Politics & Government

California lawmakers examine solitary confinement

With California inmates still recuperating from weeks of self-imposed starvation, California lawmakers pressed prison officials on Wednesday for more information about the solitary confinement policies that prompted prisoners to refuse nourishment.

“I’m grateful and relieved that it ended without further sacrifice or risk of human life,” said Senate Public Safety Committee chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, “but the issues remain, and the issues that were raised during the hunger strike are real, and concern about the conditions in California’s supermax prisons cannot be ignored.”

For nearly two months this summer, prisoners across California’s prison system refused state-issued meals in an effort to highlight what they called excessively cruel use of solitary cells commonly called the SHU, for Security Housing Unit. The protest involved more than 12,000 prisoners at its peak.

Hancock’s Assembly counterpart, Public Safety Committee chair Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, opened Wednesday’s hearing by describing extended stays in solitary confinement as “beyond the pale” and chastising the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for “a very aberrant policy attitude.”

“I don’t want lip service,” Ammiano said. “If necessary, I want legislation from these hearings.”

Corrections officials defend the SHU as a crucial weapon for controlling gang activity. By walling off gang members from other prisoners, officials say, they are protecting the general prison population from violence and coercion and suppressing the ability of gang leaders to direct their disciples on the streets.

Advocates and family members of inmates see a human rights abuse. They have called for a set of changes that includes ending the use of indefinite terms in the SHU, altering the criteria officials use to identify gang members and overhauling the process by which prisoners can renounce gang activity and get out of the SHU.

“It’s taken a while for this issue to reach the radar, so to speak, of the Legislature,” Ammiano said.

Just over 4,000 California inmates currently reside in SHU units, California Inspector General Robert Barton testified. About 60 percent are gang-linked prisoners serving open-ended terms, and more than 500 of them have been in the SHU for five years or more.

Those numbers fueled pointed questions from lawmakers about the guidelines for assigning inmates to the SHU. Lawmakers wondered why gang affiliation, and not necessarily an explicitly violent offense, can lead to an indefinite stay.

“Not to defend gang membership, but certainly if you’re a prison inmate, because of the dynamics all humans form groups. That’s what we do,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, adding that “to have as a policy being put in the SHU for (gang affiliation) alone is very, very difficult to justify.”

Michael Stainer, director of the corrections department’s Division of Adult Institutions, said inmates have an opportunity to respond to accusations of gang activity, although they do not receive any counsel or outside advice. He noted that prisons have begun implementing a pilot “step-down” program that has resulted in inmates being released from the SHU.

“Yesterday’s policy put a man in the SHU based simply upon his association or affiliation with a gang,” Stainer said, but “the new policy addresses individual behavior and individual accountability.”

“We are reviewing inmates every week and some are being retained based upon behaviors,” he added, “and some are being released based upon lack of those behaviors.”

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers charged that information is lacking on a range of areas that relate to solitary confinement, from the percentage of nonviolent offenders placed in the SHU to data on attempted suicides.

“I have found in trying to research these issues that there is very little useful and well-organized data that answers the questions policymakers need to make decisions,” Hancock said, “and as a result it seems that there is very little practice informed by an understanding of actual outcomes.”