With California inmates still recuperating from weeks of self-imposed starvation, state lawmakers pressed prison officials Wednesday for more information about the solitary-confinement policies that prompted prisoners to refuse nourishment.
"I'm grateful and relieved that it ended without further sacrifice or risk of human life," said Senate Public Safety Committee chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, "but the issues remain, and the issues that were raised during the hunger strike are real and concern about the conditions in California's supermax prisons cannot be ignored."
Hancock's Assembly counterpart, Assembly Public Safety Committee chair Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, opened the hearing by describing extended stays in solitary confinement as "beyond the pale" and chastising the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for "a very aberrant policy attitude."
"I don't want lip service," Ammiano said, adding that "if necessary, I want legislation from these hearings."
Corrections officials defend the Security Housing Unit, or SHU, as a crucial weapon for controlling gang activity. By walling off gang members from other prisoners, officials say, they are protecting the general prison population from violence and coercion and suppressing gang leaders' ability to direct their disciples on the streets.
Advocates and family members of inmates see a human rights abuse. They have called for changes that include ending the use of indefinite terms in the SHU, altering the criteria officials use to identify gang members and overhauling the process by which prisoners can renounce gang activity and get out of the SHU.
"It's taken a while for this issue to reach the radar, so to speak, of the Legislature," Ammiano said,
Just over 4,000 California inmates currently reside in SHU units, California Inspector General Robert Barton testified. About 60 percent are gang-linked prisoners serving open-ended terms, and more than 500 of them have been in the SHU for five years or more.
Those numbers fueled pointed questions from lawmakers about the guidelines for assigning inmates to the SHU. Lawmakers wondered why gang affiliation, and not necessarily an explicitly violent offense, can lead to an indefinite stay.
"Not to defend gang membership, but certainly if you're a prison inmate, because of the dynamics all humans form groups. That's what we do," Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, adding that "to have as a policy being put in the SHU for (gang affiliation) alone is very, very difficult to justify."
Michael Stainer, acting director of CDCR's Division of Adult Institutions, detailed the process by which officials label inmates as gang members. He said inmates have an opportunity to respond to accusations of gang activity, although they do not receive any counsel or outside advice, and noted that prisons have begun implementing a pilot "step-down" program that has resulted in inmates being released from the SHU.
"Yesterday's policy put a man in the SHU based simply upon his association or affiliation with a gang," Stainer said, but "the new policy addresses individual behavior and individual accountability."
"We are reviewing inmates every week and some are being retained based upon behaviors," he added, "and some are being released based upon lack of those behaviors."
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers pressed charged that information is lacking on a range of areas that relate to solitary confinement, from the percentage of nonviolent offenders placed in the SHU to data on attempted suicides.
"I have found in trying to research these issues that there is very little useful and well-organized data that answers the questions policymakers need to make decisions," said Hancock, "and as a result it seems that there is very little practice informed by an understanding of actual outcomes."
PHOTO: A correctional officer is seen in one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City on Aug. 17, 2011. The Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli.