Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

Clamor ceased publication in December 2006. This website contains information for your reference and archival purposes only.

Inside Pelican Bay State Prison
Rahula Janowski

"Dry words on paper cannot adequately capture the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery that (Pelican Bay State Prison) unconstitutional practices leave in their wake."
Judge Thelton Henderson in Madrid vs. Gomez, 1995

On a sunny day in January, I went on a tour of Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) with 12 other people, mainly members of Bar None, a prisoner support/prison abolition group, and Operation U-Turn, a Humboldt State University based organization that helps released prisoners get into college.

PBSP is in Crescent City, California, in the northwest corner of the state. The prison opened in 1989 and has as its best known feature the Security Housing Unit, known as the SHU. The SHU is a model of the latest trend in incarceration, the supermax. SHU inmates spend 23 hours a day in their 80-square foot cells, designed for one inmate but often housing two. Inmates leave their cells for showers, infrequent visits, and for one hour of solitary exercise in an indoor yard that measures 28-by-12 feet and has 20-foot high walls. The California Department of Corrections claims that the "worst of the worst" prisoners are housed in the SHU. What most folks don't realize is that being in the SHU has nothing to do with your original crime. Prisoners go to the SHU for crimes committed while in prison or for being labeled a gang member. Eighty-seven percent of SHU inmates are black or brown. The SHU has come under fire since construction began, with critics labeling it cruel and unusual punishment. In 1995, in a class action suit known as Madrid vs. Gomez, Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that the SHU would tend to exacerbate preexisting mental problems. It was a partial victory at best and the SHU opened on schedule. Beyond concerns about the SHU, PBSP has gained a reputation of having a brutal and racist staff made up of guards unable to work in other prisons in California's system.

The tour was organized by Sacha Marini, an organizer with Bar None. "I've been corresponding with a prisoner who's in the SHU up at Pelican Bay. He asked if I'd ever been in to PBSP other than visiting, and I said no, and he said well, you can come in," Sacha said. "I pursued it because I've never been in prison, I wanted to see what it looks like on the inside. In particular I had an interest in seeing what the SHU is like. I'm also into the idea of being an outside watchdog, and we're going in as Bar None, and Pelican Bay knows who we are ... I think it's good for them to know that people are concerned on the outside about what's going on up there."

Bar None is based in northern Humboldt County, just 90 miles south of PBSP. We formed in the summer of 1999. We engage in a variety of activities and address many issues, but from the beginning, one of our major focuses has been PBSP. Bar None has a weekly radio show where we read writings from prisoners, and most of the contributors to the show are from PBSP. We're also producing a show of artwork from PBSP prisoners this February in Arcata. Many of us correspond with SHU inmates, and we all felt as Sacha did, that it was important for us to get a look at the place where our pen pals spend their time. I also feel like it's important for prison activists to regularly strengthen our sense of outrage; for it is that sense of outrage that keeps us struggling against the prison industrial complex even when there are times where I feel like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

I also felt it was important to get a look at a supermax. Supermax prisons are sharply on the rise, largely in response to the radical prison movements of the ‘70s. During the 1970s, there was a lot of organizing among inmates in prisons, especially in California and among African-American men. Prisoners were organizing study groups, educating themselves in radical politics of resistance and occasionally revolting. The supermax is an answer to that rising tide. The SHU and other supermaxes house validated gang members and prisoners convicted of crimes in prison, but the SHU is also home to jail house lawyers, political prisoners/POWs, influential prisoners and folks who organized solidarity and resistance inside. Keeping prisoners completely isolated, from each other and from the outside world, makes organizing and self-education an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task and thereby cuts down on resistance and revolt by prisoners.

Our tour began in a conference room in the administration building of PBSP. On the way in, we saw a T-shirt for sale. It was titled Felony Day Care and had a woodcut print of inmates in a classroom. The guard at the desk said there's also a T-shirt available that says PBSP Bed and Breakfast—Three Hots and a Cot. Public Information Officer Ben Grundy joined us there. Lt. Grundy showed us a diagram of the prison and where we would be going on the tour.

We learned that PBSP is a level four facility, level four being the highest custody level in the California system. Except for the 296 level one inmates, who live in housing outside the electrified barrier, all of the inmates are level four. Approximately 1,500 of these inmates are housed in the SHU. The other (approximately) 4,000 are housed in general population, which is A Facility and B Facility. A and B are designed so that they can, if needed, operate like a SHU. In fact, Lt. Grundy tells us, all the other SHU type facilities are designed like PBSP's A and B facilities. A and B each have their own yard, surrounded by the housing. Inmates are "under the gun," meaning they are within shooting sight and distance of a tower guard, whenever they are in the yard. The only exception to this is when they go to the industry yard, where inmates can engage in activities like woodshop and auto mechanics, and make things like shoes for the rest of the California prison system and glasses for Medi-Cal.

Under normal circumstances, according to Lt. Grundy, about 40 percent of general population would be working in industry or vocation. However, A and B are currently on lockdown because of violence in the yard, and have been off and on for years. Because of this, general population inmates, like SHU inmates, spend their days in their cells, released only for showers, visiting and yard time (which, while under lockdown, is not in the big grassy yard but in a concrete "dog run").

Lt. Grundy obviously was familiar with Bar None and had some preconceived notions (which were correct) about how we felt about the SHU. "People in the SHU have it literally better than in general population, " Lt. Grundy told us, beginning a campaign that he continued throughout the tour to convince us that the SHU was A-OK.
Lt. Grundy told us he was glad we were there. "The warden's position is that this is not a clandestine operation. It's a state funded, tax paid operation, and as such, it's not only your right, but it's your responsibility to see what we're doing here." With that, we headed outside, where we were given visitor passes and loaded into a white van.

Lt. Grundy drove us out past the firing range, where a CHP officer was practicing shooting targets, and we discussed the qualifications for becoming a correctional officer. To be a CO, you need a high school diploma or GED, no felony arrest record, U.S. citizenship, and you need to pass physical and written tests and go through the police academy. "How many COs are from this area?" Sacha asked. Lt. Grundy replied that when they opened PBSP, many locals didn't qualify, having dropped out of high school. He added that since then the number of guards from the local area has increased as people have gotten GEDs. PBSP employs 1,000 officers and 400-500 non-custodial staff, like doctors and maintenance staff.

As we continued our drive to A and B facilities, we passed the fire department and generators. PBSP has its own fire department, which includes seven level one inmates, and enough diesel generator capacity to power the entire facility in case of outages.

We reached a guard post and, after showing our identification and signing in, headed through the three fence electrified barrier into B facility. First, we were shown the outside of the family visit trailers. Here, inmates may spend a weekend with their family. The visiting family members can bring food to cook and they all stay in the two-bedroom trailer, with a yard, for the weekend. All general population are eligible to use them, except lifers and sex offenders, but Lt. Grundy said they don't get much use because very few people can come for a weekend. It's worth remembering that only spouses and immediate family are allowed to come for these visits. Girlfriends are out of luck. It's also important to recognize that the infrequency of family visits has a lot to do with the location of PBSP, hundreds of miles away from the urban centers most inmates' families live in. This makes it extremely difficult to maintain the family and community connections that are very important in reducing recidivism.

We then moved inside to the visiting room. The visiting room is large and resembles a public school cafeteria; linoleum floors, fluorescent lights, tables with plastic chairs. There is a microwave, television, infant room for nursing and diaper changing, and vending machines.

From the visiting room, we headed inside into B facility. At the control booth, we were intercepted by Officer Steve Robinson, who carried a four-panel display case filled with weapons made by inmates, known as Shanks. Robinson was quite willing to talk about how the weapons are made and used. Some of them were obvious—chunks of sharpened metal snuck back from the industry yard (which begs the question, how can this happen without guard complicity? They're strip-searched and have to pass through a metal detector), others were darts made of tightly rolled paper topped with a piece of glass or a point of metal. Robinson explained that inmates used elastic from their socks or underwear to launch these "arrows."

The display was blatantly intended to impress upon us how violent and dangerous the inmates were, even here in general population. The other part of that equation is how prison life encourages violence, even among those who weren't violent on the outside. This assortment of weapons can also be viewed as a sign of the indomitable ingenuity and creativity of people in impossible situations. I also know that ingenuity and creativity take many other forms in prison, from figuring out how to make wine in their cells, to amazing artwork and writing, to figuring out novel ways of communicating between cells. Robinson himself said, "I rate some of these guys right up there with McGyver."

After being properly intimidated by the display of weapons, we were lead out into B yard. The yard is large, about five acres, and mostly grassy. From certain points in the yard, it's possible to see hilltops and the tops of redwood trees. Although there are basketball courts, punching bags and concrete benches, the yard looks overgrown and neglected, probably because general population has been on lockdown. A ways down the yard, a group of about 15 inmates played basketball. These are inmates from the Transitional Housing Unit (THU); that is, former SHU inmates who have debriefed.

Debriefing is one of the only ways for a validated gang member to get out of the SHU. It involves renouncing gang membership and providing lists of names and information on gang activities to prison officials. Once an inmate has debriefed, they are very carefully kept away from the rest of the prison population. Within the prison community, snitching carries heavy penalties. All of the inmates we were to see that day were transitional.

We headed inside. We weren't going onto the tiers, "out of respect for inmates' privacy." Therefore, we went inside into a hallway. Above our heads was a metal grate, through which a guard could see us and, if necessary, shoot us. We were able to look through a window onto the section, a medium sized room with concrete tables and a couple of telephones, with 20 cells opening onto it. While on lockdown, the prisoners eat in their cells, but if, theoretically, lockdown were lifted, prisoners' cells would be open to the tier for most of the day.

Back out onto the yard, we wandered down the far wall where all the various programs are, as well as the medical clinic. As we passed, I noticed a sign on the glass window at medical — "Help Wanted-inquire within-MD license preferred." "What does that mean?" I asked the guard inside the medical booth. "Is that for inmates, or for other guards?" I asked. Seeming very uncomfortable, the guard hedged. "Uh, uh, he, he, someone's playing a little joke," she said. At this point, noticing we'd fallen behind, Lt. Grundy came back for us; "What's up guys?" "I was asking about this sign," I said. "Come on," Lt. Grundy said, looking irritated, and walked off. So I didn't get any answers, but I could make some guesses. Prison medical facilities are notorious, not just at PBSP, not just in California, but across the country. Medical staff in prisons are frequently doctors whose licenses were revoked or suspended for one reason or another, meaning that prisoners get questionable at best medical care, if they even get a chance to see a doctor. Elsewhere in the CDC system, at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, there have been nine deaths since November 8 of last year, many in situations that were easily preventable. However, guards tend to ignore or disbelieve prisoner medical complaints, with life threatening results. Is that what the joke was about? During recent legal visits with PBSP inmates, California Prison Focus noted that one of the most common complaints was about the quality of medical care. Inmates assert that the medical staff turns over nearly monthly, and each time the inmates' meds are changed. Is that what the joke was about? Anyway, I don't get it.

After stopping for a brief visit with a woman who runs classes for THU inmates (I zoned out here, looking at the yard and wondering), we visited the Psychiatric Services Unit (PSU). This is where inmates determined to be mentally ill by prison staff are housed. Because of Madrid vs. Gomez, PBSP has to screen inmates headed for the SHU, and any found to have preexisting mental health problems are housed here instead. We were met by a CO wearing a bulletproof vest, as were all the COs in the PSU. He pointed out the PSU exercise yards, which were 6 x 8 x 10-foot metal mesh cages. They looked exactly like the dog runs at a kennel. Because PSU inmates are classified as violent, they don't get group yard time. Instead they do their yard time in these cages, which are in full view of the B yard. We then went inside the unit, where we saw the group therapy rooms. These were cells with four to six stainless steel enclosures the size of a phone booth, with a wire mesh gate that faces into the center. Inmates sit in these cells and talk to a therapist or, more often, watch a video designed to be therapeutic. It was obvious to me that this environment is not therapeutic. Rather than therapy, the mission of the PSU is control, achieved through a combination of dehumanizing conditions and heavy drugs. We were told that while it is possible for an inmate to be in PSU and not take drugs, most inmates end up undergoing something called a Kahia process, by which an inmate refusing to take drugs can be ordered to be involuntarily medicated because they are a danger to themselves and others.

We then went "over the wall" into the industry yard. I saw doors labeled mechanical shop, plumbing shop, auto-body, auto mechanics, PIA, maintenance; all of them closed. Most of the industry or vocation is not active right now because of the lockdown. The few inmates who were at work in the shoe factory, where inmates manufacture shoes for the CDC, were all THU. The men worked on as we passed through, some of them giving us a furtive wave and smile and one giving us a lengthy treatise on the operation of the shoe sole pouring machine he operated.

After leaving the shoe factory, we had a lengthy discussion with Lt. Grundy about the debriefing process. Grundy debated the idea that debriefing is an automatic death sentence. He asserts that no one who's debriefed has ever been hurt in retribution. This is easy to understand, however, because those who have debriefed are kept segregated in the THU until they're transferred to one of several prisons in the CDC system that are safe for debriefers. We did not discuss how you could debrief if you were a validated gang member without really being in a gang.

We then went into the SHU. According to Lt. Grundy, "The inmates don't think it is that bad." We stopped to be shown "extraction" gear, which is used when an inmate refuses to leave his cell. Extraction gear includes shields, pepper spray, batons, padding (for the COs of course), helmets and a video camera. Every extraction is videotaped for the record (I assume in case of lawsuits, although that wasn't said). Extractions occur one to two times a week, according to Lt. Grundy.

"Ninety percent of an officer's job is care and treatment," said Lt. Grundy.

We weren't shown actual cells nor did we go onto the tier. We were let into the center of a unit, where the guard hangs out behind Plexiglas with extensive cameras so she or he can observe all the prisoners on that unit. We were able to walk around and look into the six pods, which each have eight cells. Although the cells were designed to hold one inmate, out of the 48 cells in the unit we visited, 16 had two inmates in them. It was eerily quiet. Within a surprisingly small space were 64 men, and yet we could hear no talking, no shouting, nothing. We were unable to examine the SHU yard for that unit.

From the SHU, we trooped back to the Administration building. It was shift change, and many COs were coming and going. A fellow Bar None member pointed out a CO with a "bad cop, no donut" sticker on his lunch pail. More evidence of that quirky PBSP sense of humor.

We headed back to a conference room, where we discussed gang validation further. According to Lt. Grundy, there are very stringent criteria for gang validation. There must be three separate pieces of evidence that can stand alone, such as: correspondence with gang members; someone else debriefing and saying you're a gang member; gang tattoos; doing something (a task) for a gang; and having gang members' addresses in your possession.

I find it interesting that much of what counts as qualifiers for gang validation are activities that are generally not regarded as criminal and, for most Americans, are classified as First Amendment activities, in particular freedom of association. "Gangs" is a concept that, even outside prison, is regularly used to criminalize certain groups of people (mainly urban youth of color) and deny them basic First Amendment rights.

Lt. Grundy brought us some nice, scenic PBSP calendars (with a picture of the ocean, not the prison), shook our hands, and we were on our way.

Ultimately, I feel as though I had a tour of the prison and learned nothing. We saw almost no prisoners. As Angela, a paralegal who joined us on the tour said, "It felt like a ghost town." Throughout the tour, Lt. Grundy emphasized that a) inmates in the SHU were violent and awful people, but the prison really cared about them and did the best for them that they could, and b) it's really not so bad in there, inmates actually prefer to be in the SHU. While I understand that to see a cell, either in general population or the SHU, would violate prisoner privacy, and there probably aren't any empty cells; without seeing the cell where all the inmates except the THU spend at least 22 hours a day, it's hard to really get a sense of what it must be like for prisoners at PBSP. I don't think this was a chance occurrence. The tour was very carefully orchestrated, to give us nothing to back up our beliefs about the prison in general and the SHU in particular. Nothing we saw on the tour really contradicted what Lt. Grundy was telling us.

But the words of the prisoners themselves go a long way in contradicting every one of Lt. Grundy's assertions. The following quotes are taken from letters sent to Bar None to read on our weekly radio show:

"I'm happy and enjoy people. They take that away from you. It's like we're dead. As the Catholics say, in purgatory. They've taken away everything that might give a little purpose to your life."

"The extreme isolation has an elusive way of slowly killing off the human spirit. At times it seems difficult for one to hang on to sanity, and I have been witness to seeing many lose it."

"Prison officials have refused to allow us anything that would enhance the quality of our lives."

"Locking people up for nearly 24 hours a day in windowless cells with nothing to do won't make anyone a better person fit for society."

Lt. Grundy is right. It's not only our right but also our responsibility to know what is going on in the jails and prisons littering our country. The people imprisoned in this country are parts of our communities, and when we allow them to be dehumanized, we all lose a bit of our humanity. We have a collective responsibility to learn about prisons, who is in them and how they are treated. We have a responsibility to learn about the inherent racism and classism in the "justice" system and how that is used to oppress certain communities. It is our responsibility to examine the things we are told, by prison officials and by politicians, about gangs, criminals, drugs and prison conditions.

Although I felt as though I didn't learn a huge amount of new information on the tour of PBSP, I am glad I went on it, and I encourage others to try to arrange tours through their local prisons. In California, Title 15 governs the operation of prisons and jails, and includes provisions for public access. Other states may have similar legislation. Whatever it takes, find out what is going on in the prisons. Pose as a church group. Take a tour. Get a pen pal. Read up on it. But, most of all, never trust the people who benefit from the prison industrial complex (either economically or in terms of power) to tell you what the prisons, or the prisoners, are like.

Go to Top

Clamor Magazine (a project of Become the Media) P.O. Box 20128, Toledo, OH, 43610, USA.
Website by amphibian | Header graphic by Monkey Bubble Media