A Look Inside Pelican Bay Prison's Notorious Isolation Unit

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A 2011 view of Pelican Bay State Prisons Security Housing Unit. (SHU). August 17, 2011. (Michael Montgomery/KQED)

For 60 days this summer, thousands of inmates joined a hunger strike to focus attention on conditions in the Security Housing Units, or SHUs, at Pelican Bay and other state prisons. They say conditions in the units amount to psychological torture.

Pelican Bay is on California's remote northwest coast, and it's the facility where the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation houses many of its most violent inmates and suspected prison gang leaders — men it calls "the worst of the worst." As a guard said during a tour of the Pelican Bay SHU yesterday, the inmates there are "the modern-day Al Capones of California." The SHU inmates are locked in cells for more than 22 hours a day. Some have been there for more than a decade.

A cell unit inside the Pelican Bay SHU's "short corridor." (Scott Detrow/KQED)

Corrections officials held the tour as the state faces increasing scrutiny of conditions inside its prisons. I was one of about a dozen reporters who spent five hours inside Pelican Bay’s walls.

The SHU there is essentially a prison of its own, inside the larger Pelican Bay facility. While the general population can spend time playing football and basketball in the sun, exercise for the SHU inmates is an hour and a half in an enclosed concrete pen. They get a rubber ball they can bounce against the wall. There’s also a pull-up bar.

'There’s not much to do, really'


The other 22 and a half hours, prisoners are locked inside small, concrete cells with two bunk beds and a steel combination toilet/sink. That’s been Eduardo Campos’ environment for 15 years. He's housed in a corner of the SHU's D-3 block.

Campos was doing push-ups when I walked up to his cell and introduced myself through the cell's grated red door. He said the exercise is part of the daily routine he's established. “I just get up in the morning, wash up. I usually work out in the morning,” he said. “That’s about it. Do a little reading, do a little writing. There’s not much to do, really.”

Campos is one of two SHU inmates who agreed to be recorded. His cell is filled with books. He said the library is too small, but he likes to stick to nonfiction and history. The best book he's read lately? A biography of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who marched his elephants over the Alps to take on the Romans.

He credits his schedule and reading for keeping him sane, but said, “I’ve seen some people go paranoid. They’ve lost their minds over (long-term isolation housing). They get really messed up.” He took part in this summer’s hunger strike, but only lasted 10 days.

“You go through the mood swings” during fasts, he said. “You get frustrated, you go through all those things. When you get to the ninth, tenth day, you start to feel real, real bad."

Campos has his books. Another inmate on the SHU showed me drawings he's done of national parks and lighthouses. This is the sort of stimulation warden Ron Barnes pointed to when he was asked about the accusation that Pelican Bay’s SHU amounts to torture.

“The inmates have TVs, radios,” he said. “They’re able to find out what’s going on in the outside world. They have all kinds of ways of communicating.”

The SHU Doesn’t Stop Communication

A note that was written on a small scrap of paper known as a kite, smuggled out of prison and then recopied in larger print, lays out  specific rules for Mexican Mafia members on the street.
A note that was written on a small scrap of paper known as a kite, smuggled out of prison and then recopied in larger print, lays out specific rules for Mexican Mafia members on the street.

And that’s a problem — at least as far as law enforcement is concerned. The state is keeping alleged gang leaders in an isolated wing of an isolated prison, but officials say they’re still able to direct gang operations on the streets and even coordinate a statewide hunger strike.

Pelican Bay Associate Director Ralph Diaz says, “I don’t see anything further that we can do other than continue with our gang suppression, gang intelligence and gang tracking, which Pelican Bay does real well at.”

The Pelican Bay staff showed reporters the orders gang leaders sneak out of the SHU. Stopping those messages would require even more isolation, and the state is already under fire for its current approach. In fact, last week a federal judge set a trial date for a lawsuit alleging conditions there violate the Constitution and amount to psychological torture.