Analysis: CDCR’s pilot Secure Housing Unit (SHU) step-down program

SOURCE: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Facebook.com

In October 2012, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation launched a 2-year pilot program to test out reforms to the state’s solitary confinement policies in response to the July 2011 prison hunger strike.

READ MORE: Pelican Bay solitary confinement inmates threaten to resume hunger strike in July

One of the key reforms proposed by CDCR is a step-down program to allow Secure Housing Unit (SHU) inmates to “earn their way” out of solitary confinement.

“The step-down program will provide graduated housing with corresponding enhancements, privileges, personal property allowances, programs, and person interaction with the ultimate goal of re-integrating participants back into the general population,” testified Michael Stainer, CDCR’s Deputy Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, at the Assembly Committee on Public Safety hearing on Feb. 25. “This provides them with the opportunity to demonstrate to both the staff as well as to themselves and other inmates that they can successfully complete the program with other inmates and be released ultimately to the general population rather than debriefing or the inactive process.”

Traditionally, “validated” gang members or associates placed in the SHU must either debrief – in other words, provide investigators with information on alleged prison gang members or associates – or serve a minimum 6-year term in solitary confinement and then prove that they’ve been “inactive” – or have renounced or severed any and all ties to gangs – during that entire period in order to be released back into the prison’s general population.

Most SHU inmates choose not to debrief for their personal safety and for fear of retribution against their families, and the 6-year “inactive” standard as set by CDCR is nearly impossible to meet since any seemingly innocuous art work or communications with family members could be interpreted as “gang” activity.

“We are kept in solitary confinement for things that have nothing to do with gang activities, such as drawings, photocopies or art works, saying hi to someone, lending a book or magazine to someone. These are the things that the majority of us are being kept in solitary confinement,” according to a letter written by prisoner who has been held in isolation for 20 years at Pelican Bay.

READ MORE: 50% of solitary confinement inmates reviewed under CDCR’s pilot program are recommended for release to general population

As a result, there are more than 2,400 inmates in California who are currently serving indefinite terms in solitary confinement because of their alleged “active” gang involvement or association.

According to Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights attorney from San Francisco, in Pelican Bay State Prison alone, there are 248 inmates who have been held in extreme isolation for 5 to 10 years; 218 inmates who have spent the past 10 to 20 years in solitary confinement; and close to 100 have been in the SHU for more than 20 years.

One of the key reforms demanded by the prisoners during the 2011 hunger strike is to end the indefinite SHU terms and replace the 6-year “inactive” gang status criteria with a step-down program.

OVERVIEW OF CDCR’S PILOT STEP-DOWN PROGRAM:

CDCR’s pilot step-down program will take at least 4 years to complete. Participation in the program is voluntary.

Step 1: Minimum duration 12 months

  • $55 monthly canteen draw limit
  • 1 photo allowed upon completion of the 12 months disciplinary free
  • Phone call allowed only on an emergency basis as determined by CDCR staff
  • May possess 1 TV or 1 radio or 1 TV/radio combination in cell
  • College programs
  • Observation phase – in-cell studies to improve life skills, such as anger management and cognitive skill programs such as “Thinking for a Change”
  • 10 hours of yard time
  • Meals consumed in cell
  • Allowed 1 personal package per year not to exceed 30 pounds

Step 2: Minimum duration 12 months

  • $66 monthly canteen draw limit
  • 1 photo allowed upon completion of the 12 months disciplinary free
  • 1 phone call allowed to an approved friend or family member upon completion of step 1
  • May possess 1 TV or 1 radio or 1 TV/radio combination in cell
  • College programs
  • Observation phase – in-cell studies to improve life skills, such as anger management and cognitive skill programs such as “Thinking for a Change”
  • 10 hours of yard time
  • Meals consumed in cell
  • Allow possession of playing cards
  • Allowed 1 personal package per year not to exceed 30 pounds

Step 3: Minimum duration 12 months

  • $88 monthly canteen draw limit
  • 2 photos allowed upon completion of the 12 months disciplinary free
  • 2 phone calls allowed to an approved friend or family member upon completion of step 2
  • May possess 1 TV or 1 radio or 1 TV/radio combination in cell
  • College programs
  • Enhanced privileges
  • Peer interaction
  • Individual and group meetings for anger management, parenting, substance abuse, and other self-help programs
  • At least 10 hours of yard time
  • Meals consumed in cell
  • Allow possession of plastic tumbler, plastic bowl, pair of tennis shoes, playing cards, domino game, and a combination of 10 books, newspapers or magazines
  • Allowed 1 personal package per year not to exceed 30 pounds

Step 4: Minimum duration 12 months

  • $110 monthly canteen draw limit
  • 2 photos allowed upon completion of the 12 months disciplinary free
  • 4 phone calls allowed to a friend or family member upon completion of step 3
  • May possess 1 TV or 1 radio or 1 TV/radio combination in cell
  • College programs
  • Transitional program and enhanced privileges
  • Peer interaction
  • Group meetings and therapy
  • Programs such as Alternatives to Violence, Gang Anonymous, Cage Your Rage, The Change Company Journaling system
  • At least 10 hours of yard time and interactions with other inmates after 6 months
  • Meals consumed with other step-down program inmates
  • Allow possession of plastic tumbler, plastic bowl, pair of tennis shoes, playing cards, domino game, photo album, chess, checker, and a combination of 10 books, newspapers or magazines
  • Allowed 2 personal packages per year not to exceed 30 pounds for each package

 

CRITICISMS OF THE PILOT STEP-DOWN PROGRAM:

1. The step-down program does not address the indefinite nature of solitary confinement in California. Stainer confirmed that there is no limitation on how long an inmate can remain in the step-down program.

Excerpts from the Feb. 25 hearing:

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano:
“So then under the new rules, are there any real limitations to how long someone can remain in the step-down program?”

Michael Stainer:
“There aren’t. 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.”

2. The step-down program would require a minimum of 4 years to complete, prolonging the solitary confinement of inmates some of whom have been held in the SHU for more than 10 years.

Families of SHU inmates also pointed out that the first 2 years of the pilot program – Steps 1 and 2 – serve merely as an “observational period” with minimal rehabilitation programming and education to help the inmates prepare for re-integration to the general population.

Irene Huerta, whose husband has been held in solitary confinement for 28 years, expressed dismay at the length of the step-down program.

“Under the new step-down program, he would have to serve 4 more years as an alleged gang member, which he has already served 28,” said Huerta. “Those who have already been in for decades don’t need to prove themselves any longer, especially for those who have been in [SHU] for years and who have educated and better themselves.”

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3 Comments on “Analysis: CDCR’s pilot Secure Housing Unit (SHU) step-down program

  1. Pingback: America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Pt. 7 Pelican Bay | General Strike USA

  2. Pingback: Special Report: Solitary Confinement in California | What The Folly?!

  3. Pingback: Analysis: Debriefing clause deters CA solitary confinement inmates from participating in step-down program | What The Folly?!

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