Our View: Ad is another example of simplistic advocacy

By Triplicate Staff September 02, 2013 07:51 pm

Elsewhere in today’s Triplicate is a half-page advertisement purchased by advocates of inmates seeking almost a total abolishment of the Security Housing Units used at Pelican Bay and other state prisons.

It’s jarring in its description of SHU residency as “torture.” It’s also an illustration of the American right of free speech playing out in the pages of your local newspaper, agree or disagree (it appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday).

So here’s some more free speech. The advertisement is an example of the tendency of inmate advocates, including some state legislators, to ignore the problem SHUs were created to help solve:

Criminal activity on the urban streets of California is often directed by gang leaders behind bars, and that’s more easily done when they’re part of the prison’s general population than when they’re in a SHU.

Inmate advocates would have a lot more credibility if they addressed what could be done to solve this problem without SHUs. In other words, show some concern for preventing crime in addition to protecting the rights of the incarcerated.

The Triplicate recently produced a four-part series that focused on all aspects of the SHUs: why they were created, how they work, and what SHU residents and corrections officials have to say about all this. You can read it by going to triplicate.com and clicking on “Inside the SHU.”

Staff writer Anthony Skeens’ eyes-wide-open report has generated some criticism from inmate advocates who apparently take umbrage at any mention of the reasons why SHUs exist.

Ultimately, the series defined “indefinite solitary confinement” as it exists in the California prison system.

“Solitary confinement” conjures up images of sensory deprivation in “the hole,” a phrase common in prison movies and books. But SHU inmates can have roommates. They are within earshot of other prisoners. They have access to a law library. They can have visitors.

On the other hand, they are confined to their cells for all but about one hour per day. And in the past, some have been sent to the SHU simply because they’ve shown an interest in prison gang activity, not necessarily because they’ve engaged in it. And yes, the length of SHU terms is often indefinite — some people have been in there 20 years or more.

Torture? Not by most definitions. Unfair? It has that potential. Necessary? Prison officials certainly think so.

The state has made some reforms, revamping the “validation” process that can land an inmate in the SHU and expanding ways an inmate may be released from the SHU. It has been reviewing the validation of all inmates serving indefinite SHU terms. Through June, 378 reviews had been conducted, resulting in 161 inmates being released back into the general population and another 83 being placed in various phases of a “step-down program” that could lead to release.

Some residents and their advocates say that’s not nearly enough. They fear the state’s new focus on “security threat groups” instead of prison gangs could qualify still more inmates for indefinite SHU stays. And they point to an ongoing inmate hunger strike as evidence of growing desperation on the part of criminals who are now victims.

This is a complicated issue that is generating a lot of simplistic rhetoric. Anyone who contends there are easy solutions is not really a proponent of justice for all.

— Del Norte Triplicate