BREAKING NEWS: CDCR To Ease Gang Restrictions

Reported an hour ago by the Associated Press:

Prison officials revealed new rules Friday that they say will make California the first state to recognize that inmates can quit prison gangs and put that lifestyle behind them, allowing them to escape the tough restrictions that gang members are subject to.

However, gang associates would have to steer clear of gang activities for about a decade to qualify, while gang leaders would have to behave for a minimum of 14 years.

The draft regulations made public Friday are the latest changes to rules that keep some gang members locked in special isolation units for years and have led to widespread inmate hunger strikes. A spokesman for a coalition of reform groups that backed the hunger strikers called the changes “woefully inadequate.”

The new regulations are an extension of a 15-month-old pilot program that has allowed gang members to get out of isolation units at Pelican Bay in far Northern California and other prisons without renouncing their gang membership.

Since the start of the pilot, the department has reviewed 632 gang members who were in isolation units. Of those, 408 have been cleared to be released into the general prison population and 185 were given more privileges but remain in isolation.

Those 2012 policies, which are being updated in Friday’s filing with the Office of Administrative Law, let the gang members and associates gain more privileges and leave the isolation units in as little as three years if they stop engaging in gang activities, and participate in anger management and drug rehabilitation programs.

Officials said that change was based on programs in seven other states. California is now the first to go a step farther by removing the gang designation entirely if the inmate continues to behave, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR.

CDCR gives reasons for the new regulation:

Despite the successes the CDCR has had in removing violent and disruptive STG affiliates from the general population settings of the institutions, the Department has recognized a need to evaluate current strategies and implement new approaches to address evolving STG trends consistent with security, fiscal, and offender population management needs. Fortunately, the inmate population reductions associated with Public Safety Realignment is affording CDCR the opportunity to reconstruct aspects of its STG policy that are consistent with successful models used in other large correctional agencies. The Public Safety Realignment will result in easing overcrowding and providing CDCR with more housing options to support this effort.

And here are the actual regulations, which define the step-down processes that are to be taken. The multi-step process of being cleared of gang affiliation (referred to in the regulations as STG – security threat group) is lengthy and features various monitoring options.

Solitary Confinement: What Could the Legislature Do?

Two months have passed since the joint legislative hearing held by the California Senate and Assembly Public Safety committees. At the hearing, lawmakers heard testimony from CDCR personnel, academics, and families of  SHU inmates.

At the hearing, several of the lawmakers, especially Tom Ammiano, Loni Hancock, and Nancy Skinner spoke up about their discomfort with SHU conditions. If this is truly the zeitgeist in the legislature, what can they do to modify the conditions?

It is highly unrealistic that California will do away with solitary confinement altogether. Short of extreme creativity, it’s hard to repurpose a maximum-security facility. Nor is it realistic to express political consensus that the institution is unnecessary. But there are various ways to mitigate our use of SHU units. Many of these are detailed in Confronting Confinement, a 2006 report by the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. In the California case, the legislature could decide to:

1. Limit long-term solitary confinement to, say, ten years.
2. Monitor the entrance to solitary confinement. One possibility would be to limit solitary to punishment for infractions, but if the legislature doesn’t want to go that far, they could focus on demanding more evidence of danger before admitting someone to solitary confinement.
3. Monitor the exit from solitary confinement. The legislature could decide to abolish the debriefing process, or it could call for modifications, such as improving the criteria for establishing gang status.
4. Limit disciplinary measures. The legislature could flat-out forbid collective punishment, especially when race based.
5. Make a decision about double-bunking. I confess this one trumps me as well. Being locked up alone in a cell versus sharing it, in very close quarters, with a roommate not of one’s choosing? This could be what Keramet Reiter once referred to as “differently horrible.”
6. Add human contact, such as work with others or joint yard time.
7. Increase contact with the outside, including letters and visits.
8. Increase access to books and educational opportunities.
9. Set up parameters for safe and effective health care.
10. Seriously examine the quality of food and consider guidelines and improvements.
11. Take on the quality of staff training.

We will have to wait and see how things shape up.

Stop Torture: The Continuing Fight Against Solitary Confinement. Guest Post by Ashley Toles and Courtney Oxsen

The following is a post by Ashley Toles and Courtney Oxsen, who organized the incredible event on solitary confinement at Hastings yesterday. Pictures are by Ashley Toles and Robert Hammill.


What an incredible evening we had at UC Hastings Tuesday night! Our wonderful panel titled “Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Resumes: The Continued Struggle to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement in California” was accompanied by a life-sized model of a solitary confinement cell found in California’s Secure Housing Units (SHU). Urszula Wislanka and Penny Schoner from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition were extremely helpful in getting the model SHU prison cell set up for tours. The model SHU cell is a life-sized 8’x10’ windowless cell that the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition brings to various events in California. It is eye-opening for people to actually step inside and get a small glimpse of the tiny, cramped space that many prisoners held in solitary confinement have to live in for decades. On a table to the side of the model SHU, we had letters that people could send to Governor Jerry Brown, explaining how they felt when they stepped inside the cell. The Governor has been largely silent on the issue of solitary confinement in CA prisons, and we want to urge him to respond meaningfully to the torture that has been going on for far too long, since even before Pelican Bay State Prison SHU was constructed in 1989.


As we watched people enter and emerge from the model SHU, we were able to see the shock on their faces when they experienced how claustrophobic that small space made them feel, even for just a few moments. Many people said they were surprised by how small the cells are, how many hours prisoners are held in their cell per day, and how many years prisoners are kept in solitary confinement! This sense of shock is the reason we need to have as many events like this as we can; most people simply do not know that this torture is going on in their beloved State of California.


The panel was moderated by the lovely Hadar Aviram, who did a wonderful job introducing all the panelists and asking the right questions to get the discussion going. The first panelist to speak was Charles Carbone, a seasoned prisoner rights lawyer and counsel on the Ruiz v. Brown lawsuit filed by prisoners who have spent more than ten years in SHU, who is well-versed on the intricacies of CDCR’s policies and rhetoric. He outlined a history of solitary confinement, explaining the 19th century puritan societal worldview that giving a person a Bible and sending them to do “penitence” in solitary confinement would reform them. Ultimately, that policy experiment was deemed a rehabilitative failure, but American government has embraced solitary confinement anew in recent decades. Carbone also challenged CDCR’s “new” policies as being even worse than their former practices. Prisoners are still being held indefinitely in solitary confinement for their political and cultural tattoos, artwork, and written material that prison officials deem “gang activity,” without any evidence of violent or threatening behavior, and with no meaningful opportunity for release.

Steven Czifra and Jose “Danny” Murillo, UC Berkeley students who have both been incarcerated for years in the SHU, went on to describe their experience of long-term extreme isolation in the SHU. We were haunted by Steven’s analogy that the SHU is just like “a bunch of ghosts trying to cheer each other up.” He repeatedly mentioned how kind and humane people in the SHU acted towards each other. “It only took one person who believed in me,” said Stephen. Stephen is now studying English at UC Berkeley and has a wonderful family life. Danny said that growing up, he struggled with anger issues and was never the best student. During his time in the SHU, he was inspired by the help and encouragement of his fellow inmates who believed in him. He earned his GED and took some college classes through the educational programming CDCR has since eliminated from the SHUs. Danny is now an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in the Ethnic Studies Department. And to think that these two were labeled the “worst of the worst!”

The next speaker Terry Kupers, is a clinical psychiatrist and expert on the mental health impacts of long-term solitary confinement. Terry testifies in a lot of litigation involving jail and prison conditions and how those conditions affect prisoners’ mental health. He was right on the money with everything he said last night. Terry emphasized the important fact that locking people up in solitary confinement does not reduce the violence rate in prisons. In fact, research has proven the opposite. He also emphasized how the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment and “torture” were essentially the same; the only difference is that we don’t like to talk about torture here in the United States. We like to think of torture as something that goes on in distant “less civilized” countries. We are uncomfortable with the idea that our government tortures its citizens, but until we acknowledge that this is happening, there will be no change. If the only way to escape solitary confinement is to “parole, debrief, or die,” how is that anything but torture?

Marie Levin spoke about how solitary confinement hurts other people besides just the prisoners in solitary; in particular, their family members and the communities they have been removed from. Marie is the sister of Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, who has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay since 1990. She has not hugged her brother in over two decades and has only been able to see him 10 times since he’s been at Pelican Bay. She told the heartbreaking story of their sister Carol’s death in 2010. Carol had kidney failure in 2001 and after discovering this, Sitawa wanted to donate a kidney to save his sister’s life. The prison would not allow him to make the donation, and after years of fighting this, Carol died in a puddle of blood after a dialysis treatment. This is just one of the many horrifying stories brought to you by California’s solitary confinement regime. Ashley, co-author of this article, had the privilege of meeting Sitawa last week on our visit to Pelican Bay, and when he told this same story, she had to fight back tears.

Azadeh Zohrabi, a Soros Justice Fellow, Hastings alum, and the brilliant woman who is spearheading the Stop the Torture campaign to end solitary confinement in California spoke next. She focused her comments on the 2011 hunger strikes and how the prisoners’ demands are still not being met by CDCR, despite their promises of reform that ended the strike. Although they have new regulations, they do not meet the prisoner’s very reasonable demands, and the prisoners have announced that the strike is set to resume July 8th of this year. She spoke about the importance of the Stop the Torture campaign and raising awareness around this issue. She remarked that perhaps the dangerous and painful hunger strike could be avoided if this issue gets enough attention before July 8th. She said that people don’t just go on hunger strike for fun. Lives were lost during the last hunger strikes and people lost a lot of weight and had significant medical complications resulting from the strike. The fact that prisoners would risk their lives to bring attention to the conditions of their confinement is a testament to how dire the situation is. During our visits to Pelican Bay last week, many men indicated their commitment to see this strike through if the results they were already promised are not reached. One inmate, in describing why he would risk his life in a hunger strike, said, “It’s no life in here.”

In total, approximately sixty guests attended the event and we are hoping a lot of them will trickle in to the State Building over the next couple days for the “California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform” symposium! There will be ample opportunity at the symposium to delve deeper into the issues California faces in its multi-faceted correctional crisis. To stay plugged into this issue, visit Stop Torture CA and follow us on Twitter @StopTortureCA. 

TODAY! Join us to reignite struggle against solitary confinement!

Today’s panel will feature people who have done time in the SHU, family members of current SHU inmates, doctors, lawyers, activists… a real opportunity to hear insiders’ accounts of the experience and the struggle.
When: Tours of life-sized model of a SHU cell from 1:30pm; panel at 6:00pm.
Where: Louis B. Mayer Lounge, UC Hastings, 198 McAllister Street (cross street Hyde), San Francisco.
Hope to see you with us!
And, of course, please plan to join us later this week for California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform.

Solitary Confinement Punishes Families, Too

The Huff Post published a beautiful piece by Marie Levin, whose brother Ronnie (Sitawa) has been held in solitary confinement for the last twenty-three years.

Marie’s piece is a reminder that solitary confinement is punishment not only for the segregated party, but for his/her family as well.

I have only seen my brother ten times since he has been at Pelican Bay. The drive is almost eight hours, I don’t own a car, and travel and lodging are very expensive. There is so much time between visits that each time I see him, Ronnie looks much older. We’re not allowed any contact at all during visits, and the prison only allows us visits of one-to-two hours.

But this is hardly the worst our family has suffered while Ronnie has been in the SHU. In 2001, our sister Carol suffered kidney failure. Ronnie was a compatible kidney donor, but the prison would not allow him to make the donation. For years, Ronnie fought for permission to save his sister. Carol died in 2010, in a puddle of blood, bleeding out after a dialysis treatment.

Now, our mother is seriously ill. She has had several strokes, is paralyzed on her right side, has trouble speaking, and suffers from cognitive difficulties. She longs to see her only son, but she is no longer able to make the long, difficult trip. I am faced with the heartbreaking realization that she may never see her son again solely because of his writing and reading material – his unjust imprisonment in the SHU that has kept him from being paroled for almost two decades.

This is an extreme example of the multiple ways in which mass incarceration destroys families and communities, invading and harming countless lives beyond those behind bars.

Marie will be one of our speakers at tomorrow’s panel on solitary confinement. The event is at 6pm, at UC Hastings, 198 McAllister Street. We will have a life-sized model of a SHU cell and hear from people formerly incarcerated in the SHU, family members, doctors, lawyers, and activists. Please join us for all-day tours of the SHU and for the evening panel.

And of course, if you have not already done so, please plan to join us Thursday and Friday for California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform.

Assemblyman Ammiano Arrives in Pelican Bay

Image courtesy

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, whose efforts to reform the criminal justice system are well known to frequent readers of this blog, is paying a visit to Pelican Bay. The Examiner reports:

After more than two months delay, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), Chair of the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, arrives today at one of California’s Maximum Security correctional facilities to see for himself the progress the State’s prison system is making to address concerns of judges and reform advocates for the care of incarcerated Californians.

Earlier this year Ammiano likened California’s 33 prisons to “Gladiator Academies,” where Californians incarcerated for homelessness, victimless crimes like drug possession and those with mental illness must choose between “being victimized or victimizing others.”

. . . 

Perhaps surprisingly, Ammiano’s visit is welcomed by CDCR. “When I heard about his plans my first thought was, ‘What took him so long,’” CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton told California Progress Report. “I wish more legislators would visit our prison system.” 

Thornton admits the prison system has made mistakes, many of which were thrust upon it as the legislature cut from its budget money earmarked for re-entry programs like education, vocation-training, drug rehabilitation and counseling and mental health services – cuts that have led to California’s notoriously high recidivism rate. 

“Look, if you’re going to cut social services, education and healthcare for senior citizens – even my own salary was cut, as were the salaries of most state employees, and that really hurt, believe me – why wouldn’t the CDCR experience cuts to [programs geared toward the successful return of parolees to society], asked Thornton. “But things have turned around, funding has been restored, and our recidivism rate is down.”

Props to Caitlin Henry for the link.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons to Review Solitary Confinement

Good news via Reuters:

A spokesman from the bureau confirmed that the National Institute of Corrections plans to retain an independent auditor “in the weeks ahead” to examine the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as restrictive housing.

“We are confident that the audit will yield valuable information to improve our operations, and we thank Senator Durbin for his continued interest in this very important topic,” spokesman Chris Burke said in a statement. 

Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day. Durbin’s office said the practice can have a severe psychological impact on inmates and that more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement. 

In Durbin’s state of Illinois, 56 percent of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing. 

“The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world, and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore,” said Durbin, who chaired a Senate hearing on the use of solitary confinement last year. “We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the mental state of the incarcerated and ultimately on the safety of our nation.”

The Vera Institute’s Segregation Reduction Project, in which they partner with states and help them reduce the population under solitary confinement, has yielded, to my surprise, impressive monetary savings and no decrease in prison security.

Yesterday, at the Western Society of Criminology, I heard something interesting. Ashley Rubin, who is joining the criminology faculty at Florida State University next year, presented a fascinating paper based on her archival study of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (which we visited a few years ago.) In the 19th century, Eastern State advocated an incarceration model based on total isolation of inmates. Auburn prison, in New York State, did not isolate its prisoners, though it did require them to work in silence; Auburn model supporters critiqued Philadelphia for the inhumanity and wastefulness of solitary confinement. Officially, Philadelphia supporters rejected the critiques. But privately, they double-celled inmates. The warden’s journal reveals the motivation behind this practice: Concern about the inmates’ sanity and their need for company. They also allowed inmates to work out of the cell, when they needed to do so to reduce prison costs through inmate labor.

Apparently, there is nothing new under the sun. Keramet Reiter from UC Irvine has been studying the modern supermax and solitary confinement, and has found the exact same practice going on today: Double-celling in solitary cells in the supermax. Apparently, a second bunk had been thrown into solitary cells in supermaxes as an afterthought, and it’s being used. Read this for more information. Whether CDCR does so to alleviate overcrowding, save money, or alleviate inmates’ mental anguish, it raises the question whether being housed with another person for 23 hours a day in close proximity and tight quarters is better or worse than doing time alone. I suppose the answer depends greatly on the circumstances, the person, the mental state of both inmates, and the extent to which staff monitor the possibility of violence in the cell.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ willingness to examine solitary confinement is welcome news. I hope its findings, as well as the Vera Institute’s important activity, will yield some thoughts on the state and local level about reducing the usage of solitary confinement.