Prison Hunger Strike: The Struggle Continues

Corcoran State Prison

As many are aware, last week the Hunger Strike leaders at Pelican Bay called for an end to the hunger strike after they were offered small concessions including beanies to keep warm, calendars on their walls, proctors for exams and a good faith promise from CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan that the validation and debriefing policies would be reviewed. Although the strike is over at Pelican Bay, there are reports from CDCR and family members of inmates that people in other prisons are still on strike. A this point, none of the five demands have been met and its up to the public to continue to pressure the CDCR and Governor Brown to take action and meet these demands.

In Part 3 of this ongoing series, I will discuss the Hunger Striker’s second demand: Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria


Intro to Prison Gangs:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has identified prison gangs as a serious threat to the safety and security of California prisons. To respond to this safety concern, the CDCR has developed a system of “gang validation” to seek, identify and validate suspected gang members and associates and to separate them from the general population by housing them in Security Housing Units (SHU).  It is important to note that the CDCR distinguishes between street gangs and prison gangs. The members of street gangs mostly self identify as gang members or affiliates upon entering the prison for general classification and placement purposes. The demographics and numbers of these members often reflect the demographic of the members in the streets.

The prison gang members, on the other hand, are usually sought out, identified and validated by the prison’s Institutional Gang Investigator (IGI). Their validation as prison gang members is often not the result of actual gang activity, but rather the IGI’s investigation of their property and surveillance of their correspondence. Based on these materials, the validated gang members and associates are preemptively put in SHU for an indefinite period as an administrative measure to prevent “actual” gang activity. The CDCR has identified five organizations that it recognizes as prison gangs: Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Black Guerrilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood, and Nazi Low Riders.

Gang Validation:

In order for someone in prison to be validated as a member or associate of a prison gang the Gang Investigator must complete a gang validation package for the inmate documenting three independent sources of evidence that are believed to show gang association or membership. These sources can include any admissions, tattoos, symbols, photographs, books, newsletters and other written and verbal communications including legal documents.[1] An inmate can be validated as a prison gang member, associate or dropout for just possessing of any of the above mentioned items, if the prison administrators determine the items are evidence of gang membership. Once a person is validated as a gang member or associate, the Office of Correctional Safety must also determine whether that person is “active” or “inactive” before they are assigned to the SHU. Unfortunately, as the Hunger Strikers assert in their second demand, this requirement is virtually ignored by CDCR resulting in many inmates being assigned in SHU indefinitely without being involved any gang activity.

I recently read a case in which the court upheld an inmate’s validation as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family based on his possession of a piece of paper with the contact information of Hugo Pinell, a book by George Jackson, an audio CD outlining the life and ideology of George Jackson, a flyer promoting a 2005 Black August community event in Oakland and a newspaper article explaining the meaning of Black August.[2]

I thought about how likely it would be for me, or a number of people I knew to have those materials at any time. I was assigned George Jackson’s books in college and they are still sitting on my shelf. An issue of the Prison Focus newsletter containing an article on Black August was in my bag for weeks when it was released. In fact, it wouldn’t be an incredibly surprising discovery to find all five of those source items in the backpack of a college student in any major city in the country. In that context, possession of these materials could by no stretch of the imagination be considered a legitimate or reasonable reason to suspect gang membership. However, if the person happens to be a Black man and happens to be in a California prison, he could easily be validated as a member of a prison gang and given an indeterminate sentence in a SHU facility as an “administrative measure” without any finding of actual gang activity.

The Debriefing Policy:

Once some one is validated and assigned to the SHU, they are generally kept there until they parole, debrief or die. The CDCR allows inmates the option of “debriefing” for the opportunity to be verified as a gang dropout and be released from SHU. To debrief, a validated gang member must participate in an interview with the Institutional Gang Investigator (IGI) and tell the IGI everything he knows about the gang, its members and its activities.

This is especially problematic for inmates who are validated without any finding of actually gang activity because they are often not actually members of a prison gang and don’t have truthful information to offer about the gang. Therefore, either the inmate can never debrief because he doesn’t have any information to give to the IGI or the inmate can misinform the IGI with anything he can muster with hopes of being released from the SHU. Any information given to the IGI by inmates who are debriefing can be used to validate other inmates as gang members. This results in the use of potentially invalid testimony obtained under the extremely coercive debriefing process as ‘evidence’ in the in the validation of another inmate.

Even when inmates complete the debriefing interview with the IGI, they are not guaranteed release from the SHU. The decision remains open to the discretion of the IGI. Inmates take a serious risk if they choose to debrief. They may face retaliation by other inmates for providing information to the IGI and they may be putting other inmates in danger of being improperly validated by providing false information during the coercive debriefing process.

Unlike some of the other demands, the internal policies regarding gang validation can be immediately changed within the CDCR without requiring funding or legislation, but they won’t do it on their own. We have to continue putting pressure on the CDCR by exposing their inhuman practices and calling on Governor Brown to intervene.

[1] 15 CCR §3378(c)(8) This section of the statute itemizes the sources that can be used to determine gang Identification, however the code as written is over broad because it fails to codify the terms of the Castillo settlement especially the provision regarding actual gang activity versus status.


[2] In re Furnace, 185 Cal. App. 4th 649, 666 (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 2010).