Skip to content

The New Boss Looks A Lot Like the Old Boss

March 24, 2012


By Ed Mead

Reprinted from

“[T]he goals we are currently pursuing are objectively incorrect. To reform the validation process is good, but as an ultimate objective it is not a resolution. It’s a peripheral manifestation of the SHU’s themselves. It’s secondary, like bed sores on a cancer patient. Bandages and topical treatment are necessary, as a reformation of the validation process, to cure the bed sores, which are peripheral to the cancer, but the patient needs to be cured of the cancer. We are not going to be cured of perpetual isolation with Band-Aids, by reformation of the process, but only by dealing with the principle source of this illness—the SHU itself.” – A SHU prisoner

In an apparent response to CA hunger strikes one and two the CDCR has proposed new regulations with respect to gang management and SHU placement. As you’d expect, there is very little velvet glove and a lot of iron fist—lots of stick but little carrot. The essence of their draft rules is to do away with gang status as a means of SHU or ASU placement, and to replace it with some sort of threat model or designation, like the feds do. In other words, instead of them saying you are somehow related to a gang, a classification the courts have held requires some measure of proof; they now change the name of “gang” to “Security Threat Group.” If you should (god forbid) be one of those people who might write about or verbally communicate something to the effect of how messed up it is to be a slave in 2012 America, then you are a “threat.” My friend Bill Dunne has been perpetually locked down in the federal system under just such a designation. But more to the point, how does this proposed new policy meet the five core demands?

The name has changed but the game is the same

The CDCR plans to no longer utilize the terms “Prison Gangs” or “Disruptive Groups” and instead will use a “Security Threat Group” designation or STG. STGs are divided into two groups, STG-I and STG-II, what used to be gang members and gang associates or affiliates, respectively. What is a STG? It is defined as “[a]ny group or organization of two or more members, either formal or informal (including traditional prison gangs) that may have a common name or identifying sign or symbol, whose members engage in activities that include, but are not limited to … acts or violations of the department’s written rules and regulations” or any law or attempting, planning, soliciting, etc. to do such things. How is one assessed to be an STG? The list is too long to detail here, suffice it to say two or more people who the cops feel might represent “a potential threat to the safe and secure environment of the institution … such activities as group disturbances [like a peaceful hunger strike?].”

Validation continues to be “[t]he objective process by which an inmate is determined to be or have been an active member of a STG.” While the CDCR’s draft documents refer to the STG designation, the surrounding verbiage is all about gangs and validation. The stated purpose is still to “prohibit inmates from creating, promoting, or participating in any club, association, or organization, except as permitted by written instructions.” This of course prohibits forming a prisoners’ union, something guaranteed to all humans by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Validation Changes

Under the proposed new rules it would still takes three sources to validate a prisoner as a gang member (STG) or associate. The only difference would be that under the new system these sources would be “weighted” in a ten point scale. Use a hand sign, that’s two points. Someone informs on you, three points. Got gang-related material in your possession, four points. A photo of you taken with suspected gang members, four points. Staff observations, for example, you are exercising with the wrong group of people, four points. Another agency says you are gang affiliated, four points. Association, four points. Visitors who are claimed to be promoting gang activity, four points. Phone conversations, mail, notes, greeting cards, etc., four points. Tattoos or body markings, six points. Legal documents evidencing gang conduct, seven points. There is more but you get the idea—the new boss is a lot like the old boss.

Behavior modification by another name

Before there was the super-max prison in Florence Colorado, the federal ADX, there was the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, which was built to replace Alcatraz. Marion housed “the worst of the worse”, a phrase frequently used by California’s prison officials with respect to SHU prisoners.

In the 1970s the feds implemented a controversial step or behavior modification program at Marion. Prisoners in the program would start out with nothing, and step-by-step be given their rights based on their behavior. In the final phase or step, in order to show you were worthy of transfer to a less secure facility, during the regular group meetings you would be expected to snitch on fellow prisoners who may have violated some minor unit rule. Marion prisoners waged a historic and eventually successful struggle against this behavior modification program and it was shut down. To see this exact same program slated for implementation inside of California’s SHUs is a chilling reminder of those terrible days; a reminder of how history tends to repeat itself for those who fail to learn from the past.[1]

The process is a simple one. There would be a series of steps or phases. In phase 1you may or may not participate in the debriefing process, but you will have nothing in your cell but minimum hygiene items, locked up 23 hours a day, subject to mandatory urinalysis, no contact with others, and otherwise very restrictive regimen. After a given amount of time, with what your captors regard as good behavior, the prisoner slowly moves from one phase to another. With each phase they get more privileges, and also have additional obligations, such as participating in mandatory group programming, small groups at first, then larger ones. Upon successful completion of the “Inmate Treatment Plan” (behavior modification process) the prisoner is released either to an SNY or to GP, or possibly returned to the SHU if the process is deemed unsuccessful.

The Carrot

Of course there must be a little carrot in there, it can’t be all stick. That bite of carrot is the opportunity to at some point allow an administrative review of the status of current SHU or ASU prisoners, which of course would be fair and impartial—that what they had to say to you yesterday will be different than what they have to say to you tomorrow.

The CDCR says it “will be conducting a case by case review for program determination of the existing STG population housed in SHU facilities.” They continue, “[I]t cannot be overemphasized that change of this magnitude in current housing of SHU offenders must be done in a thoughtful and security minded manner…” (read slow). So when will this administrative review of existing SHU prisoners take place? They say “[u]pon approval of this document, CDCR will develop new regulations consistent with this policy for submittal to the Office of Administrative Law” for approval. Sometime after that approval the case by case review will start to take place.


Maybe some will be released from the SHU, people will call it a victory, and everyone will go home (to GP) happy. But what has really been won? A new generation of SHU prisoners will take the place of those few who go through the behavior modification program or are otherwise released from the SHU. The process of litigation will start all over again, and another 15 years are wasted—a period during which even more lives are destroyed. In my opinion this is not the time to be settling for cheap trinkets. It is time to finish off the SHU once and for all.

On March 10th the NY Times printed an article titled “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity.” Similar articles are in the New Yorker magazine and other trend-setting publications. The mood on the streets is open to substantial change in segregation policies—not a merely changing the name of the bland soup they always serve up. SHU prisoners have finally stepped onto the stage of history, now it is time to amplify their voices even further—not just to the halls of power, but to their peers and communities as well. Now’s the time to build a lawful and peaceful movement to bring about a positive change in the existing prison paradigm. ♦

[1] . For a history of the struggle by Marion prisoners against the behavior modification program, outside people can Google the subject for articles such as “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary” (

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: