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A necessary evil?

Pelican Bay State Prison Houses 'the Worst of the Worst' in the Starkest Isolation Imaginable. But These 'Supermax' Units Are Turning Inmates Into Mental Cases, and the Asylum Gate Opens Right Back Onto Our Streets.

October 19, 2003|Vince Beiser | Vince Beiser is a California-based freelance writer who writes often on criminal justice issues.

It's quiet in pod C5, deep inside Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit, home to about 1,200 of California's most violent offenders. There are no sounds from outside, because there are no windows--only a skylight high overhead, through which gray daylight seeps into the bare quadrangle facing the pod's eight cells, stacked four on four. All that can be heard are a few subdued voices, and the occasional thunderous sound of a flushing toilet reverberating off the blank concrete walls.

This is not the crowded, clamorous kind of prison you see in the movies. The SHU, as it's known, is a starkly efficient place of electronically controlled doors and featureless concrete and steel. Occasionally, the monotony is punctured by bursts of noise and violence. Sometimes inmates scream at guards, other inmates, or themselves. Sometimes there is the clangorous racket of a recalcitrant prisoner being forcibly extracted from his cell. But most of the time, nothing happens. Almost nothing is permitted to happen. That's the idea of the SHU.

If you're an inmate in a regular prison--even a maximum-security prison, which the other two wings of Pelican Bay are--most days you can play basketball in the yard or cards in the day room, work in the laundry room or dining hall and take meals with the other men on your tier.

In the SHU, there are no jobs, no activities, hardly any educational programs and barely any human contact. You are locked in your 8-by-10-foot cell almost around the clock. You can't see the other prisoners in the cells adjoining yours, nor the guards watching from a central observation booth. Most of the time, all you can see through the fingertip-sized perforations in your cell's solid steel door is the wall of the eight-cell pod, the larger cage containing your cage. Guards deliver your meals. Once a day, the remote-controlled cell door grinds open, and you get 90 minutes to spend alone in a walled-in courtyard--a place more like the bottom of a mine shaft than an exercise yard. It's an environment about as restrictive and monotonous as human minds can design--and, perhaps, as human minds can tolerate.

Pelican Bay, which sprawls over 275 acres just south of the Oregon border, in a Tolkienesque region of misty mountains and ancient redwood forests, was among the first of a wave of new prisons equipped with ultra-restrictive "supermax" lockups that have proliferated nationwide in recent years. There are as many as 20,000 inmates housed in such facilities in at least 30 states.

California has three SHUs for men in its Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Tehachapi lockups, plus one for women in Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. They house about 3,000 convicts in all. But Pelican Bay is the one with the hardest cons and the harshest conditions, the end of the line for the inmates whom correctional officials call "the worst of the worst."

Like their counterparts in other states, California corrections officials say they need SHUs to control incorrigibly violent cons in the state's vast archipelago of prisons, teeming with nearly 160,000 inmates. While no one could argue with that goal, there are significant concerns about the tactic. For starters, it's not clear to what extent SHUs are indeed reducing prison violence.

More disturbingly, there's a growing worry that supermaxes--long decried by prisoner advocates as dangerous to the mental health of inmates--may be breeding danger for the general public.

Psychiatrists, activists and some correctional officials say the intense isolation of supermaxes is producing prisoners who are uncontrollably furious and sometimes violently deranged. Most of those prisoners will one day be set free. In the past three years, in fact, nearly 1,000 California SHU inmates at the end of their sentences were moved to less-restrictive prisons for just a few weeks, and then released.

And at least 403 inmates were paroled without even that intermediate step: They were taken straight from the solitary cells where they spent years marinating in their rage, handed $200 in gate money and put on a bus to rejoin the rest of us.

"T.C.," a Pelican Bay SHU inmate who, like most of the nearly two dozen current and former SHU prisoners interviewed for this article did not want his name published, wrote: "How does society expect a person to act once he has been released from the SHU, in most cases after spending years back here? There are things that happen here which people out there are never aware of; these things tend to build anger and hate in some persons, and if these persons don't have anyone to talk to, or complain to, that anger and hate continues to grow. If that person paroles, he's now a human time bomb waiting to release all that anger and hate, waiting to explode."

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