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California to ease prison rules for gang members

SACRAMENTO — Prison officials revealed new rules Friday that they say will make California the first state to recognize that inmates can quit prison gangs and put that lifestyle behind them, allowing them to escape the tough restrictions that gang members are subject to.

However, gang associates would have to steer clear of gang activities for about a decade to qualify, while gang leaders would have to behave for a minimum of 14 years.

The draft regulations made public Friday are the latest changes to rules that keep some gang members locked in special isolation units for years and have led to widespread inmate hunger strikes. A spokesman for a coalition of reform groups that backed the hunger strikers called the changes "woefully inadequate."

Prison officials consider more than 2,800 of California's nearly 134,000 inmates to be gang members or associates, and say they direct much of the violence and contraband smuggling both behind bars and on the streets.

Until now, once inmates were confirmed to be in a prison gang or other "security threat group," the label stuck throughout their time behind bars. The designation required those inmates to remain housed under greater security and barred them from some programs like firefighting camps.

The new regulations are an extension of a 15-month-old pilot program that has allowed gang members to get out of isolation units at Pelican Bay in far Northern California and other prisons without renouncing their gang membership.

Since the start of the pilot, the department has reviewed 632 gang members who were in isolation units. Of those, 408 have been cleared to be released into the general prison population and 185 were given more privileges but remain in isolation.

Those 2012 policies, which are being updated in Friday's filing with the Office of Administrative Law, let the gang members and associates gain more privileges and leave the isolation units in as little as three years if they stop engaging in gang activities, and participate in anger management and drug rehabilitation programs.

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