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Mass Transfer Madness

by W. Wisely

On April 1, 1996, the California Department of Corrections began the first phase of its "180/270" transfer plan for Level IV prisoners. All prisoners housed in Level IV prisons have been classified for retention in either a "180" or "270" degree design facility. The initial wave of transfers to newly opened Salinas Valley State Prison (New Soledad) is near completion as the largest, and most expensive, mass movement of prisoners in the nation's history gets under way.

So-called "270" degree design format prisons require prisoners from several housing units to walk outdoors to use a central dining facility for meals. The cells are arranged in a 270 degree layout around a central control. All three sections within a single housing unit share the same day room and cell doors are made of sheet metal with nine millimeter holes every half inch. After several serious staff and prisoner assaults at 270 design prisons, prison officials concluded the older 180 degree institutions were more secure.

In 180 degree prisons, every two housing units share a dining hall and prisoners do not walk outside to use them. The three sections of each housing unit are separated by concrete walls and there is an attached exercise yard for small groups of prisoners. The housing unit sections fan 180 degrees out from the central control. Prison staff feel such features make it easier to manage prisoners, and the prospect of better control was a major factor in the development of the transfer plan.

In a memorandum circulated to all wardens, David Tristan, Deputy Director, Institutions Division, listed the criteria for excluding prisoners from 270 design format prisons. Prisoners who were in a Security Housing Unit within the past three years, who were found guilty of a Division A-1, A, or B disciplinary offenses (except possession of narcotics) within the last three years, "validated" members or associates of a prison gang, and prisoners who were found guilty of inciting or participating in a riot in the last three years will be classified for 180 degree format prisons under the plan.

In addition, any prisoner who is a member or associate of a street gang and who was found guilty of assault (excluding mutual combat) within the past three years, or whose commitment offense was related to street gang activity (like a drive by shooting), or who has two prior felony convictions under California Penal Code §667.5(c), or who was sentenced under the Three Strikes law, received life without parole, or a sentence of more than fifty years will also be classified for housing in a 180 degree prison.

The five prisons designated for 270 degree Level IV housing are Calipatria, Centinela, Corcoran, Lancaster and Mule Creek. The four 180 degree prisons on-line now are Tehachapi, Pelican Bay, New Folsom, and High Desert (New Susanville). New Soledad has both 270 and 180 degree design housing units.

"The goal of this program is to determine the impact of exclusionary criteria on our ability to securely and effectively manage the inmate population. The effect will be evaluated after one year," Tristan notes in the memorandum. Prison administrators candidly acknowledge that the prospect of thousands of Three Strikes prisoners, many convicted of relatively minor non-violent crimes, coming into the system prompted the transfer plan. "These young men will be angry and feel they have nothing to lose," admitted a captain who declined to be identified. "We're going to see a lot of changes in the near future. All for the worse."

There are approximately 20,000 prisoners housed in Level IV prisons throughout California. Conservatively, some 10,000 prisoners will be shifted from one Level IV prison to another in coming months. Lori Hawk, a founding member of Family Net (a prison visitor advocacy group), whose husband is currently housed in Tehachapi, said, "The transfers are going to cause the break up of many families. Most people in prison are poor and their families can't afford to relocate or drive hundreds of miles to remote prisons for visits."

Prisoners expect trouble inside as well. The 270-180 swaps won't be completed for several months. In the meantime, prisoners who have avoided disciplinary problems will be mingled with those who have not. "Anytime you mix prisoners who feel they have nothing to lose with prisoners who have worked hard to avoid trouble there's going to be violence," a lifer at Tehachapi observed. "Right now you have entire yards full of prisoners who are programming, going to school, working and getting visits. It don't make sense to fix something that ain't broke." Some guards are uneasy about the future, too.

In what may be an indication of things to come, a guard at Tehachapi's Level IV-B facility was beaten to the ground and kicked after demanding that a prisoner lower the volume on his radio on Thursday, May 23, 1996. The prisoner, classified for a 180 degree prison, was recently transferred from Calipatria. 'We signed up to work here specifically because this prison had a low incidence of violence," said a guard at the normally quiet facility. "We didn't volunteer for duty in a war zone."

California legislators sitting on committees that oversee prison operations were apparently not informed about the plan to transfer thousands of maximum security prisoners between ten prisons up and down the seven hundred and fifty mile long state. State Senator Richard Polanco's office, when contacted, expressed surprise. Although there is no official projection of the cost of the transfers to taxpayers, prison staff estimate it will run $50 per prisoner just for transportation. The costs in terms of violence in prison, the fraying of family ties and the ultimate impact both factors will have on the 86% of prisoners who will be released on parole is certain to be much higher.

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