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Lawmakers on Tuesday cast doubt on proposed changes to how California prison officials identify gang members and place them in solitary confinement.

The issue burst into prominence during a widespread hunger strike this summer, the third in two years, during which convicts and their allies liken prolonged physical isolation to torture.

Isolated cells are used to punish inmates who commit violent offenses while in prison and, more controversially, to separate purported gang members from other prisoners. Advocates for prisoners call the technique inhumane and psychologically devastating, particularly the use of indefinite terms that can leave offenders in solitary cells for decades.

Corrections officials have touted a new pilot program allowing inmates to ease their way out of solitary confinement, and regulations recently submitted to the Office of Administrative Law would allow the pilot to be applied throughout the prison system.

But legislators seemed skeptical that the changes would substantially reduce the practice of walling off inmates in the "Security Housing Units," or SHU, that exist in four state prisons.

"What we've set up here is something that's more complicated than the existing policy, it changes some names," said Senate Public Safety Committee chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, but "I am not sure it changes the general thrust of what's happening."

Hancock's Assembly Public Safety Committee counterpart, Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, also questioned the rubric officials use to gauge gang affiliation based on "source items" like legal documents, written notes and tattoos.

"To this eye, there's a vagueness," said Ammiano, adding in regards to the proposed new system that "a lot of it is lip service."

Later in the day, Ammiano announced a bill that would cap "administrative" terms in the SHU - those not related to a specific incident, which would include stays stemming from gang affiliation - at 36 months. The legislation would also allow inmates to exit more quickly by accumulating good behavior credits.

Separately, the new rules CDCR is promoting would change how officials identify which inmates are gang associates eligible for solitary, relying more on inmate behavior. Those already confined to the solitary cells would have the option to progress through a "step-down" program allowing them to reintegrate into the general prison population within three to four years.

"I think we all agree it is far too easy to get in and too hard to get out, and that the stays in this environment were certainly too long," said Martin Hoshino, undersecretary of operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Prison officials maintain that secure housing units help thwart dangerous prison gangs and protect general prison populations from more violent inmates. During Tuesday's hearing, officials who oversee the process pointed to progress in opening a pathway out of solitary.

The corrections department has launched a pilot program offering reduced SHU terms to inmates who go through the step-down process of renouncing gang activity. It has also launched a case-by-case review that has led to nearly 600 inmates, of 632 examined, being approved for reintegration into the general population or enrolled in step-down programs. Hoshino said that number "speaks for itself."

"It is not something we are planning to do or are talking about doing, it is something that actually happened and is happening as we speak," said Hoshino.

Those proposals seem largely cosmetic to advocates, who argue officials will still cycle prisoners through solitary units and object to the number of CDCR-labeled "security threat groups" whose members risk the SHU. They argue the step-down process is coercive and endangers inmates, particularly a "debriefing" option. And they say inmates have little opportunity to challenge wrongful assignments to the SHU.

But their foremost concern remains the possibility of isolation without release.

"The default term for validated inmates in California is indefinite," said Charles Carbone, an attorney who has represented prisoners, and "the underlying conditions in the security housing units and the deprivations - the inability to have direct sunlight, the lack of phone calls - that, too, has not changed."

California stands out for it aggressive use of solitary confinement, testified Prof. Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He pointed out that the reduced four-year terms cooperative SHU inmates can serve under the new rules still dwarf solitary confinement terms in other states.

"There is simply no other prison system in the country that I know of that places so many prisoners in isolation, and no other state that places them remotely for as long as we do," Haney said.

After the hearing, disbelief still clouded Sylvia Rogokos' face as she flipped through the art book she said was a piece of evidence used to lock her brother Frank, serving 15 to life for murder, in a solitary cell for 23 years.

"(The corrections department) is making these bogus claims and keeping them warehoused there as human real estate," Rogokos said. "He was just forgotten back there."

PHOTO: An inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison gives a "pinky shake" to a guard, near Crescent City, Calif., Feb. 9, 2012. The New York Times/Jim Wilson


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