Is Moving Gang Members Out of Solitary Confinement Going to Cause Gangs to Flourish in California?
The California Department of Corrections announced it is revamping its solitary confinement selection procedures when it comes to gang members sentenced to prison time. A settlement in the class action lawsuit Ashker vs. Brown results in California prison officials deciding to end solitary confinement for thousands of inmates in state prisons, where something as simple as a gang-related tattoo can warrant the prisoner be placed in solitary confinement for years, with no release to the general population in sight.
Why is Solitary Confinement so Prevalent in California?
30 to 40 years ago, waves of violence in California prisons prompted officials to take drastic measures to decrease gang activity and get better control of inmates. Once a prisoner was “validated” by prison officials as having some association with a gang, they were relegated to solitary confinement – a cell with no windows and no contact with any other prisoners. The prisoners could not protest this decision and had no legal recourse, until a class action lawsuit was filed by white supremacist and murderer Todd Ashker. The movement among the prisoners prompted a widespread hunger strike in the prison population, notably in the notorious Pelican Bay prison in Northern California, where many of the solitary confinement prisoners are held in one of the nation’s largest isolation units. While there was pushback on the lawsuit from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, citing the potential risks to correctional officers, a settlement was reached that will drastically alter the reasoning behind who is placed in solitary confinement and for how long.
A Redesigned System to End Unending Solitary Confinement
Going forward, prisoners will not be placed in isolation before they have committed a violent act. They will be assessed based on how they behave in the general population first. If they do commit an act of violence against a fellow inmate or officer, they can be placed in isolation, but only for a maximum of five years, then they must be released into a step-down unit. Those who have currently spent over 10 years in solitary confinement will also be released to a step-down unit. The step-down units will allow the prisoners two years to reform enough to enter the general population once again. They can take advantage of the classes and programs available to non-isolated prisoners and will be allowed to exercise and interact in groups for 10 hours per week. This change will affect the isolation of almost 2,000 prisoners currently held in isolation units in the state of California.
Will Gangs Once Again Become a Problem in Prisons?
There is no easy answer to whether the move will spark riots, killings and violence. Naysayers think it will endanger correctional officers and increase gang activity. But can a justice system work effectively based only on fear of what could happen and what a previously convicted criminal might do in the future? If so, America might as well be a police state, not a land of freedom and opportunity. Advocates of the change to solitary confinement procedure are firm in their belief that criminals, while they are criminals, should be punished appropriately. Holding a potential “bad actor” in a concrete box for 23 hours of the day for decades at a time, is a “cruel and unusual” way to preemptively punish some inmates over others. With no lawful guidelines in place, prison guards and officials are free to dole out their own selective proactive justice, which is not lawful in accordance with the Constitution.
It will take additional funds, closer attention and extra care given by all involved in prison policing to stay on the lookout for increased gang activity as a byproduct, but that is a small price to pay for the assurance that individual rights are not violated by the people who overstep their boundaries of power.