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From the grim, crowded cells of Pelican Bay, prisoners speak by refusing to eat

A small group of reporters was shuffling through the concrete tunnels of Pelican Bay State Prison, following Public Information Officer Chris Acosta like curious goslings. Notebooks and cameras in hand, they peered this way and that, scribbling down little details -- ooh, a gurney piled with riot gear! -- and snapping photos wherever allowed.

Acosta, a trim Hispanic man whose sunglasses had left tan-lines along the sides of his bald head, led the group through a metal door out into a caged yard where reporters snapped photos of the razor wire spirals. Acosta corralled them through a giant steel gate operated by a corrections officer in a nearby turret. With a shouted command up to the tower the gate slid shut behind the group: a loud mechanical grinding noise followed by a booming clank. Delighted, a National Public Radio reporter asked if they could open and shut it again; she wanted a clean audio clip for her broadcast. She silenced her fellow reporters and held an enormous microphone to the gate.

These reporters had descended on Pelican Bay from Oregon, Sacramento, Los Angeles and elsewhere -- TV, radio and newspaper correspondents eager for a rare look at the most restrictive and controversial prison conditions in the country. Some had flown into Del Norte County's tiny airport. Others drove rental cars up from Sacramento or San Francisco. And on an overcast August morning they each drove through beleaguered Crescent City, escaped north up Lake Earl Drive and, six miles later, turned right at the lonely traffic signal, pulling into the parking lot of California's first, largest and most infamous Supermax prison.

A hunger strike started here on July 1, reminding the public about the 3,240 caged men in the far northern corner of the state.

The prison, 34 miles north of the Humboldt County line, looks exactly as you'd expect of a facility built to hold the "worst of the worst" -- bleak and industrial, a sprawling complex of squat gray buildings surrounded by gravel and asphalt. Google's aerial view of the prison looks like a skull lying in the midst of miles of green forestland. Zoom out and you can see muddy Lake Earl and the brilliant blue Pacific.

Inside you see none of that -- just walls, fences, cells. Confinement. Aside from the brown grass in the general population yards, the only signs of nature are the treetops peeking over the walls and, when the wind blows east, the briny smell of ocean. In the 22 years since Pelican Bay opened, not a single prisoner has escaped.

The reporters had gathered in a conference room for a presentation on prison gangs, one of the primary reasons for Pelican Bay's notoriety. "We are a hub of prison gang influence for the state of California," said Lt. Dave Barneberg, the prison's institutional gang investigator. He ran through the major gangs -- Nazi Low Riders, Black Guerrilla Family, Nuestra Familia, Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood -- and explained that administrators have managed to curtail much of the criminal activity by placing gang leaders inside the prison's Security Housing Unit. The SHU (pronounced as if it were footwear) is the "prison within a prison" at Pelican Bay, an isolation unit where inmates who present "serious management concerns" are locked inside windowless cells for 22 1/2 hours per day, leaving only to shower or to exercise alone in a high-walled concrete yard, roughly the size of a shipping container.

The hunger strike started in the SHU. Inmates complained about the methods used to determine who gets put in the SHU, and they said the sensory deprivation and deep isolation inside amounted to "sanctioned torture." In a matter of days the strike spread to roughly 6,600 inmates in at least 13 California prisons. Then, three weeks after it began, the strike ended. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed to a couple of very minor concessions (giving SHU inmates wall calendars and watch caps) and promised to consider their full list of demands. Unsatisfied with their response, inmates resumed their strike Monday.

A reporter started with a very simple question for Lt. Barneberg. "What is the purpose of Pelican Bay?"

"It's the same as any other prison," he responded, "to safely house offenders here and keep our community safe."

That's how most of us think of prison. Someone commits a serious crime and he gets "locked up." "Put away." "Thrown in the slammer." The late criminologist John Irwin called this "warehousing," a model of law enforcement that focuses not on rehabilitation but on retribution, not on corrections but on confinement. Warehousing, many analysts argue, has been California's de facto system since well before Pelican Bay opened.

In many ways, the SHU represents the culmination of this trend toward human disposal. Inmates aren't sentenced to the SHU; rather, they get placed there as a preventive measure against gang activity. Prison officials "validate" gang membership based on a number of factors, from attacking fellow inmates to more tenuous evidence like tattoos or even talking to a known gang member. In short, officials have a lot of discretion to decide who gets put in the SHU. And sometimes they're wrong.

Ernesto Lira was doing time at a low-security prison on a drug charge when guards found a drawing in his locker that allegedly contained gang symbols, so Lira was shipped off to Pelican Bay's SHU. How do you get out once you're in? If you've been placed in the SHU for anything except brief discipline, there are just three ways out, which inmates describe succinctly: "Parole, snitch or die." Snitching is the method administrators bank on. They call it "debriefing" but it means the same thing -- renouncing gang membership and telling officials everything you know about your former gang. This policy was among the hunger strikers' primary complaints; they argue that debriefing puts them and their families in danger.

But Lira had a different problem. He couldn't debrief even if he'd wanted to because, as a judge later ruled, he wasn't actually a gang member. So he remained in isolation -- warehoused -- until his parole eight years later. In 2009 Lira successfully sued the CDCR, in part for the psychological damage he'd suffered in the SHU.

Warehousing may be the reality in California prisons but it's not the company line. In 2005 Gov. Schwarzenegger announced in his "State of the State" speech that the CDC (California Department of Corrections) would be adding an "R" to its name. The "R" for rehabilitation "always cracks me up," Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon said in a recent interview. "Corrections is supposed to mean rehabilitation." But Schwarzenegger clearly needed to do something. The state's prison system was a mess, plagued by prisoner abuse, overcrowding and the highest recidivism rate in the country.

Six years later it's still a mess. Messier, actually. The Supreme Court recently upheld an order that will require California to reduce its prisoner population by at least 30,000 inmates. And the ones who remain probably won't be corrected or rehabilitated. In 2006, fewer than half of all prisoners released from California prisons had had even one day of rehabilitation or job training, according to CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate.

So if they're not being rehabilitated, what is happening to inmates at Pelican Bay? Seems like a question worth asking when you consider the cost of housing them there. Pelican Bay employs nearly 1,300 people and has an annual budget of roughly $180 million. That's $70 million more than the annual budget of Humboldt State University. A general population prisoner costs taxpayers $58,324 per year. Each SHU prisoner costs $70,641 annually. That's more than triple what it costs a student to attend a year HSU including tuition, books, food, housing, transportation and personal expenses.

And just like college students, many of the guys in the SHU will rejoin society sooner or later: On average, 75 inmates per month get released directly from the SHU onto parole.

What have they learned?


Today the United States imprisons a larger portion of its population than any other country in the world, by a wide margin: two and a half times the rate of Iran, six times the rate of Canada and nearly 13 times the rate of Japan according to data compiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies.

It hasn't always been that way. In 1970 we had just over 100,000 inmates in state and federal prisons; by the end of 2009 there were nearly 2.3 million. California is now home to 33 prisons, which, coincidentally, is equal to the number of college campuses in the CSU and UC systems combined.

Why this lockup mania?

Simon, the Berkeley law professor, explained that the American public's attitude toward criminals and prisoners changed during the 1970s thanks to incidents such as the Attica prison riot, activist George Jackson's deadly escape attempt from San Quentin and a succession of high-profile serial killers. People began to view prisoners as "hardened and motivated killers who don't change over time," Simon said.

The logical solution? Lock 'em up, throw away the key.

Josh Meisel, an assistant criminology professor at Humboldt State University, said other factors fueled this attitude, including deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill and cutting funds for social safety net programs. Americans grew wary and dismissive of lawbreakers. "We as a society became far more willing to write off larger and larger segments of the population as junk, social junk," Meisel said.

If Pelican Bay was designed to hold the worst of that junk, then the SHU is reserved for the truly toxic waste -- the human equivalent of uranium fuel rods and rusty heroin needles. The media tour offered a very selected sampling of who's in there now.

Lt. Acosta stood outside a door to one of the SHU "pods" and shouted up to a corrections officer seated behind him in an enclosed, elevated control booth. The door to pod C12 slid open with that radio-friendly "Grrrrrrrr-clang!" and the reporters filed inside. All the pods in the SHU are identical -- concrete boxes with two levels of 8-by-10 cells, illuminated with narrow skylights and fluorescent ballasts that remain on 24 hours a day, so that no cell ever gets dark. Inmates peered at the reporters through the mesh of dime-sized holes in their ocher-colored cell doors. The first cell on the right, number 105, contained two men, one seated on the upper cement slab, reclining against his rolled-up mattress pad reading a book, the other below, cross-legged and hunched, watching a small TV. Their baggy white smocks and shorts resembled hospital gowns, and the pod smelled of bathroom cleanser.

Up a flight of metal stairs, one of the cells had been cleared of its resident for media inspection. Books, office paper and manila envelopes were stacked on the cell's cement slab next to a thin, lumpy mattress pad. Tucked under the slab were folded sheets and clothes. A squat shelf with a map of the Americas taped to it held a box of teabags, a few paper pint containers and three empty styrofoam packages of Nissin brand Cup Noodles. A small TV (with clear plastic casing to prevent contraband smuggling) was suspended in one corner, and in the opposite stood a metal sink and toilet.

Outside the cell, reporters were whispering excitedly. "Do you see what they're doing down there?" one asked. "They're playing chess!"

Down on the first floor, a young, tattooed Hispanic man stood alone in his cell, a cheap chessboard in front of him. His opponent was in the next cell over with his own chess set. They appeared to be playing a match by shouting out their moves. Inside the SHU pod, a facility that resembles nothing so much as a barren dog kennel, the sight of two men playing chess seemed like shocking evidence of human resiliency.

The men weren't using any of the standard chess notations, though -- not algebraic, not numeric, not correspondence. Maybe they had invented their own method of notation. Maybe they were communicating in code about something else entirely. Or maybe they were just pretending. After all, this was an organized media tour. With 1,111 men in the SHU that day, reporters had been led inside only this particular pod. And prison officials were in there, too -- officials who control every minute of the inmates' lives.

Later these officials trotted out two SHU inmates for 15-minute interviews. The first, 35-year-old convicted murderer Harold Rigsby, was thin and pale with a shaved head and black Buddy Holly glasses. With his cuffed hands shackled to a chain around his waist, Rigsby said he'd recently debriefed. He renounced his membership with the Mexican Mafia in hopes of earning his release from the SHU, where he'd spent the past 14 years.

Facing a roomful of reporters, with corrections officers and officials nearby -- including Acting Warden Greg Lewis -- Rigsby vouched for the system's effectiveness. "It was the best decision I ever made to come and debrief and disassociate myself from the gang lifestyle."

The second prisoner gave a similar endorsement. Round-bodied and wide-eyed, with tattoos on his forearms and a swastika inked on his right hand, Timothy Kelly, 40, will spend the rest of his life in prison. Convicted of double homicide in 1992, he joined the Aryan Brotherhood in prison and was transferred into the SHU 17 years ago. "I kinda liked it," he said of his first reaction to the place. He enjoyed not worrying about getting stabbed by a fellow inmate or shot if a riot breaks out -- "or whether or not I'm gonna kill someone today. You never know," he said. "That could be any day on the mainline."

Let's go back a second. Kelly liked life in the SHU? Really? Prisoner rights organizations have compared the SHU's conditions unfavorably to those at Guantanamo. Were these guys serious? Had they been put up to this performance? Or were they playing some form of chess?

Clearly a media tour couldn't reveal the day-to-day life at Pelican Bay. Afterward, the reporters each hopped in their cars, drove back through Crescent City and then traveled home to their various newsrooms where they filed a story. Maybe two or three. Through it all, the inmates of Pelican Bay are in their cells with the lights on. They're there right now. What's that like?


The most detailed portraits of life inside Pelican Bay have come from court documents, particularly from the landmark 1995 case of Madrid v. Gomez, when Federal District Court Judge Thelton Henderson found that the prison provided substandard medical care and inflicted excessive force on inmates. In his decision, Judge Henderson wrote that the SHU "may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate."

Inmates with histories of psychiatric problems suffered profound and often rapid mental deterioration when placed in the SHU. One study cited in the case told of an inmate who when placed in the SHU developed paranoid hallucinatory psychosis. He recovered once removed, only to be transferred back inside, where he promptly descended back into a psychotic state. Other inmates followed similar trajectories. One was found inside his SHU cell in acute distress. He'd tried to kill himself by gouging his wrists with a broken plastic spoon and attempting to swallow a sprinkler head that he'd torn from the ceiling. After several more incidents of self-inflicted violence the inmate explained what he was experiencing: "My heart starts racing, I get dizzy spells, scared, nervous, shaking, crying. ... Demons come out. ... I never saw them before SHU."

In a 2010 study on Supermax prisons called "Parole, Snitch or Die," UC Berkeley grad student Keramet Reiter found that the SHU facilities at Pelican Bay and Corcoran prisons aren't being used the way their designers intended. The designers had described three critical principles: limited use of the isolation cells, limited durations of confinement and step-down programs that would allow prisoners to earn their way back to a general population. None of these principles are being followed.

In a recent phone conversation, Reiter said that there are a inmates like Rigsby and Kelly who seem capable of remaining sane during long periods in the SHU. "That's not to say [such inmates] don't have pretty severe long-term impacts," she said. Even the most well-adjusted of the former SHU inmates she has interviewed -- the ones who have managed to find jobs and reintegrate into society -- describe symptoms of suffering including post-traumatic stress disorder, unshakable compulsions and acute claustrophobia.

Often the effects are worse. As Judge Henderson notes in his Gomez decision, the combination of social isolation with severely limited environmental stimulation can cause all sorts of psychiatric disturbances -- hallucinations, confusion, irrational anger, emotional flatness, violent fantasies, chronic depression and overt paranoia, to name a few.

The Gomez case also uncovered, in Judge Henderson's words, a "pattern of needless and officially sanctioned brutality" at Pelican Bay. Plaintiffs told numerous stories of this brutality, and while corrections officers denied it, Henderson ruled they were "not credible."

A few of the horror stories: An inmate named Castillo refused to return his food tray after being called derogatory names by corrections officers, so the guards shot him with a 38 millimeter gas gun and a Taser, hit him in the head with the butt of the gas gun, detaching his scalp, then stepped on his hands and beat his calves with a baton until he lost consciousness.

Inmate Richard was beaten after being falsely accused of assaulting an officer. "At one point," Judge Henderson wrote, "blood started shooting out of Richard's mouth, but the punches continued." Richard spent two days in "intense pain" in his cell before being taken to the infirmary with a broken jaw.

Inmate Ward verbally abused a female guard, so a group of officers showed up and told him to slide his hands through the small food slot to be cuffed up. When he did, one of the officers twisted his wrist, then repeatedly threw his body weight into Ward's left arm, snapping his humerus. Ward suffered nerve damage that caused numbness and spasms.

Then there was the case of Vaughn Dortch, a mentally ill inmate who, as punishment for smearing himself and his cell with fecal matter, was forcibly escorted to a scalding hot bath where he suffered second and third degree burns over a third of his body. A nurse later testified that she'd overheard an officer during the incident say of Dortch, who is black, "Looks like we're going to have a white boy before this is through. ... His skin is so dirty and so rotten, it's all fallen off."

Judge Henderson ruled that the prison's medical care and use of force were unconstitutional -- but the SHU only partially so. While acknowledging the harsh psychological impacts, Henderson decided that the conditions inside the SHU only violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment for the mentally ill and those deemed likely to become mentally ill while in the SHU.

At that point, Pelican Bay had been open for just six years, and most of the inmates studied in connection to the case had been confined in the SHU for three years or less. Judge Henderson ruminated on the future: "We cannot begin to speculate on the impact that Pelican Bay SHU conditions may have on inmates confined ... for periods of 10 or 20 years or more."


Mentally ill patients at the prison are now placed in the Psychiatric Housing Unit. Josh Meisel, the assistant criminology professor at HSU, said conditions there aren't much different than the SHU. "You have thousands of inmates who are in need of psychiatric interventions and it's not being provided," he said. With more than half of the CDCR's mental health care positions currently unfilled, inmates who suffer psychotic events are sometimes placed in cages. "I mean literally, cages," Meisel said. "They look like phone booths but they're fabricated with cyclone fencing."

More lawsuits followed the Gomez decision, with plaintiffs alleging that medical care at Pelican Bay and throughout the state's prison system was fraught with chronic under-staffing, untimely responses to emergencies and poor treatment of chronic illnesses. In 2005 a federal court placed CDCR's health care system in receivership.

Yet there are signs that the psychiatric and medical care at Pelican Bay remains inadequate. In fact that's one of the primary concerns of the hunger strike organizers. They're particularly worried about Dr. Michael Sayre, the prison's chief medical officer since 2006.

In 1992, a 31-year-old patient who was undergoing routine surgery at St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash., suffered a fatal brain injury caused by lack of oxygen while under anesthesia. The anesthesiologist was Dr. Sayre. The hospital performed an investigation and decided to limit Dr. Sayre's privileges. He was not criminally charged.

Dr. Sayre has been sued by several inmates of Pelican Bay's SHU, and in 2009 he was found liable for harming one of them by knowingly disregarding his serious medical needs. That inmate, Todd Ashker, was one of the primary organizers of the Pelican Bay hunger strike. Dr. Sayre was ordered to pay $6,500 in damages. He remains the prison's chief medical officer.


Prison administrators say the SHU has been highly effective in suppressing gang activity that increases prison violence, but Reiter's study found little evidence of that. She analyzed data on inmate violence throughout the CDCR between 1987 and 2007 and found that assault rates have steadily increased over the past 20 years. "At best, the evidence is inconclusive that the SHUs reduce violence levels," Reiter says. "At worst, they might exacerbate violence."

Inmate suicide counts, meanwhile, have been rising for 35 years, and the suicide rate inside California's SHUs are far and away the highest of any prison housing units in the country, her study showed.

The SHU also fails to rehabilitate inmates, Reiter found. Of the 9,992 prisoners paroled directly from the Pelican Bay or Corcoran SHUs between 1997 and 2007, 62 percent were had landed back in prison by March of 2008. The average rate in California was 46 percent.

Last month, during a hearing on SHU conditions before the California Assembly Committee on Public Safety, UC Santa Cruz Professor Craig Haney argued that the lack of meaningful rehabilitation programs has created a void in the lives of inmates. "Gangs have stepped in to fill this void," he said.

Timothy Kelly, the former skinhead interviewed during the media tour, said it's virtually impossible to remain unaffiliated with a gang at Pelican Bay. "You may not want to [join a gang], but you have to," he said. Corrections officers confirmed this: If someone comes in to Pelican Bay unaffiliated, he'll be placed in a gang based on his race.

"There's a lot of guys out here who just want to do their own time, guys from all different races," Lt. Barneburg said. "But you can't." The tour had moved to the general population yard where inmates had arranged themselves in groups -- on one patch, muscular Hispanic men did pullups and dips and tossed a football; on the far side, black prisoners lined up for canteen; on the basketball court, more Hispanics were playing a pickup game. "You can't go solo here and make it on your own," Barneburg continued. "There's no way. ... If you're white you go with the white, black you go with the blacks, northern [Mexican] you go with the northerners."

Professor Simon finds this system absurd. "How can we spend this kind of money to send people to, essentially, racist boot camp?" he asked. "It's absolutely staggering."

In his testimony before the state assembly committee, Haney echoed that point. "When Pelican Bay came online in the late 1980s California had a serious prison gang problem," he said. "It now has the worst one in the entire nation."


Earlier this month state prison officials announced that they will reconsider the criteria used to place prisoners in the SHU. This was one of the hunger strikers' primary demands. But the strikers say that the CDCR hasn't followed through with its promises, and so on Monday they again started refusing food. Their demands include better food, a step-down method to earn SHU release, compliance with a 2006 federal commission report that recommended the SHU be used only as a last resort, and more educational, self-help and religious programs.

"These demands look basically like demands for human rights," Simon said earlier this month. "I think that's something Californians can connect with in the post-Abu Ghraib moment." Simon is optimistic that, for the first time in a long time, Americans might be ready to rethink their attitudes toward criminals and prisoners. Homicide rates have dropped. The "War on Terror" has raised concerns about torture. TV shows profile all kinds of prisoners, including guys who are old and sick. And that last part -- the old and sick prisoners -- feeds into another big motivator for change: the system's unsustainable cost.

"It's not just high costs, it's high costs on steroids, and it keeps getting worse," Simon said. "The worst possible situation is if you gather a large population that has significantly worse health than the general population, you put them in the one place in the state that actually has a constitutional right to health care -- and is also the place that is the most expensive to deliver that health care to them. ... We can't actually pay for this."

The recent Supreme Court ruling on the state's prison overpopulation will reduce those costs somewhat, though it certainly won't solve the problems of overcrowding and costs. Even after 30,000 prisoners are released, California's prison system will be at 137.5 percent capacity.

Even so, the ruling was controversial. Many people, including the bellicose Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote a scathing dissenting opinion, are worried about unleashing so many criminals on society. "The [judicial] majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California," Scalia wrote.

Of course, if the system actually focused on corrections and rehabilitation, maybe we wouldn't be so scared. Hell, maybe even our figures of speech would change. If a cousin got arrested for grand theft auto, rather than saying he's been "put in the slammer" we might say he's being rehabilitated. That may sound silly, but is "racist boot camp" a better idea?

"The fact of the matter is 95 percent of the people that go to prison are going to be coming back to this community and communities across the United States," Meisel said. "Do we want 'em to come back pissed off, ill, needing health care that will be paid anyway on the public dime? Or do we want them to come back viable members of our community, ready to give back, contribute, build families? Granted, that may be an idealistic vision that won't be achieved by everybody," he said. "But we've written everybody off."

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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