Faced with massive overcrowding, budget cuts, and a weeks-long hunger strike by inmates, California is considering making changes to how it handles its toughest prisoners, reports NPR. A state legislative panel today will hear about conditions at the state prison at Pelican Bay, where California’s most dangerous convicts are shipped. A violent prisoner or a member of a prison gang is sent to the half of the prison known as the Secure Housing Unit (SHU). Prison officials say it’s the only way to safely house the worst of the worst.
The only thing that gets a prisoner out of the SHU is dropping out of a prison gang and naming names. Hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement won’t snitch and remain isolated for years. “What that means in California is that you accumulate these men in Special Housing Units and when Pelican Bay filled up, then it was necessary to build more of them,” says David Ward, a retired criminologist who has studied California’s prison system. There are now more than 3,500 men in the state’s three isolation units. It costs more than $70,000 a year per prisoner to keep them there — nearly double the cost of a prisoner in the general population. Scott Kernan of the state’s prison department says it’s time to try something new. “We are going to make the changes that we think are reasonable,” he said, “and with the realignment we think we are going to make changes that we have never had the chance to do before.”