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Saturday, March 31, 2012
Fighting a Drawn-Out Battle Against Solitary Confinement
ATWATER, Calif. — Ernesto Lira is not a murderer. He has never participated in a prison riot. The crime that landed him behind bars was carrying three foil-wrapped grams of methamphetamine in his car.
But on the basis of evidence that a federal court later deemed unreliable, prison officials labeled Mr. Lira a gang member and sent him to the super-maximum-security unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, the state’s toughest correctional institution.
There, for eight years, he spent 23 or more hours a day in a windowless 7.6-by-11.6-foot cell, allowed out for showers and exercise. His view through the perforated steel door — there were 2,220 holes; he counted them — was a blank wall, his companions a family of spiders that he watched grow, “season by season, year by year.”
Mr. Lira insisted that he was not a gang member, to no avail. He was eventually vindicated and is now out of prison, but he still struggles with the legacy of his solitary confinement. He suffers from depression and avoids crowds. At night, he puts blankets over the windows to block out any light. “He’s not the same person at all,” said his sister Luzie Harville. “Whatever happened, the experience he had in there changed him.”
California has for decades used long-term segregation to combat gang violence in its prisons — a model also used by states like Arizona with significant gang problems. Thousands of inmates said to have gang ties have been sent to units like that at Pelican Bay, where they remain for years, or in some cases decades. But California corrections officials — prodded by two hunger strikes by inmates at Pelican Bay last year and the advice of national prison experts — this month proposed changes in the state’s gang policy that could decrease the number of inmates in isolation.
Depending on how aggressively California moves forward — critics say that the changes do not go far enough and have enough loopholes that they may have little effect — it could join a small but increasing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term solitary confinement, a practice that had become common in this country over the past three decades.
The changes in California’s system would represent one of the largest shifts in how it handles prison gangs since officials began pulling gang leaders, known as shot-callers, out of the general population in the late 1970s. Prison reform advocates say that if California, with the largest prison population in the nation, changes its practices, states like Arizona that have similar policies might follow suit.
Few dispute the threat posed by prison gangs, or the murders, assaults, drug smuggling and other mayhem they are responsible for. In 2011, there were 1,759 gang-related homicides, attempted homicides and violent attacks on staff members or other inmates inside state prisons, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.
Most states identify inmates who are members of prison gangs, and gang members account for a large percentage of the prisoners held in solitary confinement around the country. But California’s policy has been among the most severe, sending not only full gang members but also inmates found to associate regularly with gangs to one of the state’s three super-maximum-security facilities. More than 3,000 prisoners judged to have gang ties are held in such conditions. Of the inmates sent to the unit at Pelican Bay for gang affiliation, 248 have been there for 5 to 10 years; 218 for 10 to 20 years; and 90 for 20 years or more.
Lt. Dave Barneburg, lead gang investigator at Pelican Bay, said incarcerated gang leaders commanded a vast network in the prisons and in cities like Los Angeles, Salinas and San Francisco, ordering attacks on rivals and running drug rings and other illegal businesses. One gang, Nuestra Familia, at one point identified Pelican Bay as its “White House.” The gang problem is so tough, he said, “No one has the answer. You do the best you can with the tools you have.”
But civil rights lawyers have long been critical of California’s gang policy. The procedures used to identify gang members are flawed and lacking in due process, they say, leading to mistaken identifications like the one that sent Mr. Lira — who was vindicated by a civil rights lawsuit resolved last year, long after he was paroled — to Pelican Bay.
“They base this gang stuff on evidence which would never satisfy any normal legal proceeding,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, which provides legal services for inmates.
He noted that although inmates identified as gang members are granted periodic hearings, under the current policy they are not allowed to confront their accusers — or even to know who their accusers are. Nor can they cross-examine witnesses, present their own evidence or argue their case before a neutral decision maker, all basic rights afforded to defendants in the outside judicial system.
In one case, said Charles Carbone, a prisoner’s rights lawyer in San Francisco, evidence used to validate an inmate included a copy of the ancient Chinese military text “The Art of War,” found in his cell. In another instance, a magazine containing an article about George Jackson, the Black Panther killed during an escape attempt at San Quentin in 1971, was used as evidence of gang membership.
Equally controversial is a process called debriefing, in which inmates in the supermax units are encouraged to renounce their gang ties and provide information about other members in order to be moved to lower-security settings. Because debriefing is sometimes the only way to get out, critics say, the information it yields is often tainted.
David Marcial, a prison consultant and a former official with the Connecticut Department of Corrections, whose gang management program has been a model for other states, said some inmates are so disruptive that they need to be isolated. But locking down all gang members is counterproductive, he said.
“If they’re not a shot-caller and they’re not doing anything violent in the prison, why lock them up?” he said. “My concern is not whether or not you’re a gang member. My concern is that you do not cause a threat to my facility when you’re incarcerated.”
Under the state’s new plan, gang associates — now the largest number of inmates held in the high-security units — would be isolated only for actions judged to be disruptive. But gang members would still be segregated. They would be allowed to work their way out of segregation after a minimum of four years, through a step-down program. Cases of prisoners currently in the units will be reviewed.
“It’s designed to be dynamic,” said Terri McDonald, the state corrections department’s under secretary for operations. “We’re interacting with offenders — they know what’s expected of them, and their behavior, based on their own choices, dictates where they are housed.”
Mr. Specter and other civil rights lawyers said that the proposal had benefits, but that four years was too long for inmates to wait to work their way out of solitary and that the criteria for what was considered disruptive were still so broad that it was unclear how large any reduction in numbers would be.
“It’s conceivable that it won’t affect very many, and that’s the main question,” he said. “If it’s just a codification of the status quo, that’s not going to be very effective.”
In Mr. Lira’s case, it took years of legal wrangling to win recognition of the system’s error. Pulled over in 1995 for a hairline crack in the windshield of his blue Mustang, he was charged with transporting methamphetamine and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Arriving at the entry facility in Tracy, he was told that after his last release from prison he had been identified as a member of the Northern Structure, a prison gang. Only later did he learn the evidence against him: a drawing found in his cell that corrections officials claimed contained hidden gang symbols, a report of a jail-yard standoff and information from confidential informer. Held in a segregation cell for nine months, in 1996 he was put on a bus for Pelican Bay, in the far north of the state, where he remained until his parole in 2004.
His first sight of the prison was a series of low-lying buildings without windows, “little cement blocks, like little Lego boxes,” he recalled. “It was quiet. No noise. You could hear the wind outside. You could hear the rain.”
As the months passed, his life dissolved into a series of undifferentiated days. “It would be nice if there was a window to look out,” he wrote in his diary. “I am surrounded by cement and steel.”
Prison officials encouraged him to renounce his gang membership, but he could not do so. He had never been a gang member, he told them.
When his lawsuit finally came to trial, witnesses testified that the drawing found in Mr. Lira’s cell was in fact made by another inmate. In a ruling last year, Judge Susan Illston noted that one witness, a corrections department official “who testified about her extensive training ‘on identifying gang symbols,’ “ was not able to find any symbols in the drawing, even when it was enlarged. The other evidence assembled against Mr. Lira was also called into question. Judge Illston ordered his gang classification expunged and noted that he suffered lasting emotional consequences from his incarceration a Pelican Bay.
Mr. Lira now lives with his mother here in Atwater, an agricultural town in the Central Valley. Since his release, he has been in and out of jail for parole violations and minor offenses. During a recent interview, he circled the living room, picking things up and putting them down, his body in constant motion. He is like this a lot of the time, his sister Irma Lira said, his mind “always on the go, thinking, moving.”
At 48, Mr. Lira has trouble talking about his years in solitary confinement. “You take a person and you just peel back the skin and make him just some raw flesh in a tomb and all he has is his mind,” he said. “Your feelings, your anxieties, your doubts, your health, your happiness, your spirit, who you are, who you think of — that’s the only thing that keeps you going in there.”
**This information is being shared by Citizens for Prison Reform for purely informational purposes.
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