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Under scrutiny, Pelican Bay Prison officials say they target only gang leaders

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The "Secure Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Julie Small/KPCC

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Lawmakers in Sacramento plan to put Pelican Bay, California’s toughest prison, under a microscope at a hearing on Tuesday. The supermax prison located near the Oregon border isolates about 1,000 of California’s most dangerous inmates in a Security Housing Unit called “the SHU.”

Last month, hundreds of inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU launched California’s largest prison hunger strike in a decade. They wanted better conditions inside the prison and an end to strict policies that get inmates into the SHU in the first place.

The cells in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Units measure 8 by 10 feet – about the same size as other prison cells. The difference is that SHU inmates spend nearly 23 hours in these cells and don’t get to see other inmates. Inside the cells, there's a bed, a metal toilet, a sink and a TV. Armed guards stand watch over the men 24/7.

Lt. Chris Acosta says the door to a SHU cell opens once a day to let the inmate out to take a shower. When he steps inside the shower stall, a metal door locks him in.

Inmates can leave their cells to exercise for an hour-and-a-half alone in a concrete yard with 15-foot-high walls, and a small rectangle of sky.

Pelican Bay is hundreds of miles from any major city. It's the most isolated prison in the system: Think Alcatraz, but on land.

Prison officials say the SHU is designed to be a prison within the prison that keeps top leaders of California’s prison gangs from communicating with their associates. Lt. Dave Barneburg investigates those gangs.

"We’ve got these gang leaders here at Pelican Bay that are very influential. They don’t do the assaults, they don’t do the hits, they don’t personally get their hands dirty. But they command legions of subordinate gang members," he says.

Barneburg says seven prison gangs – including the Mexican Mafia and Nazi Lowriders – started in the prisons, recruit in the prisons and mainly operate in the prisons. But they also have ties to street gangs. Barneburg says isolating gang leaders in the SHU’s at Pelican Bay has thwarted their criminal operations on prison yards and neighborhoods.

The only way corrections will let a gang leader out of the SHU is if they become inactive or denounce the gang. Barneburg says that can be tricky.

"So many times these gang members will plead and say 'Look, I haven’t had a disciplinary offense in many, many years. How could I be this influential guy?’" Barneburg says. "Well, they isolate themselves, and compartmentalize themselves and have their subordinate gang members do their bidding. So many times there is no direct evidence demonstrating enough to give those disciplinary reports that they are those gang members."

Leaders of the Pelican Bay hunger strike accused corrections of putting inmates in the SHU not because they did anything wrong, but because they hung out with a gang member or someone said they did. They also complained about the prison policy of requiring inmates to, as they put it, “snitch” on other inmates to get out of the SHU. They say the policy encourages prisoners to lie. Pelican Bay officials refused to let reporters talk to the hunger strikers.

A former SHU inmate, 35-year-old Harold Rigsby, renounced the Northern Structure prison gang last year. "I just didn’t hold those same views anymore after years of trying to justify what I was a part of," he says.

The ashen and soft-voiced Rigsby says his 14 years of isolation in the SHU contributed to his decision to debrief, but so did having 23 hours a day to contemplate his life. "Twenty-three hours in your cell a day you realize that this ain't the lifestyle you want to live," he said. "You don't want to spend the rest of your life back here in a cage."

"Y’know, I didn’t want to be involved in criminality anymore," Rigsby says. "I wanted to become a Christian and also I didn’t want to be part of preying on communities anymore. It just got to a point where I was just sick of it. Y’know, guys getting hurt that I knew didn’t do nothing wrong."

Rigsby was convicted of second degree murder when he was 16. He joined a gang while at Folsom Prison. A year later, prison officials sent Rigsby to the Pelican Bay SHU where he says he recruited and trained new gang members.

Rigsby says he’s taking a risk by leaving the gang and naming names. But it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

The Department of Corrections says 2,000 inmates have left the SHU through debriefing. Another 600 are in the process now, with a backlog of more than 100 who want to debrief. Prison officials won’t say how long inmates in the SHU have been there, how long they might stay, or who they are.

It costs more than $70,000 a year per prisoner to keep prisoner's in the state's three isolation units — nearly double the cost of a prisoner in the general population.

Hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement won't snitch and remain isolated for years.

"What that means in California is that you accumulate these men in Special Housing Units and when Pelican Bay filled up, then it was necessary to build more of them," says David Ward, a retired criminologist who has studied California's prison system extensively.

Trying Something New

Ward co-authored a study four years ago in which he urged the state to use the SHU as a punishment for bad behavior. Pelican Bay's SHU is now primarily used to house gang members and leaders; it's up to prison officials to determine who they are. A tattoo and hanging out with the wrong people in the yard can be enough.

Ward's study was shelved. The state says SHUs work and have significantly reduced prison violence.

Scott Kernan of the state's prison department says Ward's recommendations weren't possible because of prison overcrowding. Kernan says now it's time to try something new. (A recent court ruling has ordered California to drastically reduce its inmate population.)

"We are going to make the changes that we think are reasonable," Kernan said, "and with the realignment we think we are going to make changes that we have never had the chance to do before."

Rigsby says that without the harsh punishment he'd still be a gang member and be causing trouble behind bars.

"I'm putting my life in danger," he said. "If those gang members were to catch up to me, they are going to try to stab me or take me out. I'm willing to risk that because I feel it's the right thing to do."

But there are many in Pelican Bay who won't renounce the gangs. Five hundred prisoners in the prison's SHU have been in isolation for more than 10 years — many for more than two decades.

NPR's Carrie Kahn contributed to this report.