Certainly, SHUs don't drive everyone over the threshold of clinical insanity. But they may have dangerous effects short of that. What happens when you take a man who had antisocial and violent impulses to begin with, lock him in a cell by himself for five or 10 years, and then let him out?
"It's like keeping a dog that has bitten someone in a cage, kicking it and beating it all the time until it gets as crazy and vicious as it can be, and then one day you open the cage and run away," Grassian says. "Taking someone straight from the Pelican Bay SHU and sending them back to San Francisco or Los Angeles is about as dangerous a thing as you can do."
Even some corrections officials agree. "From my experience as a prison administrator, the prolonged confinement of inmates with little or no contact with others will only make people worse," Jerry Enomoto, a former California director of corrections, said when the Madrid lawsuit first hit the courts. (Current Department of Corrections director Ed Alameida did not respond to several requests for an interview.)
Some people, of course, are less affected by the SHU than others. But at best, it seems, coming out of the SHU often leaves prisoners dangerously ill-equipped to cope with the stress of being around other people.
"Tony" is a 30-year-old Latino and former gangbanger with a generous mustache and hair cropped so short you can see the scars on his head. He has done time in both the Corcoran and Pelican Bay SHUs. Since his parole last year, he has been living with his mom in a quiet Bay Area town and working as a diesel mechanic. On the spring afternoon I met him, an ancient little dog was asleep on a pillow in the front yard next to Tony's massive weight set.
Like Matthew Lowe, Tony was sent straight home from the SHU after a few days in San Quentin. "On my first day out, my mom took me to the grocery store," he says. "I blew up on a couple of people. There was some woman who came up about five feet behind me, and I turned and said, 'Don't stand so close to me!' " Months later, he still breaks out in hot sweats when he's out in crowds. The day before, he says he found himself moving warily away from an elderly woman standing behind him in line at the post office. "I'm not the same," he says. "Look at me, I'm paranoid of a 90-year-old lady in the post office. It's from being so isolated. No wonder people who've been in five or six years come out and kill people."
There have been at least a few hair-raisingly brutal crimes committed by convicts fresh out of supermaxes. In 1992, one day after getting out of the Pelican Bay SHU, Robert Lee Davenport, 24, kidnapped, beat and raped a woman in El Cerrito. In 1995, within a week of his release from the same facility, Robert Walter Scully, 36, killed a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy, took hostages and barricaded himself inside a house in a standoff with police before finally surrendering.
Judging from the media coverage and conversations with people who remember these cases, it doesn't seem that anyone made the connection, or pointed to the SHUs as possibly having contributed to crimes committed by former SHU inmates. Grassian says he has served as consultant on more than a dozen similar cases nationwide. There may be more crimes to add to this list, but no one keeps track of what happens to SHU inmates as a group after they are freed to their parole officers. They are just another former con.
The jury is still out on whether isolating troublemakers in supermaxes is actually cutting down prison violence.
According to Department of Corrections statistics, killings in California prisons dropped dramatically in the years immediately after the Corcoran and Pelican Bay SHUs opened. But the total rate of assaults in the state prisons has been rising since. As of 2000, the inmate-on-inmate assault rate was just as high as in the years before the SHUs opened, and the rate of armed assaults on staff was even higher. Despite its oppressive security, there were 221 assaults in the Pelican Bay SHU last year--inmates assaulting guards when they are taken to court, for example, or by ingenious methods such as firing homemade blowguns though the perforations in their cell doors. More ominously, in the past two years federal prosecutors have charged more than a dozen members of two prison gangs with directing--via letters and visitors--scores of murders and attempted murders in prisons around the country from their cells in the Pelican Bay SHU.
Moore is aware of all this. But, he says, the SHUs are better than nothing. "We have much better investigative tools with the gang leaders in the SHUs," he says. "We know where they are. We can monitor them more closely. Will we ever totally stop them? No. But are we hindering them? Yes. And the best way we've found so far to do that is the SHU."