are being abused by keeping people inside lockdown units, in segregation, not only for months, but years, even decades on end, despite no violent infractions. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez states that such confinement can amount to “torture.”

In a release by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Aug. 23, 2013, titled “California jails: ‘Solitary confinement can amount to cruel punishment, even torture’ – UN rights expert,” Mendez, an independent investigator on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, urged the U.S. authorities to ensure that “solitary confinement is only imposed, if at all, in very exceptional circumstances, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and with established safeguards in place.” In his view, “its application must be subject to independent review, and inmates must undergo strict medical supervision.”

Hugo Pinell has been incarcerated since 1964 and in solitary confinement in California SHUs for over four decades. He has not had any disciplinary infraction in 32 years. There is no reason to keep him in the Secure Housing Unit other than that CDCR is waging a war of propaganda against people like Pinell and so many others, for instance like the prisoners who started the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes protesting indefinite solitary confinement, who have been critical and outspoken of the prison industrial complex. The latest news is that Pinell was recently allowed to make a phone call to his family for the first time in 40 years.

Jeffrey Beard: This is not solitary confinement

In response to increasing criticism of CDCR’s SHU policies, California Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard wrote an op-ed during the hunger strike in August of 2013, in which he made a few bold statements without documenting his sources. Beard portrayed the SHUs in three prisons as having “windows in the cells that allow for direct sunlight.” He also wrote:

“At Pelican Bay, all SHU cells have skylights. In all of the facilities, inmates in the SHU have radios and color TVs with access to channels such as ESPN. They have weekly access to a law library and daily exercise time. Many have cellmates; they can earn degrees; they can send and receive letters; and their family and friends can visit them every weekend. SHU inmates receive the same meals and portions as general population inmates. This is not ‘solitary confinement,’ in that prisoners can have visitors and, in many cases, interaction with other inmates.”

All the amenities Beard claims can be refuted by the experiences of prisoners and their families and friends in the real prisons in California. But Beard, whose theories do not seem to have been tested in the SHUs he presides over, was hired by CDCR to provide spin and propaganda, countering claims of torture. His job is to see to it that CDCR gets its money and feeds its union members in the powerful CCPOA lobby (California Correctional Peace Officers Association), which even pays Gov. Jerry Brown so that he will do as the CCPOA tells him.

In a statement on CDCR Today, a blog that posts CDCR’s press releases, the following was stated on Aug. 26, 2013:

“CDCR does not utilize ‘solitary confinement.’ Additionally, the length of an indeterminate SHU assignment is now determined by individual inmate behavior. It is now possible for an indeterminate term to be reduced to three-four years. Moreover, STG associates will no longer be placed in a SHU based solely upon their validation.”


We can ask ourselves why a person in prison who has been without disciplinary infractions for 32 years can’t be commended and why he should not have been transferred long ago to a place where he can have contact visits and a less harsh environment. This logical and humane thought was also one of the demands of the hunger strikers, who formulated five core demands, of which No. 1 is:

“End Group Punishment and Administrative Abuse – This is in response to PBSP’s application of ‘group punishment’ as a means to address individual inmates’ rule violations. This includes the administration’s abusive, pretextual use of ‘safety and concern’ to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts. This policy has been applied in the context of justifying indefinite SHU status and progressively restricting our programming and privileges.”

The response given by CDCR to this first of the core demands was:

“Individual Accountability. Response. This issue has already been addressed through implementation and adoption of the STG and Step-Down programs.”

But of course this short answer to the decades of torturous conditions in the SHU’s is a spin to make us all believe CDCR really listens to prisoners’ demands. In fact, CDCR has come up with a different idea of “behavior change”: cognitive restructuring – or brainwashing. That makes the Step Down Program very long and without guarantees that people will actually be removed from these tortuous conditions. There are also no safeguards, such as an independent commission to oversee CDCR’s managing of its Step Down Program.

Coercive journaling as cognitive restructuring

Under these mandatory cognitive restructuring programs, prisoners in the SHU have to fill out journals. These journals were derived from cognitive restructuring theories that seek to “correct wrongful thinking.” Some law enforcement groups, such as the American Community Corrections Institute (ACCI), work with these programs.

In New Mexico, the ACLU took action against the use of cognitive restructuring in supermax prisons. In “The Hate Factory,” G. Hirliman writes on Page xi:

“What is disturbing, and at the root of the ACLU lawsuit, is the use of segregation in concert with this program: If you don’t give the right answer, you get more time in lockup. … It is sold as a self-imposed hypnotism for quitting habits, overcoming insomnia and bettering life. Put in a prison situation, where the wrong answer nets an inmate punishment in the form of time in solitary, cognitive restructuring becomes brainwashing.”

The program is like a forced conversion to the religion of cognitive restructuring, with Stanton Samenow (author of “Inside the Criminal Mind”) as its high priest.

“Put in a prison situation, where the wrong answer nets an inmate punishment in the form of time in solitary, cognitive restructuring becomes brainwashing.”

Prisoners in the SHU have written about this psychological belief and have spoken out against making the journals mandatory for prisoners in the SHUs to progress to “general population.” They write:

“And while the new policies will result in some prisoners being released to general population, these new policies do not represent a pathway to general population or even a less restrictive housing environment, as the CDCR is quick to claim for certain prisoners.

“Specifically though, it is the CDCR’s attempt to brainwash us all through their behavior modification program. And that is exactly what the cognitive restructuring program is. We have had the opportunity to see and read the self-directed journals. They are insidious.”

Was this what the people inside California’s SHUs went on three hunger strikes for?

On Jan. 31, the Sacramento Bee announced CDCR’s release of draft Step Down Program regulations:

“The new program lets gang associates have their gang validation removed from their record after completing the minimum three-year rehabilitation program and going six additional years without a disciplinary charge related to gang behavior.

“Those who are considered gang leaders would have to complete [sic] remain without a gang-related disciplinary violation for at least 11 years after completing the program before the gang designation could be removed by a prison committee.”

Hugo-Pinell-2001, For release from SHU, California requires cognitive restructuring – decades of good behavior not enough, Abolition Now! Those locked up in SHUs in California’s prisons can ask themselves: “Is this what the three hunger strikes to protest the policies that lead to indefinite solitary confinement, being locked down permanently, were suffered for?” To still do 11-14 years under threat of being returned to the SHU for a picture of a dragon or an Aztec god in his or her cell?

Also, what is a “gang-related disciplinary violation”? A “wrong” book or drawing in your cell? That is not an act of violence people on the outside might consider a danger to their security.

CDCR is spinning the story their way again, of how they have labeled people in a gang a “security threat” and have created solitary confinement units to – so they try to convince us – combat gangs, while convincing the public how evil “gang members” are. “You, STG member or associate, can be saved, sinner!” CDCR wants us to believe in their supreme religion of cognitive restructuring and the need to place people in lockdown, segregation and solitary confinement indefinitely.

With this coerced journaling, CDCR attempts to manipulate the thoughts of those inside, most of whom are 40-plus, have been educating themselves, and do not need to be “restructured.” What kind of a new belief is this? People inside are not all alike, but CDCR wants us to believe they are all evil.

People need to get out of the SHU as soon as they can. But the CDCR has been playing a game that is not as good as it sounds. This Step Down Program, featuring cognitive restructuring, will cost prisoners a lot of time and money; for instance, each journal costs $2.70, a large sum for a prisoner not allowed to work.

CDCR portrays the program as a means to reduce the threat prisoners pose to the public: “Look, with the help of these cognitive restructuring programs, they have a chance to become better again.” Learn more and see examples of the journal questions here.

As Mutope Duguma, 47, who is incarcerated in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU, wrote in 2012:

“If anyone thinks that those of us held in solitary confinement units need to go through gang management programs at the ages of 40 to 70-plus years, they are only fooling themselves.

“There are NO gang members or gang bangers in the ‘short corridor’ at Pelican Bay, only grown men who came into these institutions at very young ages, who have educated themselves, and who in many cases were never gang members from the get go. What you have back here are political prisoners, jailhouse lawyers, strong minded influential prisoners who understand the games correctional officers and officials play.

“Those of us who did come into these prisons with a backward mindset do not adhere to that gang nonsense anymore. It’s crazy to tell us, who’ve been in solitary confinement units from 10 to 40 years, that we’ve got to go through a ‘step down program,’ or SDP, in order to get out, when we’ve been held illegally and subjected to physical and psychological torment throughout our stay in these torture chambers.”

It would not be surprising at all if Jeffrey Beard, who himself has an education in psychology, was behind this and had the Change Companies, who publish these journals, step in as “saviors.”

If CDCR wanted these programs and really wanted people to move through step down programs, they could have done so decades ago, but they apparently did not want this.

CDCR keeps spinning the fact that human rights are being abused by keeping people inside lockdown units, in segregation, not only for months, but years, even decades on end, despite no violent infractions. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez states that such confinement can amount to “torture.”

Three hunger strikes were necessary to get CDCR to reconsider its policies governing indefinite SHU terms, solitary confinement and permanent lockdown.

Therefore, CDCR has had to come up with this Step Down Program as propaganda to look good to the taxpayers who fund the department and yet to please the powerful CCPOA lobby. CDCR should have talked with the prisoners and listened and should have acknowledged that being kept in solitary confinement, administrative segregation or indefinite lockdown for a month, a year, a decade or more is torture and not a sentence a judge ordered in a court of law.

Everyone should be aware of the games CDCR is playing with its propaganda machine. This is an evil game. It is based on convincing the public outside and the prisoners inside to believe that CDCR, the torturer, is the only party to have a say in how to address a torture program it has conducted for decades. We should demand decency and honesty from CDCR.

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