SACRAMENTO — A group of inmates is entering the third week of a hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison, hoping to force corrections officials to change how they identify and punish gang members in California's sprawling penal system.
About 60 inmates at the remote prison in Del Norte County near the Oregon border began refusing their meals Oct. 19, officials say. A few are continuing the strike and are declining to be weighed or examined by physicians.
Lawyers for the inmates say they are protesting the Department of Corrections' practice of isolating prisoners believed to be gang members in harsh segregation units, where they are denied most privileges and are rarely let out of their windowless cells.
Prison officials said they are monitoring the striking inmates carefully but have no plans to alter their policy. In January, however, they intend to launch an already scheduled review of the 1,154 inmates confined in isolation at Pelican Bay to determine whether any were sent there erroneously.
The department's gang policy has long been a target of inmate grievances, and last year sparked a hunger strike that involved about 1,000 convicts at Pelican Bay and a second prison.
Under state regulations, male convicts determined to be gang members or associates may be sent to a security housing unit at Pelican Bay or at prisons in Corcoran and Tehachapi.
Their term of isolation in the unit is indefinite, and the only routes out are to be released on parole, to inform on other gang members through an elaborate debriefing process or to demonstrate no evidence of gang activity for six years.
Prison officials say confining the most active gang members in the unit helps curb violence within its systemwide population of 159,000. Gang conflicts account for about 75% of the violence at the state's 33 lockups, officials say.
"We have 900 gangs or splinter groups in our system," said Stephen Green, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which oversees the Department of Corrections. "By removing the shot-callers, we can limit the growth of the gangs and the problems they cause."
But inmates and their advocates say that officials sometimes mistakenly label prisoners as gang members, in some cases on the basis of other convicts' self-serving, confidential information.
They want the state to change its policy to require that only an inmate who engages in overt gang-related misconduct be labeled a member and punished with an indefinite term in a security housing unit.
"The way it is now, you don't actually have to do anything wrong
Carbone said inmates have been tagged with the gang label and sent to security housing after talking to a gang member in the law library, signing a get-well card for a member or drawing Aztec cultural symbols seen by authorities as proof of affiliation with the Mexican Mafia.
More troubling, critics argue, is the open-ended nature of an inmate's stay in security housing once he is sent there. Some prisoners choose to debrief, which involves informing on other inmates through a series of interviews during a four-month program in a special housing unit.
But there is a substantial list of inmates who wish to debrief, causing waits that have been as long as two years. And some inmates are reluctant to debrief because of fear of retaliation against themselves or their families by gang leaders -- or because they are, in fact, not gang members and have no information to share.
The option of earning release from security housing by serving six years with no evidence of gang activity is difficult, inmates say, because of snitching by other inmates and because sometimes innocent behavior is taken as proof of continued affiliation with a gang.
Once you are in the unit, "it is very, very difficult to get out," said Jesus Enriquez of La Puente, whose son-in-law has been confined at Pelican Bay's security housing unit for 11 years. "They take the smallest thing as evidence you are still part of the gang."
Corrections officials defended their gang identification program and said that only the "worst of the worst" are sent to security housing. Inmates are determined to be gang members or associates only with the support of three independent pieces of evidence.
Evidence may include tattoos, written material, photographs with other gang members, incriminating letters or visitors, or debriefing information from other inmates. If the evidence comes from a confidential source, it must meet a strict test of reliability, said Margot Bach, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
"This is not a process that is done lightly, because we understand that, when someone is validated as a gang member, it means confinement ... for an indeterminate amount of time" in the unit, Bach said.
Once in the unit, California prisoners live under what all sides agree are conditions of maximum deprivation and minimum privilege.