Analysis: Debriefing clause deters CA solitary confinement inmates from participating in step-down program

PHOTO CREDIT: Jenny C. Jiang

Inmates held in long-term solitary confinement in California are reportedly reluctant to participate in a new step-down program because they are required to “snitch” or inform investigators of any gang or criminal activities they know about when they are released back into the prison’s general population.

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

More than 2,400 prisoners are serving indeterminate terms in solitary confinement. Some have been held in Secure Housing Units (SHU), where they are prohibited from virtually any contact with other inmates, family, or friends, for more than 20 years. In July and September of 2011, thousands of prisoners participated in hunger strikes to protest the conditions in the SHU and call for an end to indefinite solitary confinement.

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

In response, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began offering a voluntary 5-phase step-down program to allow SHU inmates – most of whom are “validated” prison gang members or associates – to “earn their way” out of solitary confinement.

In the past, inmates serving indeterminate SHU terms could be placed back in the general population only if they prove their “inactive” status in a gang for a minimum period of 6 years or if they debrief – or provide investigators with information on gang activities, members, or associates. The 6-year “inactive” status is all but impossible to prove, and most inmates refuse to debrief out of safety concerns.

Although California prison officials say the step-down program offers SHU inmates an alternative to debriefing, the program’s contract requires the step-down participant to report any gang or criminal activities of which he is aware.

“CDCR has every intent[ion] of maintaining a controversial debriefing program which requires inmates to undermine their personal safety and their family’s safety as basically a non-confidential informant,” said Charles Carbone, a prisoner’s rights attorney. “Everyone else in the SHU knows who has ‘snitched’ and who has not at great peril to that person…That debriefing element is actually now incorporated into the step-down program.”

But CDCR officials simply attributed the step-down program’s slow traction to a “cultural change” for the inmates.

“We had an inmate who was told he was going into step 5 and he refused to sign the contract, not participating in the step-down. When he was given a little bit more information – that he was going to be in general population, then he was in agreement. He still wasn’t going to sign the contract but he was in agreement,” said Michael Ruff, the senior Special Agent in charge for the Office of Correctional Safety. “I think it’s a cultural thing…whether they’re not be trusting or just don’t want to participate in something. But I think that may change over time.”

Testifying before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety on Feb. 25, Michael Stainer, Deputy Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, claimed that inmates are being instructed by gang leaders not to sign on to the step-down program.

Here’s an excerpt of Stainer’s exchange with Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell:

Michael Stainer:
“And I’ll be honest with the…committee here – there’s also intelligence that these inmates are being instructed not to participate in this program.”

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell:

Michael Stainer:
“By leaders.”

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell:
“From the inside.”

Michael Stainer:

Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell:
“And what would be the motivation – tell me?”

Michael Stainer:
“We build the program, provided another avenue outside of debriefing. It’s a legitimate program…Why would they refuse that? I don’t know.”

But Stainer finally acknowledged the obstacle posed by the debriefing element in the step-down program contract when Assemblyman Tom Ammiano read aloud the Step 5 requirement.

“Here it says in step – I believe it’s 5 – that you, being the inmate, would have responsibility to report STG or criminal activity when known or observed by you. So that is part of the contract. Could that be one of the hang-ups?” Ammiano asked.

“Could be,” Stainer responded curtly, prompting laughter and head shakes from the audience.

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2 Comments on “Analysis: Debriefing clause deters CA solitary confinement inmates from participating in step-down program

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

  2. Pingback: Analysis: CDCR's revised gang validation or "Security Threat Group" classification system | What The Folly?!

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