In order to maintain safety and order, prisons are permitted to categorize inmates and determine which housing units they live in. Housing units can range in severity from general population to a security housing unit (“SHU.”) In general population, there are more freedoms and fewer regulations. The inmates are permitted to mingle during the day, to use outdoor recreational facilities, and they eat in a cafeteria type environment. In an SHU, inmates are kept in solitary confinement, in an 8’ x 10’ cement cell, with no windows. They are permitted to leave this cell for 1 to 2 hours per week. Their food is delivered to them through a slot in the door two times a day. They are not permitted to have any contact with others.
Gangs are considered a serious threat to safety and security in California prisons. Because of this, prisons are permitted to regulate how prisoners are housed based on whether or not they are part of a gang. If an inmate is found to be a gang member or associate, they are “validated,” and they are moved to an SHU. Validated inmates spend 6 years on average in SHU.
Before an inmate can be validated, however, a prison has to produce three sources of items that are indicative of gang association, and one of those items has to be a direct link to a gang member or associate.
The question recently posed to the California Supreme Court was whether that “direct link” could be found if the prison’s only evidence was that an inmate possessed drawings associated with a gang. The lower court had held that the direct link could only be found if the prison could show there was an association between the inmate and the gang, some type of reciprocal interaction. Drawings were not enough.
The California Supreme Court overruled the lower court and held that the direct-link does not have to be a two-way interaction between two individuals. The actions of one individual can be sufficient to validate an inmate, and possessing drawings could be sufficient.
The Court’s opinion involved an inmate who was found in possession of several drawings that were distinctive to the prison gang Mexican Mafia. The drawings contained the Mayan symbol for the number 13, which refers to the thirteenth letter of the alphabet “M,” and is used as a designation for the gang. Another picture contained a female warrior with an “eternal war shield.” This shield demonstrates loyalty to the Mexican Mafia.
The Supreme Court found that prison gangs use many means to communicate with their members, and they attempt to evade detection by using coded and hidden messages in drawings and photos. The Supreme Court held that a direct link does not require evidence of a reciprocal, two-way interaction between the inmate and the validated gang. Requiring a prison to demonstrate a reciprocal interaction could seriously impair a prison’s ability to detect and prevent gang activity. Possessing these types of drawings is sufficient evidence of gang affiliation to validate an inmate.
Being validated as a gang member or an associate has severe, negative consequences for an inmate. If you have been erroneously validated as a gang member, you can file a writ requesting habeas relief.