Prisoners are often assigned to solitary confinement cells–sometimes indefinitely or permanently–because corrections officials have identified them as gang members. Some prisoners complain that the criteria for being “validated” as a gang member are arbitrary and inaccurate, and also subject to abuse by prison staff.
Recently, a California prisoner charged that he was put in solitary confinement based largely on his choice of reading material. He was moved from the general population into a Secure Housing Unit (SHU) after guards discovered writings by George Jackson, the black revolutionary who was killed almost 40 years ago at San Quentin during an alleged prison break attempt.
State courts more or less agreed with the prisoner’s allegations. But they ruled that these reading materials were valid proof of gang affiliation, and reason enough to condemn him to solitary confinement. The Los Angeles Metropolitan News-Enterprise reported on last week’s ruling by a California’s appeals court:
Assigning an inmate to secure housing based on his possession of constitutionally protected materials linking him to a gang did not violate his First Amendment rights, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
The judges affirmed Kings Superior Court Judge George L. Orndoff’s order denying Edward T. Furnace’s habeas corpus petition. Furnace claimed his assignment to the Secure Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison was arbitrary and capricious and deprived him of free speech.
Furnace, who was committed to state prison in 1992 to serve a life sentence without possibility of parole for murder and other crimes, was “validated” as a gang member and assigned to SHU Corcoran in 2008. That action followed a property search at Salinas Valley State Prison, where Furnace was then incarcerated, that turned up a piece of paper with contact information for Hugo Pinell, a Black Guerilla Family member at another prison.
The search also turned up a book titled “Facism: Its Most Advanced Form Is Here in America” by George L. Jackson, a CD about Jackson’s life and death, and a photocopied flier promoting a 2005 event commemorating “fallen BGF members as well as other…Freedom Fighters.” Jackson, founder of the BGF, a Marxist prison gang, was killed, along with three correctional officers, during a failed escape attempt in 1971….
In defense of Furnace’s validation as a gang member, prison officials explained that possession of materials related to Jackson is normally considered as evidence of association with the BGF. In Furnace’s case, the fact that he had those materials, together with possession of contact information for a BGF member whom he could not contact without violating prison rules, led to the conclusion that he was affiliated with the BGF, officials said.
Furnace denied any such affiliation. He wanted to contact Pinell for advice about a children’s book on how to avoid gang violence, he said, claiming his interest in Jackson was purely historical.
Justice Betty Dawson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge correctly deferred to prison official’s expertise in the matter of identifying gang affiliates. The justice explained that a prison’s internal decision-making will not be interfered with if there is “some evidence” to support it. While Furnace offered innocent explanations of why he possessed the materials, officials were entitled to conclude that the combination of items formed a reasonable basis for officials to believe that Furnace was a member of the BGF.
With respect to Furnace’s First Amendment claim, the justice cited Turner v. Safley (1987) 482 U.S. 78. The case held that prisoners’ rights of expression must yield to legitimate penological interests, as determined by a four-pronged test….
You can read the rest of the article to find out more about the “four-pronged test” that weighs a prisoner’s constitutional rights against the judgements of corrections officials.
Keep in mind, too, that while today the Black Guerilla Family is viewed as just another violent prison gang bent on securing its turf, in George Jackson’s time it was motivated by ideology; though its means were often violent, its objectives were political. The same is true of Jackson’s writings, which are widely read in college and even high school classrooms and considered to be, as Furnace claimed, of historical interest. The prisoner Furnace tried to contact, Hugo Pinell, is not a current leader of the BGF; he is a 65-year-old contemporary of George Jackson, and the only member of the San Quentin Six who remains in prison 40 years after their trial. Pinell has spent much of those 40 years in solitary confinement–the last 20 of them in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay.
For another California prisoner, expressing admiration for George Jackson had far more profound consequences. In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger turned down an appeal for clemency from Stanley Tookie Williams, who had become an anti-gang and anti-violence activist while on death row for several gang-related murders. In his response to the appeal, Schwarzenegger stated that the “dedication of Williams’ book Life in Prison casts significant doubt on his personal redemption.” The book was dedicated to “Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, Dhoruba Al-Mujahid, George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the countless other men, women, and youths who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars.”
Schwarzenegger pointed out that many of these figures had “violent pasts” and some were murderers; in particular, he wrote, “the inclusion of George Jackson on the list defies reason and is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems.” Williams was executed at San Quentin on December 13, 2005.