Today's New York Times has a piece about potential changes to California's policy of using long-term solitary confinement in prisons to isolate suspected gang members:
Ernesto Lira is not a murderer. He has never participated in a prison riot. The crime that landed him behind bars was carrying three foil-wrapped grams of methamphetamine in his car.
But on the basis of evidence that a federal court later deemed unreliable, prison officials labeled Mr. Lira a gang member and sent him to the super-maximum-security unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, the state’s toughest correctional institution.
There, for eight years, he spent 23 or more hours a day in a windowless 7.6-by-11.6-foot cell, allowed out for showers and exercise. His view through the perforated steel door — there were 2,220 holes; he counted them — was a blank wall, his companions a family of spiders that he watched grow, “season by season, year by year.”
Mr. Lira insisted that he was not a gang member, to no avail. He was eventually vindicated and is now out of prison, but he still struggles with the legacy of his solitary confinement. He suffers from depression and avoids crowds. At night, he puts blankets over the windows to block out any light. “He’s not the same person at all,” said his sister Luzie Harville. “Whatever happened, the experience he had in there changed him.”
California has for decades used long-term segregation to combat gang violence in its prisons — a model also used by states like Arizona with significant gang problems. Thousands of inmates said to have gang ties have been sent to units like that at Pelican Bay, where they remain for years, or in some cases decades. But California corrections officials — prodded by two hunger strikes by inmates at Pelican Bay last year and the advice of national prison experts — this month proposed changes in the state’s gang policy that could decrease the number of inmates in isolation.
Depending on how aggressively California moves forward — critics say that the changes do not go far enough and have enough loopholes that they may have little effect — it could join a small but increasing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term solitary confinement, a practice that had become common in this country over the past three decades.
The changes in California’s system would represent one of the largest shifts in how it handles prison gangs since officials began pulling gang leaders, known as shot-callers, out of the general population in the late 1970s. Prison reform advocates say that if California, with the largest prison population in the nation, changes its practices, states like Arizona that have similar policies might follow suit.
“California really pioneered the mass segregation of gang members,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “So California could start to show the way out.”