Inside Pelican Bay State Prison
"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,
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
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
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 BreakfastThree
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
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 obviouschunks 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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.