The solitary struggle in California prisons

From: The Guardian, May 10th 2012
By Sadhbh Walshe

Until recent protests, California locked ‘validated’ gang members in concrete boxes for years on end. So what’s changed?

photo: CDCR has contested the description of the SHUs’ 8x10ft cell as ‘solitary confinement’. 
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.

Read the rest here