California Considers New Rules for Solitary Confinement in State Prisons

by | January 10, 2012

The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition today reports on the content of a meeting held in late December with an undersecretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), regarding the future of the state’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). Prisoners in the SHUs at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and elsewhere are held in round-the-clock solitary confinement, some for years or even decades; many are there because they have been “validated” as gang members based on the word of other prisoners.

Following a series of highly publicized hunger strikes and a hearing in the California State Assembly, the CDCR promised to revisit the process through which it condemns prisoners to long terms in the SHU. Any proposed changes apparently would not affect the Administrative Segregation Units, or ASUs, where prisoners are also held in solitary; a number of hunger strikers have been sent to ASU.

The following notes from the December meeting serve as a status report on that process.

On December 28, 2011, two members of Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity’s mediation team spoke with Undersecretary Terri McDonald about the status of the new regulations on gang validation/SHU classification policies and procedures.

Undersecretary McDonald stated the following:

  1. CDCR is changing to a behavior-based policy about SHU consignment, so that prisoners could be designated as members of “security threat groups” without being sent to the SHU.  Others currently in SHU who have not had behavior issues could be returned to the general population.  It remains to be seen how broadly CDCR will define “behavior.”
  2. In addition, CDCR is designing a 4-step “stepdown program” designed for exiting gang members.  Step 1 is high security and step 4 is transition to general population.  Debriefing is not required to qualify for this program.
  3. CDCR has drafted a “concept paper” about these new policies, which it intends to send to its national experts in early January.  CDCR did not adopt the prior recommendations of the 2007 experts’ report, mostly because of cost.  CDCR’s concept paper will not be available to prisoners and their advocates until after the experts weigh in.
  4. CDCR hopes to hear back from these experts by late January or early February.
  5. CDCR will then revise its concept paper and send it to “stakeholders” for feedback.
  6. Stakeholders include such groups as legislators, law enforcement leaders in the community who work with gangs, the Prison Law Office and the mediation team.
  7. After hearing from the stakeholders, CDCR will then turn its concepts into detailed regulations.
  8. Then CDCR will propose these changes officially through the public hearing process, negotiating with unions, etc.  McDonald also stated that the Castillo case would have to be factored in, so that someone coming up for a six year review doesn’t lose ground with the new provisions.  All of this will take time.
  9. The status of individual prisoners who are currently in SHU will not be reviewed until all of this has happened, other than those who are up for annual review by the ICC.
  10. The stepdown program can be implemented sooner, as it does not involve policy changes.  McDonald gave an example of prisoners going to an “integrated yard,” composed of prisoners affiliated with enemy gangs, to see if they can get along.
  11. She cautioned that there will be no large-scale exodus from the SHUs.  They are concerned that, if they move too fast and violent incidents occur, the entire reform process will be destroyed.
  12. Although the process will be slow, she stated that CDCR is committed to reworking its validation procedures, making SHU consignment behavior-based, opening the stepdown program and re-evaluating all current SHU occupants when the new regulations on validation and SHU placement are in place.
  13. Regarding the specific promises that Scott Kernan negotiated as part of demand #5 (calendars, hobby items, sweats, etc), McDonald states that they have all been accomplished already with the exception of the chin-up bars, because they involve some expensive structural changes, and the photographs, which are happening over time, when prisoners get their ICC reviews.  She states that these items are not privileged-based.
  14. CDCR officials who are involved are George Giurbino (who has retired but will remain on contract with CDCR for this purpose), Suzan Hubbard and Richard Subia.  Hubbard and Giurbino will be on the panel reviewing individual prisoners’ cases once the new regulations are rolled out.

Although the Undersecretary’s comments do not provide all of the detail we need, this information is helpful in general terms.  We will provide more information as we learn it.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • meliposa59

    “Set my ppl FREE!

  • Would like to be able to look at this “concept paper” as I was directly involved in the Arizona STG Step Down Concept in 2007 that was very successful and still is today. Maybe somebody from this list of “experts” will allow me to peek and comment to them my ideas on their conceptual thinking and planning of this revelation that is now making its way into reality.. Anyone who thinks my view can be helpful please email me at and give me a peek at it.

  • changing my views on solitary confinement after 24 years as a correctional administrator.. now research is showing me the negativity of such a concept. Still learning more but convinced its not the best tool in the shed; rather if it must be used, it must be done so there are no mentally ill or long term placements that are detrimental to the human being cast there to suffer a needless plight.

  • This is most encouraging news… I for one am glad we are making progress in this mot sensitive and important issue of solitary confinement in our prisons and not just CA. Read my book based on much data provided by people that live, work and know solitary confinement to understand the culture on both sides.. Not advertising just letting you know that after 25 years of correctional work this retired administrator recognizes the impacts of solitary confinement and has suggested, recommended or implemented many features listed here as possible solutions to the dilemna at hand.

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