Ernesto Lira spent nearly eight years locked in an isolation unit after California authorities declared he was associated with a violent prison gang. Now he is suing California in a case that is bringing the state's pre-emptive methods of curbing gang activity under scrutiny.
Lira had already been in and out of prison many times before for such nonviolent crimes as drug possession and petty theft. Most recently, he was caught with 3 grams of methamphetamine while out on parole and sentenced to eight years. But he was shocked when he was transferred to a stark isolation cell at Pelican Bay State Prison.
"I always looked ahead and thought, 'Maybe in a month or three months, they'll realize this was all a mistake and they'll kick me out of here,' " says Lira, 45, who was released from prison last year.
That didn't happen. Lira was locked in a windowless, 8-by-10-foot cell in the prison's Security Housing Unit, or SHU, where there were no phone calls, no family visits, no programs of any kind. From isolation, Lira wrote hundreds of journal entries, which he says trace his slide into mental illness.
"This isolation is wearing me down," he wrote. "I can't believe I've been in the hole five years. I believe I'm losing my mind."
Reining In Gang Members
California built the SHUs in the 1980s to isolate violent prison gangs that were running crime rings behind bars and on the streets. But the state casts a wide net and locks down some inmates for indirect allegations — such as associating with other gang members or holding artwork with hidden gang signs.
Lira says he was never a member of any gang and that he suffered deep psychological trauma as a result of his years in solitary. He has filed suit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for violating his civil rights.
The CDCR declined to discuss Lira's case, citing pending litigation, but officials did talk about prison gangs, their violence and secrecy, and why they say the state needs to lock down some members before they have a chance to strike.
"We're taking a proactive approach to identifying gang members so a particular gang member may not be able to order an attack on a specific staff member or maybe even someone in the community" says Special Agent Mike Ruff, a department gang expert.
Lira's attorney argues that his client was the victim of assumption. "There is a notion that if you're a Hispanic, have a Mexican-American last name and come from Northern or Southern California, there's a presumption to start out with that you're a member of a northern gang or a southern gang," Bill Chapman says.
Fear Of A Slippery Slope
Lira originally sought thousands of dollars in damages, but he dropped those demands in order to bring the case to trial more quickly. Now, he is seeking to have his gang validation expunged and a ruling that he was wrongfully placed in solitary. Those demands might seem modest, but observers say Lira's case is important because lawsuits initiated by California inmates almost never make it to federal court.
"These cases are so rarely given the light of day," says Charles Carbone, a prisoner rights attorney who has handled dozens of complaints against the CDCR. "They're so rarely examined with any degree of thoroughness."
Carbone says only one other similar case has made it to a federal trial in recent years, and it is currently under appeal. And despite the seemingly narrow scope of the Lira case, he says a ruling in Lira's favor could affect hundreds of California inmates currently locked in solitary.
"This is why the department of corrections fights these cases tooth and nail," Carbone says. "Because of the fear of the slippery slope. The fear that thousands of prisoners are going to file the very next day on the exact same grounds."
In court, state attorneys defended the evidence originally used to validate Lira as a gang member: an informant's statement, a prison-yard incident in which Lira allegedly spoke sharply to another inmate, and a drawing found in his locker that allegedly contained tiny gang symbols. State experts also pointed to Lira's peaceful demeanor and record of good conduct in prison as further evidence of gang-inspired deception. That kind of behavior is not unheard of, says Joe McGrath, a former warden at Pelican Bay.
"I know plenty of guys who are involved in prison gangs, and they're respectful to staff, they don't get into any trouble and again they're quietly running their gang activities through clandestine communications," McGrath says.
The state conceded there was no evidence that Lira actually did anything tangible for a gang prior to being locked in solitary confinement. Still, officials repeatedly defended the system that held Lira in solitary as fair and necessary.
But that view is being called into question by an internal study that has been circulating in the CDCR for more than a year. The report proposed that California's prison gang policy should be overhauled and the security housing units be reformed. Those proposals were drawn up by a team of national experts led by Brian Parry, a former deputy director in the CDCR.
"To me, we have to make the system as fair as we possibly can," Parry says. "My whole goal through that policy was not just to reduce the exposure to litigation but to reduce violence. Put the right people in SHU."
Parry spent more than 30 years working in California's prison system. He now says he is uncomfortable with the kind of indirect evidence used against prisoners like Lira, such as drawings. As many as 70 percent of the inmates in the SHUs, he says, were sent there through evidence of this kind.
While Parry declined to comment directly on the Lira case, he did say this: "For anybody that's falsely identified and who ends up in the SHU for a lengthy period of time, that's wrong."
Parry says he wants to bring California in line with national standards by targeting the most disruptive inmates — whether or not they're prison gang members. The state could still isolate inmates, but only if they're involved in criminal activity or misconduct, and only for fixed terms.
But there's resistance to that plan. Some officials worry that letting possible gang members out of solitary could lead to a spike in violence on regular prison yards.
"You have to understand that there will be some that are going to use such a program to get back out there to do something they're directed to do," says McGrath, the former Pelican Bay warden. "They might lie low for quite a while to get to the place or the person. The threat is very real."
The proposed changes are not part of Lira's case, and a decision on the lawsuit is expected in the next few days. Meanwhile, California officials say the proposal to overhaul the way the state deals with prison gangs, which was submitted 15 months ago, is still under review.