Politicians weigh in on prison protests

By Anthony Skeens, The Triplicate July 24, 2013 05:33 pm

The ranking members of the state Assembly’s Public Safety Committee are at odds over prison inmates’ efforts to end long-term solitary confinement.

Committee Chairman, Tom Ammiano, a Bay Area Democrat, released a public statement last week calling the state’s practice of solitary confinement unjustifiable because it often labels inmates gang members without sufficient evidence.

“The weak public grounds we have been told about — on multiple occasions — include the validation (as gang members) of people solely on the basis of things like possession of cups with indigenous symbols, artwork, books ... and simple greetings between prisoners,” stated Ammiano in an email he sent to the Triplicate on Monday.

His Republican colleague disagreed during a telephone interview with the Triplicate last week.

Inmates in Security Housing
 Units at state prisons such as Pelican Bay are “there for good reason, they can wreak a lot of havoc in the communities from the prisons,” said Melissa Melendez, who represents a Southern California district. “I’m not in law enforcement and I’m not in the corrections field, so I trust our folks who are ... to have a sense to know what can work and what cannot work.”

Ammiano said his opinion is based on what he’s heard from prisoner rights groups and the media.

A inmate hunger strike enters its 15th day today with less than 1,000 inmates still not eating to protest long-term solitary confinement. It began with more than 30,000.

On Monday, 986 inmates in 11 of 33 state prisons had refused at least nine consecutive state-issued meals, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

There were also 42 inmates in one prison who refused to participate in their work assignments, but the CDCR would not identify the facility.

Two inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison received hydration Monday.

Prison officials have scheduled an informational meeting with prisoner rights advocates today.

Inmates leading the strike have been moved into Administrative Segregation Units, prisoner rights advocates claim.

The hunger strike is a continuation of two similar protests that were launched in 2011 by a core group of inmates who are housed in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit. Four main representatives from different ethnic backgrounds (African-American, White, Northern and Southern Hispanics) have dubbed themselves the Short Corridor Collective.

They want to be released from the SHU and are calling for an end to the “debriefing” process, in which inmates can gain their release from the SHU by sharing information about other inmates’ illegal gang activities.

Prison officials say holding some inmates in the SHU for indeterminate periods is necessary to prevent gang communications both behind bars and on the streets. 

Advocacy groups argue for the abolishment of SHUs while the CDCR maintains the hunger strike is driven by prison gang members who want to get out of the SHU to expand their criminal enterprises.

“I am, of course, well aware that many of these are people convicted on good evidence in court of heinous crimes, and that some of them can be demonstrated to be gang members with good evidence,” said Ammiano in the email.

“That does not excuse CDCR putting prisoners under conditions that are extreme, not just in my opinion, but according to Amnesty International and other respected organizations,” stated Ammiano. “What’s more, despite talking extensively with CDCR about their practices, I have heard nothing to prove that those very expensive practices do anything to improve ‘the safety of taxpayers,’ or reduce crime in my district or any other district.

“Until that proof is forthcoming and until CDCR is more forthcoming about why it places people in SHU, it will be difficult to defend their practices,” said Ammiano.

Melendez thinks otherwise.

“(Inmates) want to get rid of segregation and they no longer wish to have the debriefing process in effect and I think those are two very valuable tools necessary in prison systems,” she said.

The CDCR has implemented a new policy regarding gang management that has added another opportunity for inmates to earn their way out of the SHU by participating in rehabilitative programs and renouncing gang activity in a process that could take up to four-years. The Collective argues it is not enough, however, because there will still be inmates who may be stuck in the SHU indefinitely in the new program.

“This is a careful process and we want to make sure it’s done right,” said Melendez.

She considers the hunger strike an ineffective disruption of the prison system.

“I don’t see corrections moving more quickly because they have inmates on a hunger strike,” said Melendez. “The prisoners are not supposed to be running the prisons.”

CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard recently stated the hunger strike is harming the inmates’ cause.

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