Politics & Government

California solitary confinement changes questioned at hearing

Lawmakers on Tuesday cast doubt on proposed changes to how California prison officials identify gang members and place them in solitary confinement.

The issue burst into prominence during a widespread hunger strike this summer, the third in two years, during which convicts and their allies likened prolonged physical isolation to torture.

Isolated cells are used to punish inmates who commit violent offenses while in prison and, more controversially, to divide purported gang members from other prisoners. Advocates for prisoners call the technique inhumane and psychologically devastating, particularly the use of indefinite terms that can consign offenders to solitary cells for decades.

Corrections officials have touted a new pilot program allowing inmates to ease their way out of solitary confinement, and regulations recently submitted to the Office of Administrative Law would allow the pilot to be applied throughout the prison system.

But legislators seemed skeptical that the changes would substantially reduce the practice of walling off inmates in the “Security Housing Units,” or SHU, that exist in four state prisons.

“What we’ve set up here is something that’s more complicated than the existing policy, it changes some names,” said Senate Public Safety Committee Chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, but “I am not sure it changes the general thrust of what’s happening.”

Hancock’s counterpart on the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Democrat Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, also questioned the rubric officials use to gauge gang affiliation based on “source items” like legal documents, written notes and tattoos.

“To this eye, there’s a vagueness,” said Ammiano, adding in regard to the proposed new system that “a lot of it is lip service.”

Later in the day, Ammiano announced a bill that would cap “administrative” terms in the SHU – those not related to a specific incident, which would include stays stemming from gang affiliation – at 36 months. The legislation would also allow inmates to exit more quickly by accumulating good behavior credits.

Separately, the new system corrections officials are promoting would change how officials identify which inmates are gang associates eligible for solitary, relying more on inmate behavior. Those already confined to the solitary cells would have the option to progress through a “step-down” program allowing them to renounce gang activity and reintegrate into the general prison population within three to four years.

“I think we all agree it is far too easy to get in and too hard to get out, and that the stays in this environment were certainly too long,” said Martin Hoshino, undersecretary of operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Prison officials maintain that secure housing units help thwart dangerous prison gangs and protect general prison populations from more violent inmates. During Tuesday’s hearing, officials who oversee the process pointed to progress in opening a pathway out of solitary.

In addition to launching the pilot program, the corrections department has initiated a case-by-case review of SHU assignments that has led to nearly 600 inmates, of 632 examined, being approved for release into the general population or enrolled in step-down programs. Hoshino said that number “speaks for itself.”

“It is not something we are planning to do or are talking about doing; it is something that actually happened and is happening as we speak,” said Hoshino.

Those proposals seem largely cosmetic to advocates, who argue officials will still cycle prisoners through solitary units and object to the number of CDCR-labeled “security threat groups” whose members risk the SHU. They argue the step-down process is coercive and endangers inmates, particularly a “debriefing” option. And they say inmates have little opportunity to challenge wrongful assignments to the SHU.