SACRAMENTO — Prison officials revealed new rules Friday that they say will make California the first state to recognize that inmates can quit prison gangs and put that lifestyle behind them, allowing them to escape the tough restrictions that gang members are subject to.
However, gang associates would have to steer clear of gang activities for about a decade to qualify, while gang leaders would have to behave for a minimum of 14 years.
The draft regulations made public Friday are the latest changes to rules that keep some gang members locked in special isolation units for years and have led to widespread inmate hunger strikes. A spokesman for a coalition of reform groups that backed the hunger strikers called the changes “woefully inadequate.”
Prison officials consider more than 2,800 of California’s nearly 134,000 inmates to be gang members or associates, and say they direct much of the violence and contraband smuggling both behind bars and on the streets.
Until now, once inmates were confirmed to be in a prison gang or other “security threat group,” the label stuck throughout their time behind bars. The designation required those inmates to remain housed under greater security and barred them from some programs like firefighting camps.
The new regulations are an extension of a 15-month-old pilot program that has allowed gang members to get out of isolation units at Pelican Bay in far Northern California and other prisons without renouncing their gang membership.
Since the start of the pilot, the department has reviewed 632 gang members who were in isolation units. Of those, 408 have been cleared to be released into the general prison population and 185 were given more privileges but remain in isolation.
Those 2012 policies, which are being updated in Friday’s filing with the Office of Administrative Law, let the gang members and associates gain more privileges and leave the isolation units in as little as three years if they stop engaging in gang activities, and participate in anger management and drug rehabilitation programs.
Officials said that change was based on programs in seven other states. California is now the first to go a step farther by removing the gang designation entirely if the inmate continues to behave, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR.
“It’s about rehabilitation,” she said. “If an inmate truly wants to disengage from that toxic gang lifestyle, CDCR is going to give them ways to do that.”
The new program lets gang associates have their gang validation removed from their record after completing the minimum three-year rehabilitation program and going six additional years without a disciplinary charge related to gang behavior.
Those who are considered gang leaders would have to complete remain without a gang-related disciplinary violation for at least 11 years after completing the program before the gang designation could be removed by a prison committee.
Inmates don’t have to formally renounce the gang to have the designation removed from their record. They do have to avoid criminal behavior related to gang activity.
“It is not easy to get out of a gang. I’ve always considered it a very courageous thing to do,” Thornton said. “When an inmate decides to drop out, we have to take measures to protect them,” like placing them in special housing units, she said.
If the committee decides to remove an inmate’s gang designation, that decision would be reviewed by the department’s Office of Correctional Safety. If the inmate starts associating with gangs again, he would again be validated as a gang member and start the process over.
“As long as they keep indefinite solitary (confinement), as long as they have these decade-long processes … I think it’s woefully inadequate,” said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. The group backed a series of fasts that included about 30,000 state prison inmates at one point last summer. He questioned whether the department could be trusted to fairly consider whether inmates have left behind their gang affiliations.
Critics, including inmates, now have 60 days to comment in writing on the new regulations before a public hearing April 3 in Sacramento.