Legal Corner: Close the SHU!

by Cassie Pierson, Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
The SHU (Security Housing Unit) at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) is, “like living in a black hole,” according to Angela Tucker who was interviewed by Cassandra Shaylor on February 8, 1998.
Although every prison in California’s system has an Administrative Segregation unit, the only SHU for women is located at VSPW. Women are isolated for 24 hours a day, either in their cells or during outside exercise periods which last from a half hour to an hour. African-American women comprise approximately 3.5% of California’s population–they make up as much as 40% of the women confined to the SHU at any given time.
Why are prisoners assigned to Ad Seg or the SHU? Generally, temporary assignment to Ad Seg is required when a prisoner poses an immediate threat to the safety of herself or others, or she endangers the security of or jeopardizes the integrity of an ongoing investigation of alleged serious misconduct. The reason for placement must be clearly documented on a CDC 114-D. This temporary assignment to Ad Seg shall be reviewed every 30 days by the Institutional Classification Committee (ICC). The ICC determines where the prisoner will be housed; their decision may include assignment to segregated housing, including the SHU. (See Title 15 beginning with section 3335)
SHU is one of three segregated program housing units used by the CDC. The others are PHU (protective housing unit) and PMU (psychiatric management unit). A prisoner whose conduct is a threat to the safety of others or the security of the institution will be housed in the SHU. Assignment to the SHU can be for an indeterminate or fixed period of time. Any prisoner who has been validated as a member or associate of a prison gang will be assigned to the SHU for an indeterminate term. A classification committee must review an indeterminate term at least every 180 days to determine whether the prisoner can be released to general population.
A determinate SHU term can be established for prisoners who were found guilty of a serious offense listed in section 3315 of Title 15. The length of the SHU term is determined by the ICC using the SHU Term Assessment Chart (section 3341.5(c)(9)), Factors in Mitigation/ Aggravation (section 3342.5 (c)(10)), SHU Term Assessment Worksheet (CDC 629-A), Assessment of Subsequent SHU Term Worksheet (CDC 629-B), and SHU Time Computation Table (CDC 629-D). Serious misconduct while in the SHU may result in an additional determinate term for prisoners serving a determinate term and this additional term may be concurrent or consecutive.
Advocates testifying at the legislative hearings made a variety of recommendations regarding the SHU. A few of those recommendations were: (1) remove all male guards from the SHU; (2) redesign the unit to guarantee basic personal privacy; (3) develop a more rigorous screening for mental illness prior to SHU confinement; (4) provide support groups which are therapeutic and discontinue the use of “cages” which are dehumanizing; and (5) discontinue the practice of referring every minor infraction to the district attorney for prosecution.
For the sakes of all women prisoners, we must continue to fight for the ultimate goal: CLOSING THE SHU.