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What ​California Inmates Are Saying About Prison Gang Leaders Getting Out of Solitary Confinement

What will happen in state prisons if the "big homies" who run gangs are released from solitary as part of a legal settlement?
Pelican Bay State Prison in California. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, California settled a class-action lawsuit brought by inmates alleging heinous abuses of solitary confinement in the state prison system. Spearheaded by a jailhouse lawyer and alleged Aryan Brotherhood gang member named Todd Ashker, the suit focused on how anyone even suspected of being in a gang could be locked in solitary—a.k.a. "the hole"—indefinitely, often for years at a time. Now the state will limit use of solitary to prisoners who commit egregious crimes or can legitimately be suspected of endangering other inmates, and there are rules to prevent inmates from spending absurd amounts of time in hellishly close quarters.

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Current and former inmates are psyched about the victory—which still has to receive final approval from a judge—even as they're haunted by time spent in security housing units (SHUs), the official moniker for the hole.

"I spent five years in SHU," Stone Ramsey, who authored several urban lit novels while on lockdown in the California state prison system, tells VICE. "It was so crowded they didn't have bed space. I spent two and a half years waiting for a cell in Pelican Bay or Corcoran [state prison] to open up. They had slammed so many people in the hole because of this [gang validation process] and everyone basically had life or indeterminate SHU time, so no one was moving. The only way you could get out of the SHU was to die or rat or parole. Most of them dudes were stand-up acts [i.e., not likely to rat] and most of them had life sentences, so it was at full capacity."

Thousands of prisoners have been confined in the special units, some for decades, and as part of the settlement almost 2,000 of them will be moved to mainline yards and reenter general population, the LA Times reported. Some of those inmates are likely to be what they call the "big homies" in the Cali system—upper-tier members of the Big Four prison gangs (the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, Black Guerrilla Family, and La Nuestra Familia). Other inmates are looking forward to their arrival on the mainline.

"The yards expect more regimented structure `to be forthcoming, and the 'convicts' are looking forward to it!" PG, one of Ramsey's friends who's in the Cali prison system right now, tells VICE. "Prison will be more structured, as people will now be held accountable for their actions or inactions. Those dudes being released from the SHU are natural and learned and Machiavellian, with decades of stratagem under their belt. Those dudes are legends, and they'll basically get a jailhouse hero's welcome!"

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Getting out of solitary obviously isn't the same as tasting freedom, but it can be damn close.

"Its like a quasi-release for these guys," Ramsey says. "It's like being released to the streets, because none of these dudes are going to see the light of day, so just being able to get on a yard, being able to hug your family, hug your kids [is huge]. Some of those dudes were up there for decades with no phone calls and no contacts. In Pelican Bay, you don't get direct sunlight. It's gonna be a culture shock to those guys."

Of course, the release of the gang leaders could spark violence as they battle for position and resources in an environment where scarcity is the name of the game. As the LA Times reported, the man held in solitary the longest in California prison history—Hugo Pinell, who was in there for 43 years—got killed during a riot just days after his release this summer. But big names can actually decrease violence if they demand respect.

"One thang fa'sho tho, their presence will add an abundance of diplomacy to the yards that they get acclimated to, to the point of voicing their opinions and what not, hence that is where respect begins," a convict named Mac tells VICE via text. "Cats respect individuals on a personal level by the way they carry their self, the way they talk and express their self."

Still, some prisoners inside doubt legit gang leaders will even hit a compound.

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"The buzz I'm hearing is that the big homies are getting out, but some people don't think the big dawgs will get out because to the police, they're still a threat," Twin, another one of Ramsey's friends doing time right now, tells VICE. "They have a lot of respect, they're the real big homies who control everything. Strong, powerful people who can touch people wherever they're at."

The solitary rule changes will resonate outside prison walls and barbed wire fences, too, as regular inmates can often obtain cell phones these days.

"It's not only going to be sweeping changes, movements and structure on the prison yard, but it's also going to hit the streets," Ramsey tells me. "A lot of the dudes who are back in the hole are some of the most intelligent motherfuckers you will ever meet, and you bring that back to the prison circle and the whole makeup of a 'pound can be changed. One dude can come to the yard and the whole mentality changes. Think when these sharp dudes get a hold of all these youngsters."

Therein lies the problem: How much security is too much? It seems clear that what California has been doing to anyone they suspect is affiliated with a gang is excessive, but is a victory against barbaric prison conditions also a victory for the prison gang leaders who could get released from 24/7 lockdown?

"Lots of heavy dudes have been getting on yards out there…you probably heard about Hugo Pinell, [notorious Aryan Brotherhood leader] John Stinson is on a yard. Policies are all different now," a source close to inmates in the California system tells VICE. He explained how a good friend of his who is an Aryan Brotherhood leader just beat the gang validation process. "Good news…dude's on a yard, even has a cellie, so it looks like he beat the gang validation… I' m sure I don/t have to tell you they watch him like a hawk."

It's clear that the big homies are still being watched, and maybe law enforcement is giving them just enough of a leash to hang themselves. But the settlement suggests some of them will be able to walk a yard while they are in prison, and taste a semblance of normal life.

"All the movement, being able to walk around on grass, going into the chow hall and going to commissary, it's going to be a sensory overload," Ramsey says of those poised to get released. "In the SHU they squeeze all the toothpaste out and don't even give you the tube, so they are going to get a lot of little stuff that they wasn't privileged to get. It's going to be Christmas for these dudes."

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.