The Pelican Bay hunger strike has created a ripple effect of attention. This morning's piece on the San Jose Mercury News is encouraging.
State regulations say there are two ways to enter the Security Housing Unit: commit a new violation while incarcerated or be a validated member of one of six prison gangs.
It is the gang designation that has caused the most controversy.
At the Assembly hearing, several speakers said the California Department of Corrections should move from showing mere association with a gang to proving criminal activity.
"I've seen a great deal of variance as to how gang validation protocols are applied," said San Francisco Bay Area attorney Charles Carbone. He attributes the "wildly different interpretation" to a lack of training, and said gang validations are "decided by personality, not by policy."
Many relatives of SHU inmates said their loved ones had been unjustly validated. For example, one of the three pieces of evidence needed to validate an inmate could be the word of a debriefing informant or possession of a George Jackson book, such as "Soledad Brother."
Jackson was a founder of the Black Guerilla Family, which corrections officials define as a prison gang. He was shot to death by prison guards in San Quentin Prison during an escape attempt.
In addition to those who may have been wrongfully labeled, the SHU is by gang members' own admissions home to members and leaders of the Nuestra Familia, Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerilla Family.
In fact, the Nuestra Familia's rules state that its top leaders must reside in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit. Current and former gang members have told The Monterey County Herald they thought it was a point of pride to be sent to the SHU, because all the leaders were housed there.
To earn a gang SHU term, corrections regulations state that an inmate must be more than a street gang member, such as Norteño or Sureño.
The SHU stay for a prison gang member is indeterminate, meaning the inmate cannot leave the unit until his prison sentence ends -- or he leaves his gang through a process of debriefing, which carries the stigma of "snitching."
Corrections officials have contended this is the only viable way, because transferring an active prison gang member into the general population would jeopardize inmate and officer safety.
Other states, though, offer programs based on good behavior that can lead to release from a SHU without having to inform on others.
California corrections undersecretary Scott Kernan said his department is studying SHU criteria from 28 other states and is developing new policies.
Those policies will next be reviewed by "stakeholders," he said.
Not a week goes by that I don't receive a letter from Pelican Bay, in which an inmate protests a wrongful classification as gang member. Reconsidering the way in which these classifications are made is long overdue.