Stars, Dragons, and the Letter “M”: Consequential Symbols in California Prison Gang Policy

Stars, Dragons, and the Letter “M”: Consequential Symbols in California Prison Gang Policy

California prison policy relies on symbols to identify prison gang affiliated inmates. This policy leads to many false positives and results in long-term solitary confinement of individuals who, in fact, are not affiliated with any gang at all. This Note examines the evolution of California’s symbol-driven policy, including regulations before 2012, after 2012, and the recent Ashker settlement. This Note finds that these symbols and their corresponding interpretations provide unreliable indicators of prison gang affiliation, resulting in unwarranted consequences for prisoners. By allowing prison officials to rely on nonindicative symbols in its process, California uses an unsound policy for managing prison gangs.

Moving forward, the California Legislature should demand that prison officials limit their reliance on visual symbols when making prison gang identifications. California should implement a predominantly behavior-based process for identifying prison gang affiliates, with visual symbols used only to support the nexus between the behavior and a prison gang. The visual symbols that prison officials use to demonstrate this nexus should undergo public and prisoner comment before prison officials may use them. Furthermore, the Legislature should provide for annual commenting periods designed to foster critique and revision of symbolic meanings. Finally, prison officials should provide a full list of all nexus- demonstrating symbols to prisoners and the public to afford proper notice. By implementing these changes, California will take a step toward amending its faulty prison gang identification process by imposing consequences to only those prisoners who are truly prison gang members.

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