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California prisons revamp isolation cells policy

Posted: December 23, 2012 4:00 a.m.
Updated: December 23, 2012 4:00 a.m.
In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, a correctional officer works at one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City. In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, a correctional officer works at one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City.
In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, a correctional officer works at one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Prison officials tossed convicted killer Todd Ashker into California's notorious Security Housing Unit 25 years ago after "validating" him as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood gang.

He's still there today, along with some 2,000 other SHU prisoners classified as gang member or associates serving indeterminate sentences in windowless cells in almost complete isolation.

They say their only way out of the 8-foot by 10-foot cells with few creature comforts for many is to inform on other gang members, which they say is really no choice because they face deadly retaliation if they do "debrief."

A recent system-wide hunger strike by 6,000 inmates called attention to the living conditions of the thousands of prisoners held in the units. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says they are the worst of the worst — inmates who when not isolated threaten other inmates and run gang and drug operations from inside prison walls.

Nonetheless, CDCR is in the midst of what it calls a "dramatic" policy shift in how it determines who belongs in isolation and what SHU inmates need to do to return to the general population. It intends to review the case file of thousands of SHU inmates to determine if they should be transferred to better living conditions.

Since October, CDCR officials have reviewed 88 SHU cases and decided that 58 SHU inmates will be transferred. Another 25 have been placed in a "step-down" program and can work for their transfer to the general population.

Just 63 inmates were released out of the SHU in the 10 months of 2012 before the new policy took effect in late October.

More transfers are expected as a CDCR review of SHU sentences continues.

"This is a huge overhaul," CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. "This is a huge shift in the way we manage gangs."

The new regulation is a temporary one and set to expire in October 2014. Officials said they purposely set an expiration date so they can tweak the regulation and make changes to it after working with it for two years before enshrining it as a permanent policy.

SHU critics dismiss the policy as window dressing that fails to make substantial changes. Thousands of inmates are still locked in isolation for their tattoos, artwork, written material and actions prison officials associate with gang activity. Further, they argue the step-down process still requires "cooperation" with gang investigations and it still requires many years for release from the isolated cells.

"It's not 'dramatic' unless you are referring to a Greek tragedy," said Charles Carbone, a San Francisco lawyer representing Ashker and other Pelican Bay SHU inmates in a federal lawsuit alleging their living conditions are cruel and unusual punishment. "The reforms are actually an expansion of power by prison officials to place more prisoners in solitary confinement, thereby permitting bigger abuses of power with more people locked away in isolation for potentially decades."

Carbone alleges that the new policy expands the definitions of gang activity, which will result in more inmates getting sent off to a SHU.

Prison officials insist otherwise and argue that the new regulation requires more gang "behavior" than merely possessing suspicious artwork or letters. For instance, officials no longer automatically transfer an inmate who is found to "associate" with a gang.

The prison department also say that the new policy are not the result of the outside pressure, hunger strikes or Ashker's federal lawsuit pending in San Francisco. Instead, the department says the changes stem from a project begun in 2007 with a review of other states' practices.

Regardless of motivation, SHU critics contend that the new policy still fails to address the biggest issue they have with the punishment: its seemingly endless duration for most inmates sent off to isolation units in four prisons throughout the state. Once in the SHU, inmates are confined to their cells for at least 22 ½ hours a day and they are barred many of the privileges of most other inmates including phone calls and "contact" visits. They are cut off almost completely from communication with other inmates and interaction with staff is severely limited.

CDCR records indicate that 500 inmates have been held in isolation for more than 20 years, 200 for 15 years and 78 for more than 20 years.

"No other U.S. state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation," Amnesty International concluded in a September report calling SHU living conditions "inhumane." Amnesty International published its report after the group toured two prisons with SHUs for men; Corcoran State Prison and Pelican Bay State Prison in remote Northern California. Pelican Bay has about 1,000 of the special isolation cells. Amnesty also toured Valley State Prison for Women.

Ashker was shipped to a SHU in 1992 and denies he is affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood. He said in court documents that "unsubstantiated allegations from confidential informants' claims to prison staff."

Ashker wrote in a hand-written lawsuit he filed in 2009 alleging the SHU is cruel and unusual punishment that "he has never been found guilty of committing an illegal gang-related act."

Ashker said most gang "validations" are made with evidence provided by anonymous informants, "making it virtually impossible" to credibly refute.

He is serving a life sentence after he was convicted of second-degree murder of a fellow inmate at Folsom State Prison, where he was serving a six-year sentence for burglary when he stabbed to death a fellow SHU inmate.

Carbone and other lawyers have since joined Ashker's lawsuit and now represent all SHU prisoners at Pelican Bay.

Lawyers for the state contend the new policy addresses the issues raised in the Ashker lawsuit and are seeking its dismissal. A federal judge will hear arguments in February.


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