California prisons change inmate privileges

An enclosed yard where California prison inmates in solitary confinement are allowed to exercise, one at a time. After the 2011 hunger strikes, corrections officials agreed to add a pull-up bar and small handball.
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations)

In the days before mass protests swept over California prisons, state officials began increasing the privileges inmates receive in solitary confinement, where those protests were being organized. (See memo here.)

Then when the strike began Monday, a prison official sought to cut by half one of the few types of personal items that inmates in isolation are allowed to keep: books. The memo restricted from 10 to five the books that may be kept by inmates in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay State Prison. That is the unit where protest leaders are housed.


It brought swift objection from lawyers representing Pelican Bay inmates in a federal lawsuit over state policies that allow inmates to be held indefinitely in that isolation unit, some for decades. Some of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit are also leaders of the protest.

“Our clients believe this to be punishment and clearly counter to the amenities that were announced to them on July 2,” said attorney Anne Weills. “We will be protesting this directly to CDCR and will call on librarians to assist in their struggle to have more books and periodicals in their cell.”

Pelican Bay officials, after being contacted by The Times on Tuesday, rescinded the memo.

Lt. Chris Acosta said that upon review, the memo was found to be poorly written. Acosta said the edict’s author, a corrections sergeant, “didn’t go through the proper chain of command.”

Just weeks before, a top corrections official expanded privileges for inmates in solitary confinement, granting them permission to buy and keep a typewriter, unlimited amounts of candy and instant soup. As well, they may now supplement their prison-issued wardrobe with boxers, sweat pants and undershirts, and may keep sausages and cheese -- all items previously banned from solitary.

The approval for added privileges was signed by Corrections Undersecretary Martin Hoshino on June 5. Inmates in Pelican Bay told their lawyers they were not made aware of the changes until July 2, just before the planned start of the statewide protests.


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