Revolution #202, May 30, 2010

California Prisons:

The Brutality and Racism of the "Behavior Modification Unit"

There is a little-known unit within the California prison system called the behavior modification unit, which was set up in 2005 to segregate prisoners who the state considers "troublemakers," for acts like refusing a cellmate. Now renamed the behavior management unit (BMU), these units are supposedly a middle step between the maximum security cells (the "hole") and the general prison population. Part of the official rationale was to provide "life skills," like classes in "anger management."

But in reality, such classes—for whatever their worth—have little to do with these behavior units. A recent two-part piece in the Sacramento Bee* exposed that at the Corcoran prison, none of the prisoners in the behavior unit had taken so much as a single class. Instead, the whole unit was on lockdown nearly 24 hours a day. The Bee found that throughout these BMUs (originally at six prisons, now at three), prisoners have been routinely subjected to humiliating strip searches, pepper sprays, and other physical brutality as well as extreme isolation and sensory deprivation where prisoners are locked in cells for months without TV, radio, exercise, or contact with people other than guards.

According to the Bee, court records indicate that prisoners who are suicidal or who are heavily medicated for psychosis and other mental disorders are "typical" in these units.

And racism is open and rampant. Guards at the High Desert prison called the behavior unit there the "black monkey unit" and joked about how "monkeys" are "always hanging around in there"—a sickening reference to suicide attempts by Black prisoners. One former prisoner in the unit recalled how he was pepper-sprayed in the cell—for not returning the meal tray in the required 2 to 3 minutes—and then paraded through the cellblock naked, with his hands and feet shackled. "They’re walking me on the chain and it felt just like…slaves again," the prisoner said. "Like I just stepped off an auction block."

In the name of "behavior modification," what the state is doing to these prisoners is nothing less than trying to crush their very humanity. Who are the real criminals?

* "Probe uncovers strip searches, chains and racism at prisons," Charler Piller, Sacramento Bee, May 9 -10. [back]

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