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Solitary Confinement in California Prisons: What Pelican Bay Prisoners Weren’t Allowed to Say to Legislators

Prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison wanted to share testimony with legislators on the conditions of their confinement, but CDCR refused to let them testify.

California permits long-term solitary confinement of prisoners. It is one of at least eight states with prison systems where a practice that is known to cause significant psychological and physical effects is acceptable.

There has been an ongoing push to end solitary confinement in the state, especially because prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison who have been held in such confinement conditions have engaged in hunger strikes over the past couple years. The resistance has aimed to push the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which operates the state prisons.

Legislative hearings have been held in the state to consider possible reforms to the state’s prisons. There has been plenty of criticism about whether these proposals would actually change anything or leave the practice of solitary confinement further entrenched in the prison’s system.

Prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison wanted to share testimony with legislators on the conditions of their confinement, but CDCR refused to let them testify, even remotely through video or audio.

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity blog posted testimony they would have given if they had been allowed by CDCR to address legislators.

“We are prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have all lived for over 15 years locked 23 hours a day in small windowless cells, without ever being able to hug or touch our families, without ever seeing birds, trees, or the outside world, with no programs or chance for parole,” four prisoners from the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Human Rights Movement declared.

They added, “California keeps us in these torturous conditions not because of any violence we have committed, but because it believes we are affiliated with a gang, often based on artwork or photos we possess, tattoos we have, literature we read, who we talk to, or anonymous informants statements that we have no way of challenging. We are put in Pelican Bay not for any specific term of months or years for misconduct we have committed, but indefinitely, which in practice means forever- unless we become informants.”

What the prisoners described is the process of “gang validation” that has been used in the prison where the prison has prisoners provide information on gang members and in return they will be freed from solitary confinement.

Shane Bauer, one of the three American hikers who was once imprisoned in solitary confinement in Iran, reported for Mother Jones in 2012, “Much of the information used to validate prisoners comes from the 108 inmates who debrief every year, creating a revolving door where people get out of the SHU by putting others in.”

One example from Bauer’s feature story:

In 2006, a prisoner with a violence-free prison record named Ricky Gray was validated as a member of the Black Guerilla Family and given an indeterminate SHU sentence. But the warden at his prison, who Gray claims was sympathetic to his case, took an unusual step: He instructed a staff assistant to reinterview the informants who had given evidence against him. The assistant concluded that the entire validation package was “comprised of conjecture, second hand expression, assumptions, frivolous statements, incomplete documentation, and blatant lack of thorough investigation.” Gray managed to obtain a copy of this confidential report, and his lawyer passed it to me, providing a rare glimpse of the type of evidence used in gang validations.

Several of the alleged informants, the assistant wrote, didn’t know Gray at all. Two others—said to have reported that Gray was recruiting inmates to the BGF—signed sworn affidavits that they had never been interviewed about the subject and didn’t know the guard who compiled their alleged statements. The paperwork that allegedly documented their statements didn’t bear their signatures. In another of the interviews used against Gray, the staff assistant says the gang investigator appeared “to be leading” the informant “to answer questions the way he would like.”

The prisoners explained last summer they were “willing to starve” themselves to “death rather than continue to endure these dehumanizing conditions forever.” The strike was ended because “several compassionate legislators promised to call the hearings that are taking place today.”

According to the prisoners:

CDCR claims to have now instituted a reform program. It is a sham, just like the so called reform they instituted a decade ago after a court settlement which resulted in no real change. This new reform effort still maintains the basic conditions at Pelican Bay, and will continue to keep prisoners in isolation for vague gang affiliation based on artwork, literature, communications, or informants’ testimony that does not meet California’s judicial standards for reliability in criminal trials…

A Christmas card with stars, literature written by black authors, the huelga bird and number 14 (symbols in Mexican American culture), newspaper articles, a drinking cup with a dragon on it are all examples of things that prison staff have used to “validate” someone as a “gang member” and put them in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU) or solitary confinement.

The prisoners argued:

California is still unwilling to move to a real behavior based system where prisoners are given determinate terms in solitary after due process hearings at which they are found guilty of some serious misconduct such as assault, murder, rape or drug dealing. Instead, these new policies widen the net of prisoners who can be labeled as gang affiliates and isolated based on that label. These unjust and ineffective policies are very expensive and have already cost our state millions of tax dollars which could be put to better use.

There is little due process for prisoners outside the prison. Challenging “gang validation” can be a long drawn-out process, and it consists of appeals to prison administrators, who are already biased against prisoners “validated” as “gang members.”

Finally, the prisoners contended:

…[E]ven those prisoners who need to be isolated from the general population because of the violence they have committed while in prison ought to be treated humanely. There is no reason California can’t run very high security prisons that allow prisoners held in segregation to have contact visits with family, phone calls to family and friends, educational and rehabilitation programs, more out of cell time, cells with windows, recreational yards that allow for small groups to recreate together and see the outside world: in short, segregation from the general population, but not torture or dehumanization…

The entire legislative hearing can be viewed by going to this San Francisco Bay View post.

Senate Public Safety Committee chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, questioned whether proposed policy changes by the CDCR would actually change anything. She wondered during the hearing if the proposal changes the “business of indicating other people need to name other people” in ordered to get out of solitary confinement.

There is a “great emphasis” on “gang affiliation” and “gang membership” in California prisons and Hancock asked two CDCR officials, George Giurbino and Suzan Howard, who are chief deputy administrators for a “special project team,” if the policy had been effective.

“What we’ve set up here is something that’s more complicated than the existing policy. It changes some names,” Hancock said. “I am not sure it changes the general thrust of what’s happening.” Hubbard’s answer was that the prior policy had “served its purpose at the time.”

In fact, in a review of 3200 cases, CDCR, according to Giurbino, had determined that “validated” “gang affiliates” could now be released back into general population. That means hundreds of prisoners were in solitary confinement for information that does not meet the new policy standard, which to most critics and prisoners on hunger strike is still too weak and susceptible to abuse.

Hancock asked if the administrators saw any problem with relying on confidential information from informers, which basically works like a trade-off. In exchange for information on another prisoner, the informer can get out of solitary confinement.

The answer Hubbard gave included the suggestion that CDCR was now sharing “greater detail” on the information from informers with prisoners who are implicated by the information. That does not necessarily alleviate concern that the information is reliable and accurate. It shows that previously the prison would put people in solitary confinement and they would have very little idea of why they were being punished. Now, the prison is extending the courtesy of letting prisoners confront the information before they are put in solitary confinement.

Craig Haney, a professor who was involved in the well-known “Stanford Prison Experiment,” testified during the hearing and said, referring to California, “No other prison system in the country that I know of places so many prisoners in isolation and no other state places them remotely for as long as we do.”

The length of time prisoners, not just in California but in the United States, are placed in solitary confinement is “shocking” and “unprecedented” by international standards.”

As CDCR administrators sought to justify the new proposed policy changes as adequate, there was consistent reference to other states’ prisons and the federal government’s prisons and how what CDCR was considering is better. To that, Hancock, at one point said, “We could say Mississippi did away with solitary confinement so why aren’t we doing that?”

Photo by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."