For the past three decades or so, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has attempted to suppress gang violence in its prisons by segregating anyone thought be have gang affiliations in their notorious secure housing units (SHUs) ? and leaving them there for years or even decades. Last summer, two state-wide hunger strikes protesting SHU conditions shed an uncomfortable spotlight on these policies and the CDCR was obliged to rethink its approach.
Recently, it issued an outline of its revised strategy (pdf), including details of the much-anticipated step-down program. While the new strategy has been welcomed by stakeholders in an "anything is better than nothing" kind of way, it falls far short of addressing the grievances that forced it into being.
The four-year step-down program (SDP), will at least provide SHU inmates with a mechanism to earn their way back to the general prison population. That's reasonably good news for new SHU inmates, who, until now, would have had to resign themselves to spending a minimum of six years in an 8x10ft concrete box, with no window and no human contact, before their case even came up for review. But for those who have been in one for years or decades already, the SDP appears to offer little more than a guarantee of at least three and a half more years of almost total isolation.
In year one, for instance, the only change SHU inmates can expect is to partake in "in-cell studies designed to enhance life skills". Year two is more of the same, with a few carrots thrown in, namely a deck of playing cards, one phone call per year and the ability to spend an additional $11 per month (of their own money) in the canteen. Year three allows for two phone calls per year, and a few other random perks that include "a plastic tumbler, a plastic bowl, a pair of seasonal tennis shoes, a combination of 10 books, newspapers or magazines, and a domino game". Year four adds a chess set to the mix.
It's not until year three that actual group meetings are permitted, and only in the latter half of year four will the inmates get to have some level of "yard interaction". It's little wonder that both the inmates and their advocates are less than enthused about a supposed reform program that barely goes further in the first two years than allowing them to wear seasonal tennis shoes as they play solitaire in their cells.
Naturally, the CDCR doesn't want to rush things, as the program could suffer serious setbacks if anything goes wrong, but the mediation team who negotiated on behalf of the prisoners during the hunger strikes has pointed out to the CDCR that the Connecticut Department of Correction (credited with establishing a national model for gang management) managed to do in five and a half months what the CDCR is hoping to achieve in four years.
Still, at least there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, which is no small thing for prisoners who have spent decades without normal access to sunlight. If they manage to refrain from all future gang-related activity, they will eventually be released from the SHU.
This is not as easy as it sounds, however, as what constitutes gang activity is so broadly defined that it's next to impossible for inmates to remain violation-free. This was highlighted for me by one of my SHU correspondents in a recent letter:
"I was given a retaliatory 115 (a write-up) because I said 'Hey, Abdul' on my way to the clinic and 'All right, Vitani', on my way back. Again, I've been accused of 'promotion of gang activity'. This is an attempt to ensure that when the step-down program is enacted, I won't be allowed to participate."
Terry Thornton, the CDCR spokeswoman, assured me that no inmate will be precluded from participating in the SDP for prior write-ups, but this inmate and others are right to worry that they may have trouble staying violation-free and graduating from the program. If the language in the proposal is so broad that just saying hello to a fellow inmate may be interpreted as gang activity, then their concern seems justified.
One element of the new strategy that is very welcome is a change to the gang validation process that allowed inmates be sent to the SHU in the first place. Most people assume (I certainly did) that SHU placements are reserved for inmates who are violent or dangerous. Yet the fact is that many men who have ended up in California's SHUs are there simply because they have been "validated" as a gang member or associate. Until now, the validation system has been arbitrary and capricious, with no due process and no external review: X says Y is a gang member, so Y gets sent to the SHU. CDCR's own former under-secretary, Scott Kernan (who retired shortly after the hunger strikes), admitted in an interview that the department was guilty of "over-validating" inmates, and that their SHU policies had "gone too far".
Most people have little sympathy for these men: they are criminals, after all, who at one point in their lives mistreated and abused other citizens. But when the state that is charged with correcting these criminals goes on to abuse and mistreat them, in turn ? and I'd say mistreatment and abuse are gentle terms for locking a person in a concrete box for 10-20 years ? they lose the moral high ground.
With its new gang management strategy, the CDCR has taken a step towards regaining some of that terrain, but right now, it looks like there's still a steep climb ahead.
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