CA prison official offers muddled response on whether participation in a peaceful hunger strike would prolong detention of inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay

WTF CDCR 3.13.13

Officials from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offered muddled responses as to whether participation in a peaceful hunger strike would qualify as a “Security Threat Group” (STG) violation that would prolong the detention of inmates in solitary confinement.

Inmates held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison have threatened to resume their hunger strike on July 8th to protest the lack of progress by CDCR to improve conditions in the Security Housing Units (SHU).

Read more: Pelican Bay solitary confinement inmates threaten to resume hunger strike in July

When asked by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano on whether participation in a “non-violent hunger strike” would qualify as a STG violation, Kelly Harrington, the CDCR’s Associate Director for High Security Mission, suggested that it could if the department determines that the hunger strike is linked to gang activities.

“We would have to have the information to indicate that they were the leader or they were perpetuating that and you would have to have a gang nexus to it. But being involved in a hunger strike can be viewed as violating institutional security and those kinds of things,” Harrington initially told lawmakers at the Assembly Committee on Public Safety hearing on Feb. 25, 2013.

Later in the hearing, Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell pressed Harrington to clarify his statement, pointing out that SHU inmates at Pelican Bay are striking to protest the living conditions in solitary confinement, such as inadequate food servings and the infrequency of family visits.

“All I’ve ever read in the materials provided to us – letters written – that the whole focus of the hunger strike is the condition – living conditions,” said Mitchell. “I’ve never seen any correlation between gang activity and the hunger strike.”

Harrington then backtracked from his earlier statement and replied, “I don’t believe at this point it would count against them inside the step[-down] program.”

Prisoner rights attorney Charles Carbone disputed Harrington’s latter assertion.

“It’s unmistakable that the present regulations contemplate the participation in a hunger strike as both a value-source item for placement in a security housing unit [SHU] and to be placed back in a lower step in the step-down program. There’s no mistake of that according to the regulations,” Carbone told lawmakers.

Under the new pilot 5-phase step-down program through which SHU inmates can “earn their way” out of solitary confinement, prisoners face losses in privileges – such as a reduction in the number of personal items allowed in their cells – and are forced to repeat a prior step if they are found guilty of a “serious disciplinary offense”, including engaging in “gang activity”.

“Failure to complete program requirements and/or confirmed criminal gang behaviors during any program step will require the offender to repeat or regress to a prior step,” according to the CDCR’s prison gang management memo published in March 2012. As Harrington alluded in his initial statements, the department could interpret participation in a hunger strike as a breach of “institutional security” and therefore violate the step-down program requirements.

Carbone pointed out that under the regulation in place CDCR wouldn’t even have to tie the hunger strike to a “gang nexus” to demote an inmate in the step-down program.

Although the step-down program will take a minimum of 4 years to complete, regressing to a prior step will extend the time an inmate spends in the SHU by at least a year.

Michael Stainer, CDCR’s Deputy Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, confirmed during the hearing that there aren’t any limitations to how long an inmate can remain in the step-down program.

“If an inmate refuses to participate in a step-down program or if they exhibit behaviors that have a tie or nexus to gang activities, they will not be permitted to progress [and be released from solitary confinement],” said Stainer.

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12 Comments on “CA prison official offers muddled response on whether participation in a peaceful hunger strike would prolong detention of inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay

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