By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Feb 12 (Reuters) - Long criticized for keeping inmates in near-solitary conditions for years on end, California is developing reforms that would make it harder to send convicts to isolation-style units and offer a way out to those already placed there.
The moves come amid ongoing controversy over California's security housing units, where inmates with ties to prison gangs are kept in poured concrete cells with severely restricted access to other people, in some cases for more than two decades.
"It was far too easy to get in and too hard to get out," Undersecretary for Corrections and Rehabilitation Martin Hoshino said at a hearing this week. Relying on the units to control prison gangs was "an overreaction that then morphed into a regular practice that now needs to be re-designed."
Conditions in the facilities, and the rules for who is placed in them, have prompted two hunger strikes by inmates in recent years, including one last summer that drew 30,000 participants at its peak and sparked promises from state lawmakers to seek reform.
Under new rules proposed by the administration of Governor Jerry Brown, inmates will no longer be assigned to security housing units, or SHU, simply because they associate with gang members.
Instead, inmates will have to either commit a crime in the service of a gang or be full members of a gang in order to be sent these units.
Cases of those already in the units are being reviewed and about 400 of the nearly 4,000 inmates housed there a year ago have been moved or are in the process of being transferred, officials said.
ISOLATION AS TORTURE?
But prison advocates and some lawmakers say Brown's reform plan moves too slowly and does not go far enough to limit the use of isolation, which they say amounts to torture.
"I think a lot of it is lip service," said state assembly member Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, who has submitted a bill that would set a three-year cap on terms in the SHU.
"The regulations miss the point of what we are talking about, which is the whole existence of the SHU in the first place," he said.
The most populous U.S. state has been sharply criticized by human rights groups for assigning inmates to indefinite terms in segregated units where they are isolated for up to 23 hours per day, participating in exercises and group therapy sessions in enclosed modules that critics have likened to cages.
The state is struggling with many other issues in its 34-prison system, including compliance with a court order to reduce severe overcrowding. A federal receiver oversees medical care and mental healthcare is watched by a court-appointed monitor.
CURTAILING GANG VIOLENCE
California built its security housing units in the late 1980s, amid a national trend to curtail the influence of gang leaders and reduce violence in U.S. prisons. The federal government included such units in its Supermax maximum-security prisons, as did numerous states.
In recent years, however, several states including Mississippi and Connecticut, as well as the federal government, have reduced or eliminated their reliance on such units.
California's proposed reforms, some of which have already been implemented as part of a pilot program, will be the subject of public hearings.
Under the proposed rules, inmates assigned to the security housing units for non-disciplinary reasons will be able to slowly work their way off, and rules for assigning an inmate to the SHU will be tightened considerably, said Michael D. Stainer, the director of adult institutions for the state.
"Yesterday, I could keep you in the SHU just by someone saying your name," Stainer told Reuters, saying the proposed rules marked the biggest change in his department in 20 years. "Now you have to commit a behavior with a nexus to gang activity."
Inmates assigned to SHU units who want to leave must participate in a four-year program, during which they remain in the units, but gradually earn more privileges, Stainer said.
During the first phase, which lasts up to two years, inmates are expected to refrain from gang activity and complete a journal in a workbook provided by the state, Stainer said.
They will be allowed to make one emergency phone call after participating in the program for six months, according to the proposal. If inmates refrain from gang activity and rules violations for a year, they may own one photograph.
By the fourth year in the program, inmates in the SHU units may make one phone call per quarter and own six photographs.
The new regulations do not eliminate the use of the SHU units for long-term housing or for inmates who are sent there temporarily as punishment for breaking the rules. Those who refuse to complete the journals will not be allowed to progress in the step-down program beyond the second year, officials said.
The regulations also open up the possibility that members of street gangs as well as prison gangs could be sent to the units.
After 10 years without gang activity, inmates could lose the gang label, improving their chances for parole, Stainer said. Already, some inmates in the SHU units have roommates, with the pair together kept in their cell for up to 23 hours per day.
But inmate representatives say the changes do not go far enough.
"Family members are very hopeful right now for change," said Dolores Canales, whose son has been in the SHU for 13 years and has still not had his review. "But we know if major changes are not made now, we will still be here in another 20 years." (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Cynthia Johnston and G Crosse)