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California Photo Ban Rule Turns SHU Prisoners into Ghosts

Hunger strikers and a federal lawsuit have pushed California prison officials to reverse a decades old policy that banned personal photographs of prisoners held in the state’s four special security housing units (SHU). While the reversal currently only applies to prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), pressure is being applied to gain reversal of the policy statewide.

The policy has kept prisoners in SHUs at PBSP, California State Prison, Corcoran; California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi; and California State Prison, Sacramento, from possessing personal photos for the last quarter century.

Prison officials contended the ban was necessary to prevent prison gang leaders from using personal photos as calling cards to inform other members they are still in charge and to pass on orders. Stories of calling cards were isolated examples that put burdensome restrictions on prisoners who were not breaking any rules, says Scott Kernan, a retired undersecretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDOCR).

“I think we were wrong, and I think [that] to this day,” he said. “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving…  [and] to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years.”

This isolation has left some prisoners with a limited sense of their own identity. “My brother tells me that sometimes he forgets how he looks. He doesn’t remember how he looks,” said Sylvia Rogokos of Los Angeles. Her brother, Frank Reyna, 51, was sent to Pelican Bay in 1992. “I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ and he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.

CDOCR’s SHU photo ban has left families with nothing but memories of their imprisoned loved ones. “That’s what they call a ghost,” said Madeline Sartoresi, whose son has been at PBSP since 2008 after being accused of being an associate in the Mexican Mafia Prison Gang. “It’s a thin line between life and death. He’s alive, but you can’t touch him, you can’t hear him, you can’t see him.”

“At home, your family has updated photos of everyone but you. It can appear that you must have died,” wrote prisoner Gabriel Huerta in a letter. “The whole system here seems to be geared at breaking down and destroying our family connections.”

 “I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

With families of prisoners at PBSP receiving photos of imprisoned loved ones whose faces they have not seen for decades in some cases, pressure is being applied for CDOCR to retract the policy at other prisons. The guards’ union is not opposed to the change, but it has not occurred yet.



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