Skip to main content

Who is in the SHU? The need for reform in prison isolation units

Demonstrations are taking place at Governors' offices across the country today in New York, Connecticut, and Illinois in solidarity with those pushing for basic rights and humane conditions within the Security Housing Units (SHU) at the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, located in the northwestern tip of California.  The conditions of the SHU will be the topic of discussion at today's oversight hearing by California's Assembly Public Safety Committee (listen live at 1:30 pm).

The hearing is in response to the nearly month-long hunger strike, in which thousands of inmates across California protested the inhumane living conditions in the SHU, At the end of July, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) felt the pressure and replied to the strikers' core demands, agreeing to conduct reviews of the SHU living conditions, gang validation process, and the debriefing process (which requires denouncing gang membership and "ratting" out gang members). While Pelican Bay staff and CDCR officials have said they are working towards reform, they acknowledge this is not going to be a quick and simple process.  

Currently all California State Prisons are under Supreme Court order to reduce their populations because of extreme overcrowding.  Pelican Bay is a prime example of the impact severe overcrowding has on living conditions and availability of services.  At 136% capacity, over 1,000 of its 3,230 inmates reside in the SHU.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that prison officials are overwhelmed and hesitant to implement any immediate and comprehensive reform when attempting to handle such a large group, when safety is a clear concern.    

Unlike other isolation and segregation units, those housed in the SHU are not housed there based on commitment offense but because the institution has designated many of them as gang affiliates.  Gangs inside prison differ from street gangs.  It is extremely difficult to avoid any association with a gang in prison, especially Pelican Bay, a maximum security facility specifically designated for the most violent offenders.  "You can't go solo here and make it on your own.  Especially on a Level IV, high-security prison yard.  There's no way. So guess what, you have to go with everybody else," explains Pelican Bay's Public Information Officer, Lt. Chris Acosta.  

False accusations of gang involvement are common and many inactive gang members are placed in the SHU for nonviolent reasons, including having a gang tattoo.  One of the strikers' core demands prison officials are considering recommends placing individuals in the SHU only if they have committed a gang-related crime while in prison.  This would not only alleviate the capacity of the SHU but save the state money, since the SHU costs twice as much  as the general population units.  

Bringing awareness to the conditions in the SHU is necessary for basic reforms, but it will not tackle the larger problem of institutions breeding violence and gang culture.  Large, overcrowded facilities make it impossible for staff to adequately handle and provide the necessary rehabilitative services the population needs in order to reintegrate into society.  Effective evidence-based gang intervention strategies within institutions simply do not exist.  However, California's realignment plan provides a new opportunity to reduce prison gangs and other problems associated with overcrowding because it is intended to reduce our reliance on incarceration. Creating smaller facilities and focusing on community-based treatment programs, rather than isolation, can ensure long-term rehabilitation.

See these links to learn more about the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike and a brief history of former prison protests.

Keywords: abuse, CDCR, Emily Luhrs, mental health

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions

California Stentencing Institute screenshot

California Sentencing
Institute (CASI)

Explore how California’s 58 counties send their residents to correctional institutions with interactive maps, charts, and downloadable data.

Connect with us

      YouTube

Contribute to CJCJ

Make a difference to youth and adults trying to get their lives back on track.

Join our mailing list

Get regular updates and news delivered to your inbox. We won’t share your information with anyone else.