If you’re convicted of committing a felony in California, you can end up in many kinds of prisons. Steal a lot of money in a Ponzi scheme – you might end up in minimum security. Locked up, but with little supervision. Commit a violent crime, and you could be sent to a medium-security prison, like Folsom. Kill someone, and you could be headed for supermax.
Pelican Bay State Prison, in Crescent City, is a maximum-security prison. About 3,230 of California’s most violent criminals live there – and those who cause problems within prison walls end up in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU. It’s highly restricted living conditions that some have called solitary confinement. And those stuck in the SHU for years say it be literally maddening.
Last year, some of those inmates began a hunger strike, and they were quickly joined by more than a thousand prisoners around the state. With media attention drawn to harsh conditions in Pelican Bay, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decided to host a tour of the facility. KALW’s criminal justice reporter, Rina Palta was there.
RINA PALTA: Crescent City is a small coastal town 13 miles south of the Oregon border. It’s primarily known for two things: a tsunami that wiped the town clean in 1964 and Pelican Bay State Prison, widely thought of as California’s toughest.
Pelican Bay houses some of California’s most violent criminals, designated as “Level 4” or high security. On a summer afternoon, about a hundred are out in the yard.
CHRIS ACOSTA: In about 15 minutes you're going to see about 134 or 140 men out here exercising, running, doing workouts.
Lieutenant Chris Acosta is Pelican Bay’s Public Information Officer. He says here, just like in most of the state’s men’s prisons, here, just like in most of the state’s men’s prisons, the dynamics of the yard are governed by race.
ACOSTA: Over here you have the Southern Hispanics. Then you’ve got, over there, the area where all the Bloods hang out. Then over here is the Mexican nationals. You’ve got the non-affiliated blacks, you’ve got the Crips … You can’t go solo here and make it on your own. Especially on a Level IV, high-security prison yard. There’s no way. So guess what, you have to go with everybody else.
Acosta says some inmates manage to lay low, stay out of trouble, and do their time. Others get recruited by prison gangs that offer protection and the possibility of money and power. Lieutenant Dave Barneburg is a gang investigator at Pelican Bay.
DAVE BARNEBURG: These prison gangs control multimillion dollar organizations. They’re responsible for a majority of violence in our general populations and the majority of criminal activity associated with criminal street gangs in our communities.
California prison officials have been grappling with how to deal with these gangs for decades. And the SHU at Pelican Bay is one solution
There are two ways to end up in the SHU. First, inmates who commit crimes while in prison can be sentenced to a period. Second, an inmate can be sent to the SHU indefinitely if he is validated as a prison gang member or affiliate. About 1,000 of the 1,100 prisoners housed in Pelican Bay’s SHU don’t know when they’ll get out.
ACOSTA: I want everyone here to take five seconds to be quiet. This is the main entrance to our Security Housing Unit. What do you hear? There’s 600 guys housed over here, and it’s pretty quiet over here in the SHU.
SHU units are designed to minimize prisoner communication. The idea is that if you take away a gang leader’s ability to communicate with his followers, you take away the gang’s organization and power. Inmates are kept, usually by themselves, in 6x10 foot cells for between 22 and 23 hours a day. The cells have no windows, only a red, steel, mesh-like strip that looks out onto the corridor.
Once a day, a guard sitting behind security glass opens an inmate’s cell door so he can walk to the shower, or take a turn in the concrete exercise yard. Unlike other inmates, SHU prisoners aren't allowed phone calls, except in emergencies. They can’t have prison jobs, have limited access to programs, and can’t hug or hold hands or in any way touch visitors.
HAROLD RIGSBY: You have 23 hours in your cell a day for self-reflection.
SHU inmate Harold Rigsby agreed to be interviewed by a roomful of reporters about his experiences. When he was 16, Rigsby killed a man on behalf of a West Sacramento street gang. He says he was quickly swept up into a prison gang.
RIGSBY: So as I came to prison that’s what I gravitated towards right there. Because I could see that they controlled the yards, and they were in control of everybody else.
Rigsby ended up in the SHU for that affiliation. And after about 13 years here, he decided to do what prison officials call “debriefing,” which for a gang member, is effectively the only way out of the SHU, beyond being released from prison on parole. Debriefing means telling prison officials everything you know about your gang. And it’s controversial. Inmates in this SHU who took part in the recent three-week hunger strike said debriefing is the same thing as snitching – which can open them and their families up to retaliation from the gangs they’re leaving. That, and the conditions inside the SHUs, which are some of the harshest in the country, inspired the hunger strike at Pelican Bay.
RIGSBY: There’s no argument that this is a harsh place. When I was still an active gang member, I would have whole-heartedly agreed that this is an inhumane place. But at the same time, we need to understand the SHU is a necessary place because of all the gangs. You know, so it’s inhumane, because it has to be harsh conditions.
Prison officials say they’re reviewing the debriefing process and are looking at some changes that could make it easier for inmates to get out of a SHU and back to a less restrictive environment. Safety is a primary concern. But for now, at least, the SHU remains California’s primary technique for fighting prison gangs.
At Pelican State prison, I'm Rina Palta, for Crosscurrents.
This story originally aired on August 18, 2011.