© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Pelican Bay Prison, a Life in Solitary

Two prison officers escort an inmate out of his solitary-confinement cell while other officers search his unit for contraband. Almost every prisoner at Pelican Bay wears only underwear.
Laura Sullivan, NPR
Two prison officers escort an inmate out of his solitary-confinement cell while other officers search his unit for contraband. Almost every prisoner at Pelican Bay wears only underwear.

The outside "yard" at Pelican Bay. Inmates are allowed an hour-and-a-half alone in this small, enclosed space each day. They are not allowed to bring anything except the clothes they're wearing.
Laura Sullivan, NPR /
The outside "yard" at Pelican Bay. Inmates are allowed an hour-and-a-half alone in this small, enclosed space each day. They are not allowed to bring anything except the clothes they're wearing.
Officers at Pelican Bay tear apart a Secure Housing Unit — or SHU — cell after learning an inmate may have gotten hold of a metal binder clip and fashioned it into a weapon.
Laura Sullivan, NPR /
Officers at Pelican Bay tear apart a Secure Housing Unit — or SHU — cell after learning an inmate may have gotten hold of a metal binder clip and fashioned it into a weapon.
A view of the hallway in a "pod" at Pelican Bay. Each hallway houses eight cells. Each pod has six hallways. There are 132 such hallways at the prison.
A view of the hallway in a "pod" at Pelican Bay. Each hallway houses eight cells. Each pod has six hallways. There are 132 such hallways at the prison.

Associate Warden Larry Williams is standing inside a small, cement prison cell. Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet.

You can't move more than eight feet in one direction.

"Prison is a deterrent," Williams says. "We don't want them to like being in prison."

The cell is one of eight in a long hallway. From inside, you can't see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard.

This is the Security Housing Unit -- or the SHU (pronounced "SHOE") -- at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California. With more than 1,200 inmates, it's one of the largest and oldest isolation units in the country, and it's the model that dozens of other states have followed.

Although all the inmates are in isolation, there's lots of noise: Keys rattle. Toilets flush. Inmates shout to each other from one cell to the next. Twice a day, officers push plastic food trays through the small portals in the metal doors.

No Contact but the 'Pinky Shake'

Those doors are solid metal, with little nickel-sized holes punched throughout. One inmate known as Wino is standing on just behind the door of his cell. It's difficult to make eye contact, because you can only see one eye at a time.

"I've got my paperwork, my books to read, my little odds and ends," he says, pointing to the small items carefully organized throughout his cell.

Wino fears he'll get in trouble for talking; he asks that NPR not use his real name. Wino is a 40-something man from San Fernando, Calif. He was sent to prison for robbery. He was sent to the SHU for being involved in prison gangs. He's been in this cell for six years.

"The only contact that you have with individuals is what they call a pinky shake," he says, sticking his pinky through one of the little holes in the door.

That's the only personal contact Wino has had in six years.

'Pods' of Isolation Cells

There are five other hallways like this one, in what prison officials here call a "pod" of cells. The hallways shoot out like spokes on a wheel. In the center, high off the floor, an officer sits at a panel of blue and red buttons controlling the doors. The officer in the booth can go an entire shift without actually seeing an inmate face to face.

Far below, an inmate walks a few feet from his cell, through a metal door at the end of the hallway, and out into the yard.

The exercise yards at Pelican Bay are about the length of two small cars. The cement walls are 20 feet high. On top is a metal grate -- and through the grate is a patch of sky. Associate Warden Williams says they don't allow inmates to have any kind of exercise equipment.

"Most of the time, they do push-ups. Some of them just walk back and forth for exercise," he says. "We don't allow them to have any type of balls or -- I don't know what you call it -- any kind of activity out here. It's just basically to come out, stretch their legs and get some fresh air."

Monitor. Control. Isolate.

Inside the SHU, there's a skylight two stories up. But on an overcast day, it's dark, and so are the cells. There are no windows here. Inmates will not see the moon, stars, trees or grass. They will rarely, if ever, see the giant, gray building they live in. Their world -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year -- is this hallway. There are 132 hallways at Pelican Bay just like this one. They are all full.

More than 40 states operate facilities like Pelican Bay. Inmates aren't sent here by judges or juries. No prisoner is sentenced to isolation. It makes absolutely no difference what crime you committed on the outside. It's how you behave on the inside that counts, and every state has different rules for how you get here. In some parts of the country, the decision belongs to a small group of state officials; in other states, it's up to the warden.

Prison officials at Pelican Bay say the 1,200 inmates here are in segregation because, since arriving in prison, they have been the most violent, dangerous inmates in California.

"The intent is to monitor, to control, to isolate," says Lt. Steve Perez, who has worked at Pelican Bay for 17 years. "This is in response to their behavior. That's why you have facilities like this."

Each month, officers squeeze soap, shampoo and toothpaste into paper cups for the inmates. They are issued a jumpsuit, but in two days at the facility, there doesn’t seem to be a single prisoner wearing one. All of them are wearing their underwear, white boxer shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops.

'It Breaks You Psychologically'

"You find yourself being by yourself, and sometimes you don't like what you see," said one inmate named Jason, a young-looking 39-year-old from Sacramento.

Four years ago, Jason violated his parole on a robbery charge and was sent to prison. A few months after he arrived, prison officials suspected he was involved in a prison gang and sent him to isolation. He's been in the SHU ever since.

"A lot of guys go [crazy], really, and sometimes I ask myself, 'Am I losing it, right?'" Jason says behind his small cell-door holes. "It breaks you psychologically, right? People do develop phobias. You start thinking people are talking about you when they're not."

When inmates do go crazy, there is another part of the prison for them -- the psychiatric SHU.

Treating Mental Illness in Solitary

In the psychiatric SHU at Pelican Bay, one inmate stands in the middle of his cell, hollering at no one in particular. Another bangs his head against the cell door. Many of the inmates are naked, some exposing themselves.

The psychiatric SHU is full -- all 128 beds. One in 10 inmates in segregation is housed here. There's even a waiting list.

Lt. Steve Perez points to the board outside the unit, where little markers describe some of the psychiatric problems of inmates held there.

"Here we are with Vic -- indecent exposure. He's got to be in a jumpsuit," Perez says. "Nichols -- he's on a razor restriction. This guy Flores -- staff assault through the food port."

The board says one inmate had his shoes taken because he kept kicking the cell door over and over.

'Group Therapy' in a Cage

Lt. Troy Woods works in the psychiatric SHU. He says they treat mental illness by monitoring the inmates and sending them to what he and others call "group therapy." It consists of a small room with six phone-booth-sized cages.

"Depending on what the group is, they'll either listen to music, watch movies, play games, have art, current events -- a lot of different types of groups," Woods says.

There are no therapists in group therapy. Woods says the idea is to help inmates socialize with each other and behavior normally again.

"Normal" for these prisoners means they don't smear feces on themselves or throw urine at the officers. They shower when able, eat when told and keep their cells tidy. For the most part, when prisoners do achieve this, the reward is a return to the regular SHU.

Experts say it can cost $50,000 more a year to house these inmates in isolation -- regular or psychiatric. But if you ask prison officials in this state why they need facilities like this one, they have one answer: to control the prison gangs.

Controlling the Grip of Gangs

Outside in the yard, hundreds of prisoners from general population are playing basketball games, exercising and crowding around cement tables. On this day, without exception, every inmate is divided by race -- and gang membership.

"You've got your white group there on that one dip bar. You've got your southern (Mexicans) -- they're always on that one table. You have your blacks," Lt. Steve Perez says, looking out onto the yard.

Prison officials like Perez say a lot of crimes happen on the yard right in front of them.

"Right now, business is being conducted," Perez says, pointing to the group of prisoners gathered on the yard. "There's gambling that's going on, drugs that are being passed and sold."

Assaults, stabbings and attacks on staff are weekly occurrences here. Two former gang members sit at a table in the yard, long after most other prisons have been sent back inside. They're kept separate because they recently left the gang. Because they fear for their life, they asked that NPR not to use their names.

They say the gangs run the prisons.

"If they keep killing people, you are going to do what they tell you to do -- out of fear, out of self-preservation," one of the inmates says. "If you're 90 days at the house, and a gang member tells you, 'You go stab that dude right there,' or 'Go back in and stab your cellie,' out of self-preservation, you are going to do what you are told. Because if you don't, you are going to be killed."

Associate Warden Larry Williams acknowledges that prison gangs are an enormous problem that prison officials do not have control over.

"Every time we pluck one out, a new one pops up," he said.

'There Are Times When You Lose Control'

Officials say 70 percent of the inmates in California's prisons are in some way affiliated with prison gangs.

When asked whether the gangs control Pelican Bay, Williams says: "The biggest part of me wants to say no. But you know, prisons only run with the consent of the inmates -- and that's all the inmates. The administration and the officers do have control of the prisons. But there are times when you lose control."

Associate Warden Larry Williams says it has been this way since the 1980s, when the number of inmates exploded, and rehabilitative programs disappeared. The gangs filled the void left from increasingly tense conditions and utter boredom. California's answer to the gangs was, and is, the SHU.

Even locked in isolation, some inmates have managed to find ways to kill each other and assault staff. On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen officers spent an entire day tearing apart the cells in one hallway, searching desperately for a metal binder clip they believed one of the inmates was hiding. Officer Buchanan discovered the paper fastener hidden inside a crack in the concrete wall. It had been sharpened into a deadly razor.

In the cell next door, Sgt. France held up a couple of staples she found.

"They use the staples. They sharpen them to a point, wrap paper around them real tight, and make a spear out of it," France says. "It will go through the perforations on the cell. They can spear someone with it."

Isolation Breeds Deadly Ingenuity

Lt. Steve Perez explains that inmates pull out the elastic from their underwear and braid it into a kind of super-powered bow to fire their weapons.

"They can project a spear coming out of there at 800-square-pounds per foot," Perez said. "And 800 pounds per foot, into your neck, it'll drive that right in there. And now we've got to go in there, and what does he have on it? Does he have feces? HIV? Does he have herpes? TB? Hepatitis? And that's not unusual."

Prison officials say that removing the most dangerous gang members and putting them in segregation makes regular prisons safer for the rest of the inmates -- and it weakens the gangs.

But Jim, a 38-year-old SHU inmate from Long Beach, says that's wishful thinking. He says that to gang members, being sent to the secure-housing unit is an honor.

"Coming up here was the big thing," Jim says from inside his cell. "Put in work. Come up here, be with the big homeys. Because this is the only place you're going to be around the fellas, you know."

'You're a Target Because of the Color of Your Skin'

Jim says gang leaders still control the gangs from within the SHU, mostly by mailing each other letters. And he says if you show up to prison and don't join the gang of your race, you'll be a target for the other gangs within days.

"When there's a war, there's a war," Jim says. "You're a target just because of the color of your skin, so you might as well. You're going to have to defend yourself. The lines get divided. You've gotta take sides."

Jim was sent to prison 10 years ago for armed robbery. Several years later, he was put in segregation for assaulting other prisoners when he joined a prison gang called the Nazi Low Riders.

"It's definitely racist," Jim says. But he says he wasn't racist before he came to prison. "Prison made me that way. My mom and dad taught me to respect everybody, no matter who it was. It's funny because I still remember, to this day, my dad telling me, 'You respect every man until he proves differently.'"

'It's Designed to Break You'

There are really only two ways out of Pelican Bay's SHU. Either you have to prove to prison officials that you have not been involved in gang activity for six years -- which is rare -- or you have to tell everything you know about your gang. It's called debriefing. It can sometimes take two years. That's what Jim is trying to do now.

But it has a cost. Jim says he's already been warned through the grapevine that if he gets out of the SHU, he's a dead man. But after seven years in isolation, Jim says he doesn't care anymore.

"A place like this is designed to drive you crazy," he says. "It's not just designed to isolate you from the general population. It's designed to break you. It sucks. It's hard. It's made me different. It's made me spiteful."

Is Solitary Working?

Associate Warden Williams says that without the SHU, the gang problem would be even worse.

But after almost 20 years, California is now holding more inmates in solitary confinement than it ever has -- and its gang problem is worse than it has ever been. And over the years, the violence rates at Pelican Bay have actually gone up.

Williams says he worries a little that segregation could be making the inmates worse.

"I can't totally disagree that it may affect the inmates in some kind of way," Williams says. "It may make them mad for a while. But the benefit of these security housing units is that we take the people who go out there and cause the trouble, and we lock them up here, to get them off the mainline so that it can functions the way it's designed to -- and the way we would like it to, and the way the inmates would like it to."

Almost 95 percent of the inmates in Pelican Bay's SHU are scheduled to be released back into the public at some point. They'll spend a few weeks in a local prison before rejoining society, with little, if any, preparation for how to live around people on the outside. And for every inmate that leaves, there is another one waiting to take his place.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.