CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — For more than 100 years, California's most dangerous inmates were sent to Folsom or San Quentin, forbidding-looking penitentiaries with towering granite walls, swinging iron gates and nationwide reputations as places where prisoners did hard time.
Folsom and San Quentin were violent, filthy and overcrowded, but they always had a certain mystique. Johnny Cash named a song after Folsom--"Folsom Prison Blues"--and San Quentin was the site of countless movies. California's most notorious criminals were housed there.
But the last few years, as the state has embarked on a massive prison construction project, Department of Corrections officials have determined that it's safer to send maximum security inmates to new facilities, with the latest in electronic security devices, than house them in antiquated prisons.
And the types of inmates who traditionally were housed at the notorious top-security lockup units at Folsom or San Quentin are being sent to Pelican Bay State Prison, a futuristic, high-tech facility near the Oregon border that opened last December.
While the old penitentiaries--now being downgraded to minimum- and medium-security status--once conjured up fearsome images, the name "Pelican Bay" sounds like a pastoral, suburban housing development. But because Pelican Bay is the most secure of the state's four new maximum security facilities built since 1985, the most violent inmates in California's prison system are incarcerated there.
There are essentially two prisons at Pelican Bay--the maximum security prison and the security housing unit, called SHU or "super max." The SHU, a separate facility with its own fences and guard towers, is the country's most secure prison, claimed Terry Peetz, chief deputy warden.
With 1,056 cells, SHU is larger than Pelican Bay's maximum security facility. It is designed to house inmates other prisons can't handle, Peetz said, such as members of prison gangs and inmates who have attacked guards, sold narcotics in prison or assaulted other inmates.
Because security is so tight at SHU, it is much safer for inmates and guards than at California's older prisons, Peetz said. There has been only one attempted assault since the facility opened.
But some prison experts contend that at SHU, inmates simply face different dangers. Their isolation is so extreme that many could suffer severe psychological problems that could turn them into even bigger security risks and significantly reduce their chances for rehabilitation, said Craig Haney, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz, who has written extensively about prison conditions.
Some prison experts say they expect legal aid firms to challenge the constitutionality of isolating prisoners to such an extent.
Pelican Bay is entirely automated and designed so that inmates have virtually no face-to-face contact with guards or other inmates. For 22 1/2 hours a day, inmates are confined to their windowless cells, built of solid blocks of concrete and stainless steel so that they won't have access to materials they could fashion into weapons. They don't work in prison industries; they don't have access to recreation; they don't mingle with other inmates. They aren't even allowed to smoke because matches are considered a security risk.
Inmates eat all meals in their cells and leave only for brief showers and 90 minutes of daily exercise. They shower alone and exercise alone in miniature yards of barren patches of cement enclosed by 20-feet-high cement walls covered with metal screens. The doors to their cells are opened and closed electronically by a guard in a control booth.
"I've never seen a facility where people are isolated as totally and as completely . . . it's unprecedented in modern prisons," Haney said. "The psychological consequences could be severe."
But A.R. Deines, a lieutenant at the prison, said inmates at SHU have proven that they can't be trusted at other prisons. And the extraordinary security measures, he said, are necessary to prevent assaults on guards and fights between prisoners.
"These inmates are the worst of the worst," Deines said. "We need this kind of facility with this kind of isolation to insure they don't cause any more problems."
In the mid-1980s, the lockup units at San Quentin and Folsom prisons--the counterparts to Pelican Bay's SHU--were so cramped and hazardous that they constituted cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge ruled. But the courts in the 1990s are going to have to use new criteria for determining whether prisons violate inmates' constitutional rights, said John Irwin, a sociology professor at San Francisco State University and author of "Prisons in Turmoil."
"Now, instead of rats, cockroaches, overcrowding and danger, you've got this clean, spacious, high-tech prison. But because of the extreme isolation, it comes down to the same thing--cruel and unusual punishment," Irwin said. "Because the prison is so new, it hasn't been challenged yet, but I'm sure it will be."