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Legislators hear testimony on California prison conditions in isolation

An inmate walks laps in his exercise cage at one of Corcoran's Security Housing Units.
Grant Slater/KPCC
An inmate walks laps in his exercise cage at one of Corcoran's Security Housing Units.

Update 5:38 p.m. California legislators heard testimony on a controversial California prison practice Wednesday. In a joint hearing of the state Assembly and state Senate public safety committees, lawmakers heard from prison officials, civil liberties advocates and a former California inmate who'd spent time in one of the state's Security Housing Units (SHUs).

A system-wide prison hunger strike this past summer protesting conditions in the SHUs inspired the hearing. The SHUs, which some call "solitary confinement," are prisons within prisons, used to separate disruptive inmates from the general prison population.

Inmates in the SHUs fall into one of two categories: inmates who commit crimes while in prison, like assault on other inmates or correctional officers; or inmates who've been pegged as prison gang leaders or associates. The first category, about 40 percent of California's 4,054 SHU inmates, spend up to five years in the SHU. Those in the SHU because of an association with a prison gang can be kept there indefinitely. 

Twenty-three SHU inmates have been there for at least 25 years — and 84 for more than 20 years. An additional 303 have been in the SHU at least 10 years. 

During the hearing, lawmakers questioned the humanity and utility of prolonged use of locked-down isolation cells to quell prison gang activity. 

"I wonder if there's been any reduction in gang membership as a result of putting so many people in SHU," Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner said to officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

"I don't know that that's the case at all," said CDCR Deputy Director Michael Stainer. Stainer said CDCR lacked the resources to keep real data that would track the results of policies like the SHU. 

Stainer also said it's too early to tell whether a policy change that's granted the release of about 343 SHU inmates to the general prison population so far has had any negative effects on prison safety.  

"We need this informational gathering system to judge whether or not these policies are effective," Stainer said.

Stainer estimated housing an inmate in a SHU costs about $15,000-$20,000 more per year than housing an inmate in a high-security general population yard.

Lawmakers also questioned prison officials about conditions inside the SHUs — whether inmate complaints about food are justified, whether inmates are allotted visitations and whether mentally-ill inmates can participate in group therapy sessions.

CDCR Deputy Director Kelly Harrington explained that inmates participate in group therapy while in individual, cage-like "treatment modules." Similarly, SHU inmates in some prisons, like Corcoran, exercise in outdoor cages.

"I've got to say this," Ammiano said. "There's just so many comparisons to a zoo. Feeding terms, 'treatment modules.' I don't know, we've got to do something about that."

Later in the hearing, Georgetown adjunct law professor Margaret Winter, who also heads the ACLU's National Prison Project, told lawmakers the tide is turning nationally when it comes to use of isolation in prisons. 

"Every reputable study has found negative effects," Winter said, noting that when she helped the Mississippi Department of Corrections reduce its use of isolation, prison violence actually went down.

Asked for alternative methods for dealing with inmates who pose a danger to other inmates or staff, Winter said segregation can be an effective short-term tool, if paired with incentives to change behavior. Most prison systems simply let inmates languish in isolation without even determining if they're still a threat, Winter said.

Ammiano and Sen. Loni Hancock, who called the hearing, said they plan on following up with inmate advocates and CDCR for more facts and to determine if legislative changes are in order.

Previously: A joint meeting of the California Assembly and Senate public safety committees in Sacramento on Wednesday delved into conditions in the state's most secure lockups.

Over the summer, about 30,000 California prison inmates participated in a hunger strike to protest conditions in prison Security Housing Units (SHU's) and Administrative Segregation Units (ASU's).

Some equate being locked up in such units to "solitary confinement" – a description the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation eschews because inmates are permitted to communicate with one another and are sometimes placed together in one cell.

Last week, prison officials opened the doors of the SHUs in Corcoran and Pelican Bay state prisons to members of the media. The goal, in part, was to address some of the concerns about inmates in the segregated units.

RELATED: Hard time or inhumane punishment? Inside the Corcoran prison SHU – Security Housing Units (Photos)

A systemwide hunger strike in California's prisons in 2011 ended when CDCR officials agreed to revamp the practice of placing prison gang members and associates in SHU's indefinitely. This summer's hunger strike had a less tangible impact, but did inspire State Senator Loni Hancock and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano –both from the San Francisco Bay area – to host a joint hearing on SHU conditions and "long-term solitary confinement as a prison management strategy."

The hearing, which starts at 1 p.m., is expected to feature testimony from state Inspector General Robert Barton, CDCR officials, civil liberties advocates, and former SHU inmates.

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly streamed a special session of the California Supreme Court.