4 years ago California ‘integrated’ prison yards. A judge paused the policy, citing violence

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge this week restricted prisoner transfers in California, saying the state corrections department ran afoul of rulemaking procedures and introduced the potential for violence with a policy change it made four years ago.

In 2018, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began housing general-population prisoners with a previously separated group including gang members, high-profile prisoners, informants and others with special needs.

The policy, aimed at reducing altercations and preparing prisoners for life after release, created violence of its own, Judge James Arguelles said in an Oct. 3 order.

And the agency didn’t follow the state Administrative Procedures Act, which includes legal review and opportunities for public comment, when Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison made the change, Arguelles ruled.

Arguelles’ recent order was the result of a lawsuit filed by Ismael Villarreal, 26, a prisoner held in a general population facility at California State Prison, Solano. Villarreal expressed concern that, due to the department’s 2018 policy, he would soon be transferred to a more dangerous place.

For now, Arguelles’ ruling means CDCR can’t transfer inmates from general population facilities to those that are integrated.

The department is working to reinstitute the policy under the proper protocols.

The ruling will not affect the planned closure of California Correctional Center, said CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas.

“The department is reviewing the order at this time to assess impact and next steps,” Simas said in an email.

The corrections department created “special needs yards” in the 1990s to try to reduce violence by separating gang members, informants and high-profile prisoners from everyone else. Since prison gangs are largely organized by race, the policy in effect segregated racial groups.

The special needs yards became increasingly violent, and the policy “simply has not worked,” according to CDCR’s website.

The department’s 2018 policy change reversed course, reintegrating the populations. Seven California prisons are now fully integrated, while others include some fully integrated facilities and some that are segregated.

The seven fully integrated institutions are Avenal State Prison, California Health Care Facility, California Medical Facility, California Rehabilitation Center, Chuckawalla Valley, San Quentin and Valley State Prison, according to a guide created by the Berkeley-based nonprofit Prison Law Office.

The integrated facilities offer rehabilitative programming to more prisoners and force them to “live up to behavioral standards in prison, just like they will out in communities once they are released,” according to the site.

The reintegration has come with its own spats of violence, but “the extent to which such violence exceeds the incidence of violence under the prior housing system is unclear,” Arguelles said in his ruling.

Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, said the regulatory process required by the judge ensures that “people have an opportunity, especially the ones who are affected, to comment on the policy.”

The main effect of the judge’s ruling will be to speed up that process, Specter said.