Advocacy groups wary of new plan for prison isolation units
Michael Montgomery (KABC) | September 13, 2012
State corrections officials are moving forward with a plan for handling prison gangs and other violent groups, including changing rules that have kept some inmates locked in special isolation units for decades.
But the initiative is raising concern among prisoner rights advocates and some experts who worry that it will do little to improve stark conditions or cut the backlog of inmates awaiting placement into the units.
“There’s nothing I can see in this policy that will change the flow of inmates into these very expensive facilities,” said David Ward, a retired University of Minnesota sociologist who served on an influential 2007 expert panel appointed by the state to study how California manages prison gangs.
At issue are California’s four Security Housing Units, which are designed to isolate the state’s most dangerous inmates, including those connected to violent prison gangs. The units routinely have been denounced as inhumane by civil rights groups and were the focus of widespread hunger strikes last year.
Early next month, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will begin modifying operations in the special units under a plan that has been in development for more than a year. The department has asserted that nearly all 3,000 inmates being held in the facilities – at Pelican Bay State Prison, California State Prison Corcoran, the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi and California State Prison Sacramento – are active in prison gangs.
“We’ve had years of violence in our facilities and in the community that have been driven by prison gangs,” said Terri McDonald, the department’s undersecretary of operations. “We’re going to implement this policy in a thoughtful, measured way to ensure institutional and community security.”
Formal changes to state regulations could take several years, she said. In the meantime, the department is implementing the policy on a pilot basis.
Under the plan, inmates are eligible to work their way out of the special units in three to four years if they complete special programs alongside prisoners from rival groups and do not engage in gang “behavior or activities.” McDonald said inmates will not be required to divulge inside information about the gangs in order to earn transfers out of the units, a controversial practice known as “debriefing.”
Photo credit: Michael Montgomery/California Watch
Tags: California, California State Prison Corcoran, California State Prison Sacramento, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, isolation units, Pelican Bay State Prison, Prison Gangs, prison reform, Security Housing Units, the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi