CORCORAN, Calif. — The large metal cages are lined up in two rows under the blistering Central Valley sun just outside the prison walls. For maximum security inmates here, this is what counts as outdoor space.
Some inmates are placed in the cages with cellmates, but most are alone. One passes the time by pacing back and forth. Another does push-ups with the help of two prosthetic legs. Two men in adjacent cages discuss the Oakland Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers.
The inmates in this part of Corcoran State Prison — known as the Security Housing Unit, or SHU — are considered some of the most dangerous in California's prison system. Some are separated from the general population because of violent infractions like attacking a guard; others are deemed members of prison gangs.
Reporters visited Tuesday as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation opened the doors to some of its most controversial facilities in the midst of heightened concern over prison conditions.
"It's a good thing to be transparent," Corcoran Warden Connie Gipson said.
Another tour will be held Thursday at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border.
Corcoran, which received its first inmates in 1988, was the first prison in California with an SHU. Inmates rarely leave their cells except to be escorted, handcuffed, to the outdoor cages for exercise several times a week.
The Security Housing Units around the state have been the focus of external scrutiny and prison protests. A two-month-long hunger strike that involved thousands of inmates ended in early September, and legislative hearings are scheduled to begin next week. A United Nations investigator is also seeking access to the prisons to review conditions in the isolation units.
The Corcoran prison sprawls over 942 acres in Kings County, surrounded by farmland. Roughly one-fourth of the prison's 4,386 inmates are in the SHUs.
Prison officials say the term "solitary confinement" should not apply to the secured units. Some prisoners have cellmates and they can speak with inmates in adjacent cages while in the yard. There are small televisions in some cells.
The inmates disagree. Brent Shelton, 41, said "solitary" is the only way to describe it.
"You're living in cages," he said. "Dog cages."
He's serving a life sentence for armed robbery and was placed in the SHU for his alleged affiliation with the Mexican Mafia.
Another inmate, Randall Scott, 54, said being placed in a secure unit has a damaging effect on inmates.
"You get depressed," he said. "You become frustrated. You start to act out."
Inmate leaders began this year's hunger strike to protest conditions in the secured units. Roughly 800 inmates at Corcoran participated.
Ronald Hopkins, 24, said that for weeks he drank nothing but water and ate only a few crackers.
"I couldn't take it anymore," said Hopkins, who is serving a sentence for car theft. "I feel like I did what I had to do for my cause."
He wound up in the SHU for attacking an officer, an incident he remains unapologetic about.
"It was spur of the moment," he said. "To spice things up."
Lt. Anthony Baer, the Corcoran spokesman, said the SHU helps officers keep tabs on gang activity and tamp down violence.
"These are inmates who have proven they cannot play well with others," he said.
However, most of the inmates at the Corcoran SHU are not there because of a specific infraction. They were "validated" as a member of a prison gang and indefinitely removed from the general population.
This practice is being curtailed under new rules intended to require more evidence before an inmate can be considered a gang member. The cases of inmates already in SHUs are being reviewed, allowing some to be returned to the general population.
Seventy-seven cases at Corcoran have been reviewed under the new rules, and the majority of inmates have been transferred to other prisons and returned to the general population.
Cedric Scott, 48, was deemed a member of the Black Guerrilla Family more than a decade ago and placed in the SHU. He denies having anything to do with the gang and says he only wound up there because his name appeared on another inmate's list.
For years the primary way to return to general population was to "debrief," meaning telling law enforcement about gang activity. Scott, who is serving a life sentence for murder, said that was impossible.
"How can I debrief something when I'm not even briefed?" he said.
Now his case has been reviewed under the new rules, and he expects to be sent to a prison in Salinas, where he'll be part of the general population. But he's still angry about how he was treated.
"I wouldn't even be here if they had the same rules they have now," he said.
Prison officials say gangs remain strong at Corcoran, the Mexican Mafia being the largest. Several inmates refused to be interviewed, politely waving off reporters or covering their faces.
"Talk to our representatives," one said.
The United Nations' special investigator on torture, Juan Mendez, asked the U.S. State Department for access to California prisons five months ago, but the request hasn't been granted.
A spokeswoman for the State Department, Laura Seal, said officials were open to discussing a visit but could not explain the delay.
Mendez said he wanted to review the prisons after receiving petitions from inmates and their advocates alleging the state's widespread use of indefinite solitary confinement to control prison gangs amounted to torture.
Times staff writer Paige St. John contributed to this report