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California Changes Policies for Prison Gangs and Security Housing Units

by Charles F.A. Carbone, Esq.

Major changes to prison gang management policies and the use of security housing units (SHU's) or super-maximum prisons are expected in California prisons due to the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a California prisoner. The settlement requires substantial modifications in the procedures used by prison officials when placing and retaining prisoners whose alleged gang membership results in indefinite confinement in a SHU.

California houses nearly 4,000 prisoners in its four super-maximum SHU prisons located at Pelican Bay State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, California Correction Institution at Tehachapi, and Valley State Prison for Women. Most super-max prisoners are housed in the SHU based upon prison officials labeling or "validating" prisoners as members or associates of prison gangs. The label or validation of a prisoner as a prison gang member is often based on innocuous evidence that a prisoner conversed or associated with a prison gang member regardless of the content or reason for the association. In fact, California routinely placed prisoners in solitary confinement in the SHU's based on such things as inmates sending "get-well" greeting cards, prisoners exercising together, drawings of Chicano art, or an address found in prisoner address books. While such acts were neither criminal nor unlawful, California prison officials relied on such evidence to label prisoners as prison gang members resulting in long-term, indeterminate confinement in the SHU's.

Now, under a settlement reached with California prison officials, major changes are underway to re-write the policies and state regulations concerning the labeling of prisoners as gang members and their subsequent placement in the SHU's. First, the settlement calls for disclosure of the evidence prison officials rely on as the basis for the prison gang label. Prior to the settlement, prisoners often learned of the evidence assembled and considered as indicative of their membership in a prison gang well-after the decision to place the prisoner in a SHU. Prisoners also will now get an opportunity for personally refute the evidence relied upon to label them a member of a prison gang.

In addition, significant changes to the methods of prison gang identification will require prison officials to record an "articulable basis" that prisoners are engaging in criminal or unlawful acts on behalf of a prison gang. Formerly, prison officials were not required to document why associations such as two prisoners seen talking on a prison yard or in a prison law library were indications of membership in a prison gang. Prison officials also can no longer rely on confidential informants _ like prison snitches or gang drop-outs _ unless the informants can detail the exact nature of the prisoner's involvement in the gang. Confidential sources can no longer use hearsay evidence as well, and any one incident of gang activity may only count as one item of evidence even though it may be reported by multiple sources. Lastly, prison officials now are required to find that prisoners are active participants in the prison gang via periodic 180 day classification reviews. The settlement is expected to keep hundreds of prisoners out of the SHUs who would otherwise be subject to the state regulations governing the SHUs that were legally challenged on constitutional grounds as being vague and overbroad.

Commenting on the settlement outcome, "It is inhumane to indefinitely house a prisoner in solitary confinement based upon the prisoner's mere association with the wrong people instead of the prisoner's involvement in gang activities" according to lawyer Joy Kruse, Esq. who represented the plaintiff in the case. "Today's settlement ensures that prisoners who are labeled gang members by prisoner informants or guards are not subjected to solitary confinement without corroborating evidence that the prisoner is permitted to review and challenge."

The case _ Castillo v. Alameida, Jr., No. 94-2874 _ was brought by jailhouse lawyer and prisoner Steve M. Castillo who litigated the case along with his counsel for over 9 years. Castillo charged that prison officials violated his First Amendment rights with vague and overbroad gang management regulations that were used by prison officials to retaliate against Castillo for his jailhouse lawyering. Serving as counsel for Mr. Castillo, and representing him pro bono, were the non-profit advocacy group Charles Carbone, Esq. of San Francisco's California Prison Focus and James Finberg Joy A. Kruse of Lieff Cabraser Heimann Bernstein, LLP. The case is Castillo v. Alameida, Jr., Case No. 94-2874 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and was filed in 1994.

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Related legal case

Castillo v. Alameida, Jr.