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California solitary confinement hearings bring home the human cost

Laura Magnani of AFSC’s San Francisco office is a nationally known expert on solitary confinement.

“I’ve never seen a hearing on prison issues like this before,” was the buzz in the California State Capitol following the second hearing of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee on solitary confinement cells officially called “security housing units.”

The Feb. 25 hearing focused on the reality of new policies that are intended to change the practice of gang validation in prison, which presently leads many prisoners to be held in solitary confinement indefinitely based on their association with people whom prison staff perceives as gang members.

It’s part of a new pilot project rolled out by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in response to the prisoner hunger strikes in 2011, which created a statewide coalition of advocates, supported by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and drew national attention to solitary confinement policies that AFSC considers pervasive, costly, illegal, and inhumane. Based on decades of experience working on prison conditions, AFSC urges a ban on the practice.

Pulling back the curtain on gang labeling in prisons

At the hearing, it was the graphic stories—told by formerly incarcerated people and their families—of how these policies play out that surprised the audience of legislators and staffers. Families told how their loved ones were “validated”—labeled as a gang member—because of a book found in their cell, or a work of art deemed gang-suspicious, or because their name turned up on a list in someone else’s cell.

Elderly parents had died without ever seeing their son or daughter again, or hearing their voice.

The more a person demonstrated leadership and organizing skills, the more they were seen as a threat. Indeed, going on hunger strike itself was considered “gang activity,” because it violated the corrections department’s rules.

The corrections department itself admits that probably 80 percent of security-housing unit prisoners are there for association, not actual gang-related behavior.

Department officials testified they have begun to hold hearings for everyone housed in the security housing unit—approximately 3,500 people in four institutions—to determine if they should remain there, be placed on one of the “steps” in the newly created “step-down-program” (SDP), or be transferred to general population. Of the 144 reviewed so far, 75 were cleared for release to general population.

“Is this good news or bad news?” asked Laura Magnani of AFSC’s San Francisco office, a nationally known expert on the issue. “One could say the hearings are working, and people are being transferred—or one could say if over 50 percent are being cleared for release, why were they isolated in the first place?”

Committee members and others testifying echoed her sentiment.

Officials have yet to acknowledge that neither the new policies nor the hearings would be happening without the courage of the more than 6,000 prisoners who went on hunger strike in 2011. In a mark of their respect, the prisoners chose Laura as one of the mediators who negotiated on their behalf.

The corrections department believes that the new policies put in place answer some of the prisoners’ demands: to hold the hearings, to create a step-down process, and to change the gang-validation process to one based on acts committed, rather than on with whom one associates.

But problems remain. The step-down process is drawn out, and doesn’t allow people to shed the gang label without becoming informants—an impossible task for those who were never members of gangs in the first place.

Shame, blame to step down to general population

The new step-down process takes a minimum of four years, with the first two years really amounting to strict lockup with limited outside contact. When programming begins in the third year, it amounts to a series of workbooks in which prisoners are supposed to journal their responses to negatively phrased questions which are then subjectively reviewed to determine how sincere they are about changing their behavior.

“These are the worst kind of workbook materials,” Laura told the committee. “They are mostly designed to hammer away at people’s self-esteem and remind them how bad they have been…In my opinion, they really have the potential for doing more harm, rather than helping people make positive changes. I don’t know about you but I have never learned anything from anybody who started by telling me how rotten I was. And my fear is that if people don’t fill out these materials with the ‘right’ answers, buying into this shame and blame, they will be repeating the step all over again—with the same workbooks.”

More problematic is the shift to a “Security Threat Group” designation, instead of a gang validation process. For years, AFSC offices in other parts of the country have been sounding the alarm about the use of this designation for the way it institutes racial profiling and essentially begins labeling people as threats long before they even get to prison.  

The legislators appeared clearly shocked by what they heard, and promises were made to continue holding these hearings.

Some said that it was the first time anyone really provided concrete examples of how prison policies play out.

But there were no commitments made to introduce corrective legislation or to make the corrections department more accountable. The struggle will continue.