Solitary confinement has a way of outliving its justifications. First it was supposed to inspire spiritual reflection and penance, then it became a last-resort punishment. Now, Rob Fischer reports, isolation units serve as long-term housing for gang members:
Ninety-eight per cent of inmates in Pelican Bay [State Prison]’s [security housing units (SHUs)] are there because they have been “validated” as prison-gang members, based on any number of criteria—some were identified by other inmates, others by tattoos or artwork. The gangs aren’t so well represented in solitary just because their members commit more serious infractions, though that’s almost certainly true; rather, it’s because SHUs are the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (C.D.C.R.)’s] gang-fighting strategy. The only way out is to disavow membership, and the only way to do that is to “debrief,” or inform on other gang members.
Most of the major prison gangs have “blood in, blood out” policies, under which an assault is part of the initiation and death is the only way out—and that can extend to members’ families. The debriefing requirement leaves some inmates with no good option but to languish in the SHUs indefinitely. It can be a particularly dispiriting state of affairs for those eligible for release. Parole boards require certain benchmarks of good behavior, like work participation and education attainment, that aren’t offered to inmates in SHUs. As a result, anyone in a SHU who has been sentenced under California’s three-strikes laws, which impose minimum-to-life sentences on third-time offenders, faces the serious possibility of a de facto life sentence in solitary confinement.
Fischer notes that Pelican Bay once capped SHU stays at 180 days; today, nearly half of its 1,100 inmates in solitary confinement have lived that way for more than 10 years. More Dish on solitary confinement here, here, and here.