By Rina Palta
Rina Palta, KPCC
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed suit in federal court Thursday on behalf of California prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Units, the most isolated, restrictive prison cells in the state.
Inmates in the SHU (pronounced “shoo”) spend 22 and a half hours in their cells each day and have more limited access to other prisoners, visitors, and programming than inmates in the general population. They’re mostly kept one person to each cell and exercise once a day in a concrete, enclosed space.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials have said that conditions in the SHU are admitedly restrictive, but with good reason. SHUs are CDCR’s primary method for combatting prison gangs, which they say wreak havoc on the prison population and have close ties to criminal street gangs.
People get to the SHU one of two ways: either they’ve committed a new crime while in prison (like assault or murder); or they’re deemed prison gang members or “affiliates.” Those convicted of a crime serve a fixed sentence, those in the SHU because of gang affiliations are kept there indefinitely. Currently, Pelican Bay’s SHU has 1,128. In August 2011, Warden Greg Lewis said about 95 percent of SHU inmates were serving indefinite terms.
Currently, the way back to a lower level cell for these inmates is a process called “debriefing,” which amounts to telling prison officials everything the inmate knows about prison gangs. Inmates can also get out if they demonstrate having no gang activity for six years.
On a press tour of Pelican Bay last year, prison officials said debriefing allows them to know the inmate is no longer a gang threat and also provides useful information in dealing with a major prison problem. Restricted communications—which officals say does not amount to “solitary confinement”—is used to keep gang “shot callers” from passing on orders and information to subordinates.
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