CA senate hearings on the SHU:
we can't reform torture

September 15 -- MIM and RAIL activists attended the hearings on Security Housing Units (SHU) in California prisons, held in Los Angeles by Senator Romero, Chair of the Select Committee on the California Correctional System. The SHUs are control units by another name, a form of long term solitary confinement that now exists in prisons across the country. Long term isolation has been criticized as a form of torture by many individuals and governments, as well as by the United Nations. There is conclusive evidence that these conditions cause mental and physical deterioration. In this era of "tough on crime" rhetoric, it is unusual for a government official to even question prison programs, and in this context we can hope to effect some improvements in the lives of prisoners.

We attended these hearings with no illusion that the California congress can legislate substantial change in the criminal injustice system. As a part of our campaign against the SHU in California, and control units across the country, we attended the hearings to put forward the perspective that the SHU must be shut down, not just reformed into kinder gentler torture. We were also looking to hook up with other control unit activists and friends and family members of prisoners to expand our campaign against control units in this state and across the country.

The five California SHU's - Pelican Bay State Prison SHU, Valley State Prison for Women SHU, California State Prison at Corcoran SHU, California Correctional Institution at Tehapchapi SHU and Corcoran SATF - are the lynchpin for the California Department of Corrections' (CDC) prison system. Currently housing about 2700 people (about 40 in the wimmin's prison), they are the most brutal prisons in the system and principally target those prisoners who show the most resistance. They are designed to break inmates' spirit. The SHU is a threat which hangs over the head of all CA prisoners. At Pelican Bay prisoners are kept in windowless cells for a minimum of 22 1/2 hours a day. There is no education, no job training, no work, no religious services, or hobby materials. Prisoners are subject to strip searches upon departure from and return to their cell when they have not come in contact with any other individual.

In California, and across the country, these units principally target oppressed nations. In 1998 the CDC reported that 34% of the population in all CDC institutions was Latino, and 31% was Black. The population of the Security Housing Units (SHUs) is even more disproportionate. 82% of those in SHUs were non-white, and 52% of those in SHUs were Latino. This compares to a California population that was 32% Latino, and 7% Black in 1998. The population appears to be about the same today but exact statistics are not published by the CDC for the public.

A few of us attending the hearings drove down from the Bay Area. Driving through the central valley of California was a stark reminder of the battle ahead of us in California, a state with more than 160,000 people in prison. Virtually every town we passed by or near housed a prison and little more. Visalia, Tehachapi, Avenal, Modesto, Delano, Wasco, Corcoran, Coalinga, Salinas, Soledad, Chowchilla, Lancaster and more, ranging from medium security to the supermax SHUs, the desert of California is home to many of the 33 prisons in the state. And it takes little imagination to understand that jobs in the prisons are a good paying alternative to farming, the only other big industry around. Especially as Governor Davis just gave prison guards a raise that will bring their salaries to $73,000 per year by 2006.

Outside the hearing at 8am a small crowd gathered to protest the SHU. Led by the Barrio Defense Committee, activists and relatives of prisoners waved signs and chanted demanding the SHUs be shut down. MIM and RAIL joined this protest with complements on our signs designed for our campaign to shut down control units across the country.

At 9am when the hearing began attendees were passed through a metal detector and forced to leave all signs, food and water outside. There were at least six cops outside the main entrance, eight more up front in the large hearing hall guarding the area where the senator and her witnesses were to sit, two or three more around the sides and back of the room against the walls, and an uncounted number more guarding the side entrances to the hall. In a large hall that could seat hundreds about 100 opponents of the SHU gathered along with a small crowd of ten or so CDC administrators mixed with a few more cops seated in the corner with their crowd. The level of security was astonishing and suggested that the state government considers friends and family of prisoners quite dangerous.

Senator Romero questions SHU system

Senator Romero opened the hearing with an overview of the California SHUs, explaining that there are 3 male SHU prisons and 1 for wimmin, together housing close to 3000 people. She described accurately the conditions in the SHU which include 23 hours/day lockdown in the cell, prisoners getting out only for occasional exercise and showers, and no programming (educational, work or otherwise). One point that the hearings misrepresented was the expansion of the SHU system. Although the number of SHU beds has not officially expanded, the CDC continues to build new "administrative segregation" units inside prisons throughout the state. This is just another name for control units. Many states use this tactic to overcome legal or political challenges to their control units, changing the name and pretending they have implemented a different system. One such unit was opened in Soledad recently.

Romero criticized the CDC for failing to provider her with exact
information on the cost per prisoner of incarceration in the SHU and presented the estimates they gave her of $37, 662 per inmate excluding health care, making the point that she believes the actual cost is significantly higher than this. While it is no doubt true that it costs more money to house prisoners in isolation units than in general
population, MIM doesn't care about this point. Unless we are talking about putting money into more programming for prisoners, better food and medical care, and better legal services, we don't care if the state is wasting money on expensive cells, wasting money on guards salaries, or wasting money paying for a recall circus election. Our opposition to the SHU is not based on rallying taxpayers to better use their prison money to build more cheaper cells because this is a losing point of propaganda.

Romero went on to explain that the SHU houses two groups of prisoners, first there are those in for determinate sentences who have supposedly committed violent acts. The second group is those labeled "validated" gang members. The SHU population is split roughly evenly between the two groups. Romero stated "I have some very serious concerns about the validation process...[and the] lack of oversight of the process by which it is determined if a prisoner remains an active gang member or associate." Romero went on to suggest that she would like to see the CDC move to a more "behavioral based criteria" for gang validation rather than using "status" criteria. This is a good criticism of the SHU process, but it focuses on how to better select prisoners for torture rather than addressing the torture itself.

It is also important to point out that the label "gang" is in and of itself a problem. Gangs are loosely defined to identify any group of people those in authority see as a threat. Usually this is any group of oppressed nation people getting together for their betterment, self-defense, education or other activity, not always including illegal activities. MIM has been labeled a "gang" or "security threat group" for our political education programs for prisoners. And prisoners are given "gang" classifications for their association with us and other political organizations.

Romero also provided some useful facts, noting that, in response to criticism, the CDC has carried out a self-audit of the SHU validation process. She rightly pointed out that this process is suspect as it involved no independent oversight. Further she noted that there have been 403 paroles directly from the SHU since 2000 with a recidivism rate of 78%. The recidivism rate for inmates in general population in California is 66%. As Romero herself stated "even that normal recidivism rate is extremely abnormal." MIM agrees and we understand that prisons are not about rehabilitation at all, they are an industry and to remain in operation they have an interest in continuing to build their population. There is no effort put into giving prisoners opportunities to live a better life after prison. Romero expressed the concern that community members are not safer because of SHUs if they are leading to more crime when prisoners are released.

Senator Polanco, the former chair of the Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, spoke at the hearing first. He went into further detail on the types of SHU sentences. For a violent act a prisoner receives a determinate SHU sentence of up to 6 years. For being a "validated" gang member or associate a prisoner gets an indeterminate SHU sentence of 6 years up to life with the only way to get out being to parole, snitch or die. He too objected to the lack of behavior based criteria for gang validation.

Under his leadership some programs for reform of the system were developed which he noted had yet to be implemented. He gave praise to the CDC for "progress" but said it has slowed. MIM sees this as just political lip service as there has been virtually no change in the SHU system since Polanco began his investigation except cosmetic adjustments to pretend that prisoners have a way to get out of the SHU by remaining free of gang activity for six years. Putting a prettier face on torture and oppression is far from a goal of MIM's and we are wary that congressional actions like those taken by Polanco can do more harm than good for the oppressed.

Polanco noted that the CDC had sent people to study the control unit systems in other states, looking for models of how to run things better. His complaint was that none of the examples they had seen were implemented. MIM looks around the country at the control units in other states and does not see a model for the CDC to follow. This is one case where MIM agrees with the CDC Director Alameida; he pointed out that most states are doing the same kinds of things California is doing with control units.

CDC pigs defend torture

In some of the most interesting testimony of the hearing Ed Alameida, Director of the CDC took the stand along with David Tristan his Chief Deputy Director of Field Operations and James Moreno, the chief of the CDC gang unit. Alameida also brought along the warden of Pelican Bay and a few other CDC administrators who did not speak. For Alameida and his men this hearing was a process of justifying their policies so they could get back to work and avoid cuts in funding, but a few useful facts did come out amid their evasions and cautious phrases.

Alameida began his testimony by giving some background stating that prison gangs began in the late 1950s and early 1960s and vehemently labeling them an organized crime syndicate involved in criminal activities in the prisons. More than once he brought up drug and weapons dealing in the prisons. Romero never challenged him on this but MIM wants to point out that these things only happen when someone lets drugs or weapons into the prison. Prisoners do not have any way to do this themselves so CDC employee complicity is a must.

In 1971 Governor Reagan established the gang unit in the California prisons. This timing coinciding with the harsh crackdown on revolutionary movements in the United $tates and the dramatic skyrocketing of the prison population as the government started rounding up oppressed nationals and herding them off to prison in an attempt to squelch any revolutionary activity.

Alemeida's only factual evidence of the efficacy of the current SHU program was his statement that they began in 1971 using a behavioral based system for gang classification, and in 1970 the inmate death rate was 1 per 2400. He said this death rate increased through the 1980s and then they implemented a status based classification system and the death rate fell to 1 per 12,000 in 2001. He claimed this was a success of their current system. California had 27,000 prisoners in 1970 and had 160,000 in 2001. Less than 2% of the prisoners are in the SHU.

MIM can point out a few flaws in this argument. First is the lack of information he provided on the timing of a switch to status based classification. Second is the lack of information about who did the killing: guards or other prisoners. And third is the correlation between the rising death rate of prisoners and the guard brutality against prisoners to the extent that they were setting up fights between inmates, betting on them, and then shooting to kill prisoners as was exposed in Corcoran. After this was exposed the guards were forced to stop this practice. Certainly the drop in guards killing prisoners can't count as a success of the SHU classification system.

Moreno described the process of gang validation in detail. Gang "behavior" according to him, can be a violent act, a tattoo, communication with validated gang members or associates, photographs with gang members or associates, confidential information from debriefs or other sources, letters written to validated gang members, Christmas cards, and other material. Romero questioned him extensively on the non-behavior criteria asking how a Christmas card or conversation in the yard could be evidence of gang membership. Moreno tried to claim that cards and letters always have secret messages that the CDC can't see and so it doesn't matter what the content is. This kind of status based criteria is what has allowed the CDC to put many prisoners in the SHU who have never associated with a "gang" in their lives. It is also conveniently easy to validate prisoners with "confidential" evidence, allowing the CDC staff to target prisoners who are politically active for SHU isolation.

The CDC staff went on to describe the validation process which includes review of "evidence" by the Institutional Gang Investigator and review by the Validation Review Committee. Prisoners supposedly are given a copy of all evidence against them and have the opportunity to rebut it. Although it sounds rigorous, a number of people testified to the lack of training by the review committee, the divergence of staff interpretation on how to validate gang members, and the reality of the system which rarely shows the prisoners the evidence against them or gives them any chance to challenge it. This translates into prison staff making arbitrary decisions to send people to the SHU without needing any real evidence.

Romero recently visited Pelican Bay prison, a notorious SHU prison in California, and interviewed several prisoners. She said she repeatedly heard stories of prisoners who had joined gangs to avoid being assaulted and she asked "what is the role of [the CDC] in setting up conditions [that require this of prisoners]?" This question correctly looks at the state as the real source of safety problems in the California prison system. Romero went on to say outright "Rehabilitation is absent from the mission of the CDC".

Senator Romero seems to clearly see the contradictions within the criminal injustice system, and she seems to genuinely want change, but she is caught within the system and so on the one hand she recognizes its failure but at the same time she is calling for cosmetic reform that will do little more than cover up the problems. While MIM hopes to take advantage of this opportunity to push forward some changes that will improve the lives of prisoners in the CDC, we can't expect the dismantling of the SHU programs without significant public protest and organizing.

Witnesses against the SHU

Attorney Don Specter testified against the SHU with a compelling response to the CDC administrators. He noted that by their own testimony there are 40,000 to 60,000 gang members in California prisons. The SHU houses approximately 1500 "validated" gang members. So even with the SHU full there is no chance it is removing the gangs from the general population. The argument that the SHU units are keeping other prisoners safe from gangs is ludicrous.

He noted that the CDC rules on confidential informants are meaningless because they decide that if any part of the information provided by the informant is true the CDC will consider all the information true. And if the informant was considered reliable in the past all his information in the future will be trusted. This invites informants to give false testimony. And this is not to mention those "validated" gang members who were never associated with a gang and have no real information to provide but who want to "debrief" to get out of the SHU. They have to make up information to get out.

Specter went into some detail describing the system in Connecticut for dealing with gang members. He described some positive components like the inclusion of programming, not using shackles or restraints and not using isolation after the first 120 days. But MIM knows from our work with CT prisoners that this system is not a model: at the supermax in Northern CI (a control unit) prisoners face harsh conditions, beatings by guards, and frequent censorship including over a year of discarding or returning all mail MIM sent to prisoners there. (Conditions in the CT control units are described well by one prisoner in the sidebar).

Charles Carbone, a lawyer with California Prison Focus, was another invited speaker at the hearing. He provided some good evidence of the lies told by the CDC administrators about the validation process as well as the effects of the SHU on prisoners and their families. He also pointed out the important role of the SHU debriefings in sharing information with pigs on the street and building databases on gang member names, insignias and activities.

Carbone is working on a court case right now challenging the
constitutionality of the SHU validation (Castillo vs. Alameida) which is scheduled to go to trial in December 2003. Through depositions for this case he has learned that the people in charge of validating prisoners have virtually no training, that about 60% of source items are confidential (making challenges by prisoners impossible) and that in many cases debriefs by prisoners just involve naming names, not even recounting actions.

Carbone followed the vein of others testifying by suggesting reforms to the SHU system including changing the classification to behavior based, implement more frequent reviews of prisoner's SHU sentence, offering more programs, and providing greater protections before validation. While MIM does work for reforms within the system as a part of our organizing work to bring down the system, we think it is irresponsible to call for these reforms without pointing out the fundamental flaws in the system. Particularly when the reforms are focused on a how to improve a system that is fundamentally torture.

The final witness against the SHU was a former warden Daniel Vasquez. As an insider her spoke about the validation appeals that prisoners can make if they want to dispute their gang classification. He spoke of one appeal that was returned to the prisoner with a note stating that he needed to do further investigation himself. He pointed out that there is no help for these appeals, no support, and they are dismissed with very little attention by the CDC.

Public comments condemn SHU

After the formal testimony the many audience members were given a chance to speak during public comments although they were restricted to 2 minutes each. Parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws, grandparents, and children of prisoners as well as former prisoners all stood up to speak about the injustice of the SHU. Many family members had a hard time finishing their testimony as they were moved to tears recounting their experiences with the CDC.

Family members testified to visitation processes that made it virtually impossible for them to see their family, keeping them out for wearing the wrong colors, restricting mothers with more than 2 children from bringing all of the kids at once, having visits denied by the prison after a family member has traveled across the state and confirmed the appointment by phone, the denial of contact visits, and other humiliations and degradations.

The daughter of a prisoner spoke about her attempts to visit her father where they made her change clothing twice and then told her the visit was not scheduled: "I haven't touched my dad in 12 years...when I go visit him I have to go through so much I feel like I'm being punished because of the way I'm being treated." A mother of a prisoner spoke about her attempts to see her son in Pelican Bay. After traveling from Los Angeles all the way to the northern tip of the state, spending $500 for the trip, she was denied visits because a guard had miscounted the prisoners. She explained that it is not only the prisoners, "families are also violated by this system."

The health problems of many of the prisoners in the SHU were detailed by their family members. Some have serious mental health problems after years of long term isolation. The skin color of SHU prisoners turns yellow after extensive denial of exposure to the sun. Many prisoners have developed serious physical health problems from the confinement, lack of activity and poor medical care.

Given the overwhelming number of SHU prisoners who are Latino in California, it was not surprising that several people who attended the hearing testified in Spanish. One Mexican woman spoke movingly about the injustices imploring the senator to see prisoners as people.

The unfair and random validation process was criticized by many. Family members described bogus evidence used to validate their loved ones including get well cards. One mother of a prisoner spoke about his validation a year ago after which he tried to file an appeal. After he filled out the form wrong and it was returned to him and he was told he had lost his chance to appeal. Another person spoke about a man who had been in the SHU for 15 years. After six years he got his validation reviewed but was denied based on evidence that included a condolence card he sent to a friend whose mother had died and a political letter he had written. Another woman recounted her husband's denied appeal of his SHU status because of his participation in a 1999 peaceful protest where the whole housing unit of many different nationalities united and withheld their dinner trays to protest the treatment they were receiving. Several prison activists also spoke about the men they work with who have been wrongly classified as gang members in retaliation for political organizing.

One mother of a prisoner spoke about her attempts to get books into the SHU for her son. She said the prison was holding books she sent him for college courses, limiting him to ten books per year, discouraging him from using his time for education. She correctly proclaimed "education is a right, not a privilege."

A man who works with a politically active SHU prisoner who was recently assaulted by his cellmate noted that the cellmate had two weapons when he entered the cell, and they were not crude weapons. These weapons had to come from somewhere. Again and again testimony like this pointed to not just a broken system that needs fixing but systematic oppression.

Several people read from the United Nations rebuke of the U.$. prison system in 2000 which included a focus on torture in solitary confinement units in the four California SHU prisons. Even internationally the SHU system in California is recognized as fundamentally wrong.

A RAIL speaker described the work MIM and RAIL is doing with California prisoners and the pattern we see of the CDC putting politically active prisoners in the SHU, pointing out that these are some of the least threatening prisoners, the ones helping others file lawsuits and working for unity among prisoners. The RAIL speaker described MIM's Books for Prisoners program explaining that many of the books and magazines we send to the SHU at Corcoran and Tehachapi are censored, returned not even opened or sent back as a threat to security. This speaker presented Senator Romero with more than 500 petition signatures calling for the SHUs to be shut down, noting that along with the many other we had mailed to her this brought the total petition signatures submitted to her by MIM to almost 2,500.

A MIM speaker discussed the failure of the hearings to address the fundamental problem with the SHU which is long term isolation, a form of torture condemned even by the United Nations. This speaker pointed out that comparisons to other torture programs are meaningless because reforms attempting to make torture programs better can not succeed in changing the fact that these programs are still torture. We should not be talking about better systems for determining who should be put in torture units, we need to talk about how to eliminate these torture units. Putting this in the context of larger society the MIM speaker asked people to consider the problems with the criminal injustice system as a whole and what in the CDC is causing them. The detention ministry for the Archdiocese in Los Angeles sent two men to testify against the conditions in the SHU. One of these men approached the MIM speaker afterwards to say that the testimony about torture had really opened his eyes and influenced what he thought he should focus on in his work around this issue.

Everyone coming out of the hearing was eager to get a copy of MIM Notes and many people asked how they could get in touch with us or get involved in the fight against the control units. Family members we spoke to after were confused and frustrated by the CDC and the SHU classification system, and looking for what they could do to fight it. With the Amerikan prison population so large, the number of people in this country with a close friend or relative in prison is steadily growing, particularly among Blacks and Latinos. Feeling the brunt of the repression, oppressed nations make up a reliable base for anti-prison organizing. MIM will continue to reach out to those who recognize the injustice system for what it is, in an effort to focus that knowledge into a broader understanding of the imperialist system and how it can be brought to an end, while building support for our Serve the People programs and campaigns centered around prisoners.

Sidebar: There is no model for torture

MIM prints this letter from a Connecticut prisoner written several years ago describing the conditions in the control units there to demonstrate that the conditions in these torture units in other states can not serve as a model for improving the California SHUs. Control Units must be abolished in every state, there is no way the criminal injustice system can build a better control unit.

I am a Black revolutionary being held political prisoner in a concentration camp called Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, Conn. I've been placed in what they call close monitoring (gang units).

I was taken out of population and placed in this gang unit. Not for fighting, not for stabbing another prisoner, or taking of other
prisoners' property. But for pictures; pictures I took in another state, not Conn. And because my pictures have a very expressive body language, that makes me a gang member [in the eyes of the state]. The only hand sign in my pictures is the peace sign. That's right! The peace sign. When white people used it at Woodstock, it meant "peace and love." But when young African-Americans use it, it means gangs. Many of my young comrades are also here for the same thing.

The state of Connecticut's law enforcement along with correctional institutions have declared war on all of Connecticut's urban communities and have said that these low income areas are to be considered gang territories. Let me explain this skillfully designed, corrupt Security Risk Group (SRG) system. SRGs are considered to be gang members who pose a so-called threat to the Connecticut Department of Corrections. Information will be gathered on an individual, whether it's true or not. Most information is provided by institutional snitches and is not accurate. An individual will be given a hearing to inform him that he will be removed from general population and placed in a Close Custody Unit where this individual will be locked up 23 hours a day, whereas in population, he's out most of the day working or in school, learning a vocational skill, taking college classes, or trying to better himself by going to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

It should be mentioned that once this individual is placed in these concentration camps called Close Custody, none of the above-mentioned programs are available to said individual. However, he is forced into these group gang programs, and maneuvered into spilling out his feelings as to why he would join an organization (which they call a gang). They are using us; dissecting our minds in these experimental, psychological, genocidal labs; having us give them more information they can use against us. This information is then turned over to the office of the Governor of Connecticut, John Rowland, who will address concerned taxpayers as to why the state needs more money to build high- security prisons. You see, there's big money at stake for local police and correctional departments that target gangs. Law enforcement along with prison systems are using gangs as a means of keeping their financial stability. Connecticut's prison system has become industrial business. Prisons with 1,158 beds are worth $25 million a year and 350 jobs to the community.

Some officials sent out for color brochures promoting prison economics. And these gang units are one of their most brilliant. I've been in these units for two years. I have not yet eaten a hot meal. All the meals here at Garner are as cold as the outside. We are served very small portions of food. And this is only to bring the commissary sales up. They overcharge us for generic products. Officers in these units are constantly showing aggressive behavior towards my comrades and me in these units. We are not receiving proper medical attention. Some of the brothers go weeks sick.

Brothers like myself who speak out about this corruption are sent to segregation (the hole) on bogus prison charges. In these units, we are not allowed to talk with one another. We go to recreation with only eight brothers for one hour a day. The program is supposedly for one year. But if a prisoner receives an infraction, he must begin all over. The conditions here at Garner are at times intolerable. My brothers and sisters of MIM, I write to you in the faith that you will support your brothers who are being held political prisoner in these concentration camps called gang units.... Power to the people!

Your brother,
-- A Connecticut Prisoner, 27 October 1997