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March 23, 2012 > California eyes changes to prison policies

California eyes changes to prison policies

By Don Thompson, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP), Mar 09 - California prison officials want to change policies for dealing with prison gangs, including rules that kept some gang members locked in isolation for years and led to widespread inmate hunger strikes last year, officials said Friday.

The proposed regulations would make it easier and quicker for gang members to get out of the notorious security housing units that hold nearly 4,200 inmates in the nation's largest state prison system.

Gang members would no longer have to renounce their gang membership. Instead, they could earn more privileges and get out of the isolation units in four years instead of six if they stop engaging in gang activities and participate in anger management and drug rehabilitation programs.

The old restrictions prompted more than 6,000 inmates at prisons statewide to refuse state-issued meals at 13 prisons in July. They staged another hunger strike in September and smaller strikes intermittently since then.

Officials said their review started in May, before the hunger strikes. However, the proposed policy addresses some of the inmates' demands, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Inmates wanted a way to earn their way out of isolation, and the proposed policy gives them even more incentives than they asked for, she said.

The department examined practices in other states including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico, New York and Texas as it updated gang policies that date back two decades, said Terri McDonald, the department's undersecretary for operations.

The old system focused on separating and suppressing gangs. The new system would try to change gang members' behavior through rewards and punishment, she said.

Under the old policy, gang associates are automatically sent to the security housing units to live alongside gang leaders. Under the proposed policy, many could continue living in the general prison population. The shift alone could significantly reduce the security housing unit population, McDonald said in an interview.

Of the 2,300 felons who are in the isolation units because of their gang involvement, nearly 1,800 are considered gang associates. The units also house non-gang inmates who kill other inmates, attack employees or participate in riots.

The new regulations were released in draft form to inmate advocacy groups on Friday. McDonald said she expects the regulations can be adopted by year's end, though a case-by-case review of individual gang members' housing can begin before any changes become official.

The policy would generally define California's seven prison-based gangs as what would be called level 1 security threat groups. They include the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Aryan Brotherhood and other gangs that grew up behind bars.

Level 2 security threat groups would include street gang members who land in prisons, though prison and street gangs often overlap.

``There's well over 400,000 gang members in the state of California, and those gang members frequently come to prison and they bring their street gang politics,'' McDonald said.

California operates four security housing units for men - at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi and California State Prison, Sacramento.

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