By Salvador Solorio
Following a landmark lawsuit settlement, Security Housing Unit (SHU) occupancy has been cut by two-thirds. The lawsuit followed California prison hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 that protested indefinite isolation in SHU facilities, reported Alex Emslie of KQED news.
Prisoners specifically protested against indefinite SHU terms based solely on prison authorities’ suspicions that an inmate was affiliated with a gang. Such determinations are called gang validation.
Since the lawsuit settlement proposal was accepted by a federal judge in October 2015, all SHU terms became behavior-based.
More than 3,000 prisoners were housed in SHU at the time of the hunger strikes. CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department began trimming SHU population years before the settlement. By the time it happened, of 1,478 prisoners evaluated, 1,100 had been moved to general population. In the past year another 1,530 were reviewed and another 1,226 made it back to general population.
As an alternative to placement in the SHU, a prisoner may end up in a special-needs yard or new “general population-like” housing for prisoners with safety concerns.
According to CDCR data, in July there were over 1,060 male and 16 female prisoners in all California Security Housing Units. As of late August, there were 419 in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Thornton further stated, “We have over a thousand empty SHU beds statewide. A thousand. Nobody’s living in those cells. I don’t know if you’re understanding what has changed in the past years. It’s enormous.”
According to CDCR official Sandra Alfaro, “The department’s longest SHU term is 60 months, and that’s for the offense of murder.” With good time a SHU term can be reduced by 50 percent.
Twenty-five prisoners remain in the SHU based solely on gang affiliation, plus 45 others whose cases have been reviewed. Safety or other considerations have complicated their relocation, Thornton said.
CDCR still puts inmates in Security Housing Units indefinitely, but never based solely on gang affiliation, KQED reported.
Attorney Jules Lobes told Emslie, “One key problem historically has been that they put people in the SHU not based on strong evidence that they do anything, but based on confidential information. ‘We have a confidential informant who says this about you,’ and they start putting a lot of people back in the SHU for that reason.”
According to KQED, CDCR representatives declined to discuss the use of confidential information to put inmates in the SHU “because that part of the lawsuit is still being litigated.”