You could call it a "prison within a prison": a supermax facility so isolating that some inmates say they haven't seen the night sky in years.
Prison reform advocates say that inmates at the Security Housing Unit of California's Pelican Bay State Prison began a hunger strike this morning, protesting conditions they call inhumane. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that some prisoners had refused breakfast.
Pelican Bay houses some of the state's most hardened criminals, but the SHU is for the worst of the worst. A third of that prison's inmates are in SHU: a warren of sterile, white pods, connected to exercise pens. No windows. No noise. Often, no view of the sky. And no contact allowed with the outside world or the main prison population. Inmates spend more than 23 hours a day in their pods, with an hour or less in their pen.
It's enough to drive a person crazy ... and reform advocates say, that's exactly the problem.
“April, '99: Here I am in this hole, locked down in the cement cell, 24 hours a day. I've lost my skin color, and I am pale.”
Ernesto Lira journaled his time in SHU. He was a petty thief the state determined was associated with a violent gang.
“October 28, 2000. What a nice day. I almost felt the sun. This isolation is wearing me down. I can't believe I've been in the hole for five years. I believe I'm losing my mind. Days go by without protest or outcry—just a silent endurance of time. I'm in the wind.”
The wind was the only element of nature Lira says he could sense from the outside. It's a disconnection from humanity that reform advocates say triggers mental illness -- something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.