Recent developments in California’s solitary confinement policies

WTF California SHU 10.18.11

The recent inmate-initiated hunger strikes in California’s prisons have prompted state officials and lawmakers to re-evaluate the practice of extended solitary confinement to curb prison gang violence and implement modest reforms. 

Background on Secure Housing Units (SHU)

California began building prison facilities designed specifically for solitary confinement – known as Secure Housing Units or SHU – during the 1980s to address the growing prison gang violence. The prison population grew significantly during the war on drugs, and many of the drug lords and gang members were able to order hits and conduct drug deals behind prison walls.

“The SHU was created in response to serious security threat of gangs in our system…Murder, extortions, rape, drugs are examples of the criminal activity that require the department to do something,” said Scott Kernan, Undersecretary of Operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “If you have been hearing about the 8,000 assaults and stabbing that the department has each year, gangs would likely be the primary cause.”

As a result, California added more secure housing units, including 1,111 units at Pelican Bay State Prison, which was designed to ensure “unprecedented and uncharted levels of nearly complete isolation.” According to Kernan, approximately 3,000 inmates are being held in SHU out of the 165,000 prisoners in the state prison system.

Inmates sent to secure housing units are confined to an 8-feet-by-10-feet cell alone for 23 hours a day. They’re allowed one hour of outdoor time in a concrete enclosure. With the exception of limited interactions with the prison guards, the inmates have no physical, verbal, or written contact with other humans. SHU inmates are isolated physically, socially, and mentally. “Validated” gang members can expect to serve a minimum of six years – if not longer – in the SHU.

Psychological Damage from Extended Isolation 

Organizations such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and American Friends Service Committee have deemed prolonged solitary confinement as torture, a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The psychological damage from such extended isolation includes feelings of desperation, hopelessness, despair, and even suicide, according to Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz. “Some [SHU inmates] begin to lose their grasp on their sanity. Others are certain that they will never be able to live normally among people again,” said Haney.

Many former SHU inmates are unable to function normally after they are released from prison. “They have a very bad record of recidivism, drug use and more crime because they’ve been in isolation in a cell by themselves for years,” said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and professor at the Wright Institute. Without proper mental health support to help former SHU inmates to re-integrate, they are set up to fail and repeat the cycle of crime and punishment.

Proposed SHU Reforms

In July, more than a thousand Pelican Bay inmates participated in a 21-day hunger strike to protest SHU conditions. Another hunger strike took place between Sept. 26 and Oct. 13 and involved more than 4,000 inmates in eight state prisons, including Calipatria State Prison, Centinela State Prison, California State Prison-Corcoran, Ironwood State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison, California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, San Quentin State Prison, and Salinas Valley State Prison.

In response, state prison officials have stepped up dialogues with inmates, prisoner advocates, law enforcement agencies, and consultants on pending SHU reforms. Some of the concessions include providing SHU inmates with cold-weather caps, wall calendars, educational opportunities, exercise equipments in SHU yards, and audited food service operations at Pelican Bay. The macro policy changes under review include:

  • A “stepping down” program so SHU inmates with a record of good behavior can earn their way out of the SHU. “What we want is for them to learn to behave right – and when they get out, to conduct themselves as law-abiding citizens – when they get out of segregation,” said Kupers. Currently, the only way to exit the SHU is by “debriefing” or providing prison investigators with information on other gang members and illegal activities. However, most SHU inmates choose not to debrief  because they fear violent retaliations, including death, by other gang members once they leave the SHU.
  • Improving the department’s gang validation process by requiring the CDCR to document behaviors that “stand the test of due process,” such participation in “criminal, illegal, or unlawful gang activity.” The current policy allows CDCR to place an inmate in the SHU for any association with another gang member, and the evidence accepted could include “laundry list identifications, the mere naming of names without particular criminal activity being identified” or information supplied by confidential sources, according to Charles Carbone, a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in prisoner rights. “The system of gang validation is wildly out of control and need some sort of real oversight and power to enforce,” said Glenda Rojas, whose cousin spent 10 months in isolation after being wrongly validated as a gang member.

State prison officials maintain that any changes to SHU policy must take into consideration the safety concerns of prison staff, inmates, and the general public. “We must be careful how we make these changes. What’s in the balance is the safety and security of the inmates and our staff in the system,” said Kernan. “We cannot permit our policy changes to perpetuate any violence. People’s lives are at stake.”


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18 Comments on “Recent developments in California’s solitary confinement policies

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