SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A sharp reduction in prison crowding is giving officials in the nation's largest state prison system breathing space to rethink long-outdated policies affecting where inmates live and how best to suppress the gangs that unofficially control many aspects of life behind bars.
California prison officials on Friday unveiled proposed changes to rules that kept some gang members locked in isolation for years and led to widespread inmate hunger strikes last year.
They also released a study that could help save taxpayers money by giving the state more flexibility to house some high-risk inmates in lower-level prisons instead of building new maximum-security lockups.
Both moves are possible, officials said, because the state is diverting thousands of lower-level criminals from state prisons to local jails under a law that took effect in October.
The shift was driven by federal judges who ruled state prisons were so jammed that officials could not provide proper care to mentally and physically ill inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld the authority of the judges to order the state to reduce crowding.
The reduction is just beginning, but the benefits are changing the way the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does business, said Terri McDonald, the department's undersecretary for operations.
"Public safety realignment has given us the opportunity to begin to implement research and policies that we've wanted to do for years but haven't had the ability to do that because we were just so crowded," she said in an interview.
The department hadn't planned to release the study on the security classification of inmates on Friday, until a copy was independently obtained by The Associated Press. But McDonald said that study fits with the new gang regulations that would give inmates a chance to earn their way out of the state's notorious security housing units.
The state can safely house some maximum-security inmates in lower-level prisons, according to five University of California criminology experts commissioned by the department to review its classification system. That in turn could free up space in maximum-security prisons to house some of the nearly 2,300 gang members who currently are in the security housing units, McDonald said.
Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, applauded the security recommendations but said gang members should be able to work their way out of the isolation units more quickly than the department is proposing.
The department could have changed its antiquated policies without waiting for crowding to abate, said Specter, one of the attorneys who sued and won the federal crowding-reduction order.
The proposed regulations say gang members would no longer have to renounce their gang membership. Instead, they could win more privileges and get out of the isolation units in four years instead of six if they stop engaging in gang activities and participate in anger management and drug rehabilitation programs.
The old restrictions prompted more than 6,000 inmates at prisons statewide to refuse state-issued meals at 13 prisons in July. They staged another hunger strike in September and smaller strikes intermittently since then.
Officials said their review started in May, before the hunger strikes, and the regulations are based on programs in seven other states.
However, officials said the proposed policy change addresses some of the inmates' demands. Inmates wanted a way to earn their way out of isolation, and the proposed policy gives them even more incentives than they sought.
Under the old policy, gang associates are automatically sent to the security housing units to live alongside gang members and leaders. Of the 2,300 felons who are in the isolation units because of their gang involvement, nearly 1,800 are considered gang associates.
The units also house non-gang inmates who kill other inmates, attack employees or participate in riots.
Under the proposed policy, many gang associates could continue living in the general prison population.
That shift alone could significantly reduce the population in the security units, McDonald said.
Friday's developments came a week after the department announced it had taken down the last of nearly 20,000 makeshift beds that had been set up in gymnasiums and other common areas to handle inmates who overflowed traditional cells before the new realignment law.
With fewer inmates throughout the system, McDonald said the department will consider adding education and rehabilitation programs for inmates who want to improve their lives, while leaving other more basic prisons to house offenders who do not want to stay out of trouble.