Analysis: CDCR’s revised gang validation or “Security Threat Group” classification system
Inmates “validated” by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) as gang members or associates are placed in Secure Housing Units (SHU), where they are banned from virtually any contact with their family, friends, or other prisoners for a minimum term of 6 years.
A validated gang member or associate can exit the SHU only if (1) he debriefs or provides investigators with information on gang activities, members, or associates or (2) if he can prove his “inactive” status with a gang for an entire 6-year period. Inmates who do not meet those vigorous criteria are held indefinitely in solitary confinement.
California prison officials have argued that solitary confinement is necessary to mitigate the security threats posed by prison gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family, Mexican Mafia, Nazi Low Riders, Northern Structure, Nuetra Familia, and the Texas Syndicate.
“The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation manages arguably the most violent and sophisticated gang members and associates in the nation,” according to CDCR’s Security Threat Group Prevention, Identification and Management Strategy published in March 2012. “California prison gangs are routinely and consistently connected to major criminal activities in the community, including such crimes as homicides, drug trafficking, prostitution, human trafficking, and extortion.”
2011 prison hunger strikes brought renewed scrutiny to CDCR’s gang validation process
Prisoner rights advocates and families of SHU inmates have long complained about the lack of due process and meaningful oversight of CDCR’s gang validation process. In 2011, thousands of prisoners staged hunger strikes to protest the conditions in the SHU and demand reforms to the gang validation process.
In particular, advocates have criticized CDCR’s practice of sentencing inmates with periodic interactions with alleged gang members or associates to 6-year SHU terms.
What’s worse, prisoner rights advocates have pointed out, is CDCR’s practice of using confidential sources and seemingly innocuous reading materials, writings, art works, and tattoos to validate gang associates.
“We are kept in solitary confinement for things that have nothing to do with gang activities, such as drawings, lending a book or magazine to someone. These are things that the majority of us are being kept in solitary confinement,” wrote one SHU inmate. “And due to these long years of sitting in a windowless cell about the size of a restroom for 23 hours a day has resulted in many physical and mental health issues.”
A woman, whose son is being held in isolation, highlighted the arbitrary nature of CDCR’s gang validation with this statement:
“A year ago, I found myself standing next to you at a stop light,” the woman told Assemblyman Tom Ammiano at a public hearing on Feb. 25th. “We exchanged a couple of words, and we walked across the street. That neither made me your friend nor a politician. But yet, my son is considered [a gang] associate with people that he didn’t even talk to.”
Pilot program’s Security Threat Group (gang) classification
In October 2012, CDCR launched a 2-year pilot program revamping the gang validation criteria in response to the hunger strikes.
According to CDCR officials, the new policy would shift focus from an inmate’s alleged association or identification with a gang to whether the inmate’s actions have ties to gang activities.
“For example, affiliates that are identified as [gang] associates will no longer be considered for direct placement into the Secure Housing Unit unless there is a nexus to confirm this learned behavior and found guilty and there include a nexus to Security Threat Group activities,” explained Michael Stainer, CDCR’s Deputy Director of the Division of Adult Institutions.
Under the new Security Threat Group classification system, CDCR would assign point values to source items that indicate an inmate’s affiliation or involvement in a prison gang. In order to validate a gang member or associate, CDCR must compile at least 3 independent source items that add up 10 points.
The new Security Threat Group unit classification “will provide an enhanced due process review when reviewing the initial validations,” Stainer said.
The source items that fall in the lower end of the point value spectrum include:
- symbols such as gang “hand signs, distinctive clothing, graffiti” (2 points)
- information supplied by confidential and non-confidential informants (3 points)
- debriefing reports (3 points)
- written materials such as membership or enemy lists in the inmate’s possession (4 points) or not in the inmate’s possession (2 points)
The source items valued at 4 points include:
- photographs with “gang connotations such as those which include insignia, symbols, or other identified [gang] affiliates”
- documentation of prison staff’s visual or audible observations
- information indicating an inmate’s gang affiliation provided by other agencies
- information indicating an inmate’s gang association such as “addresses, names, identities”
- visitors that are “documented as willfully promoting, furthering or assisting [Security Threat Group] affiliates in activities associated with the [Security Threat Group]“
- “telephone conversations, conversations between offenders, mail, notes, greeting cards, or other communication, included coded messages evidencing [Security Threat Group] activity”
The source items that fall in the higher end of the point value spectrum include:
- self-admission or an inmate’s “verbal, written or otherwise implied admission and specific involvement” with a gang (5 points)
- an offense “committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with any [Security Threat Group]“ (6 points)
- tattoos or body markings “distinctive” to a specific gang (6 points)
- legal documents such as “court transcripts, probation officer’s reports, crime reports, arrest reports, or other legal documents evidencing gang conduct” (7 points)
Although it is possible to rack up 10 points with just 2 source items (i.e. a legal document plus a photograph], Stainer clarified that CDCR would still “be required to have 3 independent sources” to validate an inmate as a gang member or associate.
Criticisms of CDCR’s revised gang validation criteria
Prisoner rights advocates have criticized CDCR’s revised gang validation policy as “regressive” because it expands the potential pool of inmates who could be held in solitary confinement.
“The changes actually vastly expands – not restrict – who can be validated,” said Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights attorney based in San Francisco. “Only is the Department of Corrections capable of calling something a reform when it’s actually an expansion of its power in this capacity.”
The criteria for what would qualify as “behavior-based” offenses are defined so broadly that even Ammiano questioned whether the pilot program made any real reforms to CDCR’s gang validation policy.
“You are basically saying that this is good, this is an improvement, this is different, and then from the outside, some of it seems the same to me,” said Ammiano.
For instance, although CDCR officials have claimed that the new policy would emphasize behavior-based evidence over mere “identification” or “association” with a gang in the validation process, it’s worth noting that there is only 1 source item assigned a high point value (6 points) that directly ties an inmate’s action in prison to gang activity.
Under the revised classification system, an inmate is probably more likely to be validated and sent to the SHU for bearing a tattoo, possessing a greeting card with drawings that could be interpreted as “coded messages”, or receiving a visitor disliked by CDCR than committing a serious gang-related offense in prison.
“Although the new matrix appears to distinguish association from behavior, when you look closely you realize that behavior is defined so broadly that it virtually rules that any rules violation becomes behaviored. Behavior is no longer confined to gang situations,” said Laura Magnani, representative from the American Friends Service Committee. “It really makes a mockery of the distinction between association and behavior. We were looking for something like violent behavior as a behavior that might be problematic…but it appears the department is really giving its staff a huge amount of discretion to decide what behavior would constitute behavior with regard to being assigned to the SHU.”
In addition, prisoner rights advocates have raised concerns about CDCR’s decision to assign the highest point value (7 points) to legal documents with references to gang conduct.
By doing so, CDCR has expanded the pool of prospective SHU inmates to include individuals who have been accused of being involved in a gang before they’ve even entered prison. This is a departure from CDCR’s prior gang validation policy, which focused on managing security threats posed by prison gangs.
At the hearing, Stainer tried to justify the high point value assigned to the legal documentation source item by claiming that it would only be used if the person has been convicted of a gang-related crime.
“The legal document is used if the individual…where a jury or juror of his peers have actually convicted [him] of a crime that had a gang nexus to it,” Stainer explained. “We hold a lot more value to something along those line where they’ve had additional due process.”
However, the Security Threat Group criteria clearly stated that any legal documents – such as “court transcripts, probation officer’s reports, crime reports, arrest reports” referencing gang involvement – regardless of whether the inmate was convicted of a gang-related crime would qualify for the 7 points.
“I would say it is an utter misrepresentation of the rules to say that [CDCR] would only be assessing 7 points when a jury found someone guilty essentially of gang enhancement. If you have a probation officer opining in a case that there were gang dimensions to the crime, clearly that could be used as a 7-point legal document,” Carbone pointed out.
- WhatTheFolly.com: 5 things you should know about solitary confinement in California state prisons
- WhatTheFolly.com: Analysis: CDCR’s pilot Secure Housing Unit (SHU) step-down program
- WhatTheFolly.com: Analysis: CDCR’s revised gang validation or “Security Threat Group” classification system
- WhatTheFolly.com: Analysis: Debriefing clause deters CA solitary confinement inmates from participating in step-down program
- WhatTheFolly.com: 50% of solitary confinement inmates reviewed under CDCR’s pilot program are recommended for release to general population
- WhatTheFolly.com: 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
- WhatTheFolly.com: Pelican Bay solitary confinement inmates threaten to resume hunger strike in July
- WhatTheFolly.com: Roundup: Testimonies on California’s solitary confinement policies, Secure Housing Unit (SHU) step-down program & revised gang validation criteria
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Testimony by CDCR officials on the proposed solitary confinement reforms before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Testimony by Renee Hansen on CDCR’s proposed Secure Housing Unit reforms before the California Assembly Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Testimony by Charles Carbone on California’s solitary confinement reforms before the Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Public comments on California’s solitary confinement policies at the Committee on Public Safety hearing on Feb. 25, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Testimony by Marie Levin on California’s solitary confinement policies before the Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Testimony by Irene Huerta on California’s solitary confinement policies before the Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Testimony by Laura Magnani on California’s solitary confinement policies before the Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Lawsuit challenges California’s prolonged solitary confinement policy
- WhatTheFolly.com: Recent developments in California’s solitary confinement policies
- WhatTheFolly.com: California’s recidivism rate drops but remains one of the nation’s highest
- California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation: Security Threat Group Prevention, Identification and Management Strategy – March 1, 2012 (PDF)
- Letter from Pelican Bay State Prison SHU inmates to Gov. Jerry Brown and CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard on the resumption of hunger strike and work stoppage on July 8, 2013 (PDF)