Crime & Justice

A visit to the toughest cell block in California at Pelican Bay State Prison

An aerial view of Pelican Bay State Prison.
An aerial view of Pelican Bay State Prison.
Courtesy of the Department of Corrections

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Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border houses some of California’s toughest, most dangerous inmates.

About a thousand of those inmates are labeled prison gang leaders or associates. They’re kept in indefinite isolation in the Security Housing Unit, or the “SHU” — a prison within the prison.

Last month, hundreds of inmates in the SHU staged a hunger strike to protest the conditions there. They also protested the strict conditions for getting out.

KPCC toured the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay this week.

A cement path from the prison staff entrance crawls up grey-graveled yards. An electrified barbed-wire fence encircles the perimeter.

Lieutenant Chris Acosta has worked at Pelican Bay for 21 years. "We call this like the 'no man’s land' out here, where there will be no inmates out here at all," Acosta says. "The only persons you’re going to see are the corrections officers, or maintenance staff cleaning up doing landscaping or security checks."

By “landscaping,” he means pulling weeds. There are no shrubs, plants or trees outside.

Inside, the SHU looks like any other prison: long corridors, tiers of cells with grated metal doors, dim fluorescent lights. But there is one big difference: Lt. Acosta asks the reporters what we hear.

"Guards," says one.

"Air conditioning," says another.

"There’s 600 inmates housed over here," Lt. Acosta says. "It’s pretty quiet over here in the SHU."

There are reminders that the Pelican Bay SHU is more dangerous than other prisons: red signs that read “Protective Vest Required,” and riot gear on a gurney outside the corridor.

And there are other warnings. Lt. Dave Barneburg monitors prison gangs. He reminded us reporters to think about what we say on the tour.

"Any inmate worth his salt down here already knows there’s a tour coming through the SHU and there’s a bunch of people coming through SHU." Barneburg says. "You’re talking to each other, you’re talking to us, but you’re also talking to the inmates."

Inmates in the SHU spend nearly every hour of the day inside individual 8-by-10 foot cells.

There’s just enough room for a metal sink and toilet, a built-in bunk bed, some shelves, a wastebasket and a desk. They’re allowed to have 10 books in their cell, magazines, newspapers, and for those with families that can afford to spend $200 to purchase it, a television with a cable hookup, that offers access to ESPN. The TV’s made of see-through plastic that shows all its components.

"The correctional officers and the staff love them because they’re easy to search," Lt. Acosta says. That's important, he explains, because throughout the years, "a lot of guys would take their TVs apart and hide weapons in them."

SHU inmates leave their cells each day for a 15 minute shower. Inmates also get 90 minutes to exercise in a concrete yard. The 15-foot-high walls block direct sunlight. Prison officials don’t allow exercise equipment in the yard.

Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis says that would be too risky. "Anything attached to the wall they would use to scale the wall," Lewis explains. "The other concerns we have is them cutting metal. These guys are good at cutting metal. That's metal they'd use to make weapons."

SHU inmates are allowed no phone calls. They see visitors only through a glass wall.

Inmates call the Pelican Bay SHU “the end of the line.”

Warden Lewis says 95 percent of the inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU ran criminal enterprises inside and outside prison. He says Pelican Bay is a life they’ve earned.

"I haven’t seen any validated gang member or associate yet that had not committed and been prosecuted for a crime, or they wouldn’t be in prison," Lewis says.

The Department of Corrections offers all inmates in the SHU a way out: renounce prison gang life – and tell Corrections officers everything you know about the gang. Do that, and you’re out of the toughest prison block in California.

Corrections officials didn’t allow media to talk to any of the inmates who participated in the hunger strike on the tour.