Gangs and the SHU

Arrghhh, having one of those days…. I always get torn in two when I hear about my state’s prison Security Housing Units, aka The SHU.

I just wrote a story coming off an afternoon of listening to Sacramento hearings about:

1) the horrifying conditions in the SHU; and

2) how inmates become validated as prison gang members and get sent indefinitely to the SHU.

Don’t get me wrong. As a frequent visitor to California prisons, it doesn’t take much to tick me off at the Department of Corrections.  I mean seriously, prisons could do a few simple, cheap and decent things like provide shade and benches for elderly visitors who stand for hours in their freezing/blistering hot/rain-soaked parking lots just to see a loved one. They could quit setting the clocks forward and shaving 15 minutes off precious visiting time. Grrrr! They could allow a reporter a pencil and paper like the Department Operations Manual says they must.

And those are just the little things. And okay, maybe I’m ticked off I didn’t get invited by CDCR to go on their recent press junket to Pelican Bay. Double grrr!

Despite all this ticked-offness, I understand prison officials’ dilemma.

I lose patience with family members who are in denial about their loved ones’ gang involvement. There was a lot of talk at the Sacramento hearing about inmates being falsely classified as prison gang members. They are not ‘generals,’ one relative said.

Well, some of them are. There really are gang members and gang generals in the SHU. And I know this not because I take some cop’s word for it but because I’ve known more than a few of them personally. There really are people there who stab, strangle, slice, and beat other humans as a regular way of life. Even in the SHU, they find ways to smuggle out orders to kill. Yes, they do. I’ve seen the hit lists.

True, that doesn’t mean your loved one is one of them.

I guess what I’m thinking is that we’re asking the wrong questions. Rather than protest every SHU inmate’s innocence, maybe we should ask: Is long-term isolation in a Security Housing Unit really the best way to deal with the gang members who do beat and stab and slice?

The SHU hasn’t stopped the gangs from spreading. It hasn’t stopped the orders for hits. True, it has probably slowed some of these things, but I have to ask whether allowing SHU inmates to use colored pencils is really going to increase prison violence. Whether allowing inmates a little more fresh air and human contact is going to up the assault rates.

Maybe the problem isn’t who goes to the SHU, it’s the SHU itself.

One big question that did come up at the hearing — and it was a good one — was why prison officials have made it almost impossible to leave the SHU (and one’s gang) without debriefing. (Debriefing is what some would call snitching.)

I liked the answer I heard. They’re going to change that. That’s what I heard, I swear. Finally, prison officials told us they’re looking at ways to help guys step back without informing.

This is HUGE.

As they age, plenty of men grow tired of being in a gang, but still feel crappy about informing. The new approach would allow them to show (through their behavior) that they’re no longer in a gang. Without having to debrief.

I can imagine that prison officials will see a lot more men back off from prison gangs and out of the SHU.

Sure, there a risks. How do you know for sure the guy has really left the gang? Maybe he’s a sleeper. Things like that.

You don’t know. There’s always a risk. Leaving men with nothing on their minds but time in the SHU is also a risk. As one ex-gang general put it, they’ve got nothing to do “but sit and plot.” Hasn’t worked out too well so far, has it?



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