The history of California's unusual ban on personal photographs for inmates held in special security units remains murky.
State corrections officials said inmates assigned to the units were always barred from having new photographs taken ever since the facilities were developed in the early 1980s. But a review of documents and interviews with former inmates suggest the ban developed in a haphazard fashion.
Jerry Elster, a former state inmate, recalled being locked in the security unit at Folsom prison in the mid-1980s when photographs and personal visits with families were routine.
Amid constant tensions between inmates and staff throughout the prison system, Elster said the visitation rooms acted as a relief valve and were respected as "neutral territory" by rival groups of inmates.
Photographs taken with visiting relatives reinforced connections between inmates and their families, said Elster, who is now a community organizer at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a San Francisco-based advocacy group,
But all that changed in the 1980s, when new, high-tech prisons came online and the corrections department was a grappling with a rising tide of violence and greater scrutiny from the courts, said Keramet Reiter, a UC Irvine criminologist whose has written extensively on the history of California prisons.
"The prisons were consciously implementing baseline minimum standards -- providing constitutionally mandated adequate space and light, for instance, but providing few, if any additional, discretionary "privileges" like photos and contact visits," she wrote in an email.
By the late 1980s, with violence becoming routine, Elster said free movement on outdoor yards, personal photographs, contact visits with families and other features common to prison life disappeared for inmates moved into the new "lock-up" units.
"These prisoners were snatched away from their families for decades," he said.
State officials read history differently. Kelly Harrington, associate director at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the restrictions were "sound" in the 1980s when prison gangs were on the march and lethal violence was spinning out of control.
Harrington said photographs were circulated by prison gang leaders as "calling cards," both to advise other members "that they're still in charge" and to pass on orders.
But Harrington could not cite of any specific criminal cases in which photographs of prison gang members were a factor, and a department of corrections spokesperson was unable to provide any examples.
Scott Kernan, who retired as undersecretary of corrections in 2011, said the stories of "calling cards" were isolated examples and the photo ban and other restrictions targeted inmates who were not breaking any rules.
"I think we were wrong and I think (that) to this day," Kernan said.
In 2011, following a mass hunger strike by inmates at Pelican Bay, Kernan directed the department to ease restrictions on photographs and other items such as exercise equipment and art supplies.
An October, 2012, corrections memo states that security housing unit inmates can purchase a credit, or "ducat," allowing them to be photographed, provided they have not received a serious disciplinary report for 12 months.
Since the ban was eased, hundreds of inmates at Pelican Bay's security housing unit have been photographed by prison staff and those images have been sent to along to families and friends.