The Crime of punishment
Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison
by Corey Weinstein and Eric Cummins
from the book
edited by Elihu Rosenblatt
South End Press, 1996
With imprisonment rates towering grimly over those of the
most infamous police states, the United States has abandoned the
goal of rehabilitation touted from the 1950s through the 1970s,
and turned to high-tech dungeons that violate basic standards
of human decency and international law.' A recent survey by the
Federal Bureau of Prisons found that 36 states now operate some
form of super-maximum-security prison or unit within a prison.
These "maxi-maxi" prisons have become social control
tools to manage the nation's disposable populations. Ostensibly
designed to control disruptions, punish inmates, and break up
prison gangs, these new facilities actually engender more violence.
By exploiting racial tensions, they are deepening the already
profound fissures in the U.S. social order. The rage they spawn
is unleashed first on the prison yard and then onto the public
streets when the prisoners are paroled. This prison system makes
visible, through the still-smoking embers of South Central L.A.,
the tinderbox we are creating for the 21st century.
The California Model
In the race toward mass imprisonment, no state has outdone
California, the nation's leading jailer. Home to 11 percent of
the U.S. population, California incarcerates more people than
any other state, has more than twice as many inmates in its jails
as any other state in the country, and confines an astounding
20 percent of this country's juvenile prisoners. From 1982 to
1990, while spending for schools and other social programs was
savagely reduced, funding for the state's prisons soared 359 percent,
doubling the number of prisons and tripling the number of prisoners.
California also leads in the trend to isolate prisoners in
high security prisons with special control units. Security Housing
Unit (SHU), Level Four, maximum-security, administrative segregation
and other high-security cells housed about 10 percent of the California
Department of Corrections (CDoC) prisoners in 1991.
In the seven prisons recently opened or scheduled for opening
in California, 25 percent of the cells are high security with
750 SHU cells and 3,000 more maximum-security cells. This allocation
ensures that punitive warehousing will remain the function of
prisons well into the future.
Isolation and Violence
In 1989, the CDoC unveiled its state-of-the-art weapon against
crime: a 1,056-cell SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent
City Within the main unit, the X-shaped SHU is a high-tech replica
of the nation's earliest prisons, which featured solitary cells.
These bleak gray torture chambers are now showcased nationwide
as a 21st-century prototype.
As with its 18th-century ancestor, the key to control within
the SHU is to minimize human contact and maximize sensory deprivation.
A Pelican Bay SHU inmate is guaranteed at least 22'/~ hours of
bleak confinement. Almost half of the cells, designed for one
prisoner, are now overcrowded with two men per cell. The SHU prisoner
has little or no face-to-face contact with others-not even with
guards who have been largely replaced by round-the-clock electronic
surveillance. The inmate sits in a windowless cell with a poured
concrete sleeping slab, immobile concrete stool, small concrete
writing platform behind a thick, honeycombed steel-plated door.
Guards monitor him from control booths with video cameras and
communicate through speakers. A SHU prisoner never sees the light
of day. He may not decorate his white cell walls. He has no job,
educational classes, vocational training, counseling, religious
services, or communal activities. No hobbies are permitted to
help pass the time. The prisoner eats in his cell from a dinner
tray passed through a slot in the door Once a day he may exercise
alone in a small, indoor, bare "dog walk'; without exercise
equipment, toilet, or water. He is strip-searched before and after
this strictly monitored exercise. Because each of the 132 eight-cell
pods has its own exercise area, this procedure is more a ritual
of humiliation than a security precaution. Whenever a prisoner
is moved from place to place, he is handcuffed before exit from
his cell, shackled hands to waist, hobble-chained ankle-to-ankle,
accompanied by two guards, and observed on video monitors.
Isolation is strictly enforced. The eight-cell pods are unconnected.
The eight to twelve prisoners within each pod cannot pass anything
from cell to cell or communicate easily. Even the tier tender,
a SHU prisoner who sweeps the pod walkways, is not allowed to
speak to anyone as he passes the cells.
Outside communications are also tightly controlled. Prison
authorities delay mail for weeks, withhold it for trivial or inconsistent
reasons, and open privileged attorney-client communication. Televisions
and radios are available for purchase, but since the TV brings
in six Colorado cable stations and the radio only gets local stations,
prisoners have a hard time getting hometown or even general California
news. Authorities also severely restrict access to news and books;
the Seattle-based Books to Prisoners protests, "We're unable
to send books in there."
Guards and administrative staff also leak false information
to the media. In the late summer of 1992, for example, after a
prisoner was murdered by another inmate at Pelican Bay, prison
staff tried to deflect an investigation by blaming gang drug wars.
The Silence of the Cells
CDoC authorities defend the near absolute control of communications
and environment as necessary to suppress violence. And while inmate-to-inmate
violence is certainly reduced within the SHU, the level of physical
and mental abuse perpetrated by guards against prisoners is extreme.
Minor offenses, such as refusing to return a cup in protest of
cold coffee or declining to attend an optional hearing, can result
in "cell-extraction." In this brutal procedure, a team
of six to
eight guards in combat gear-with face visors and riot shields-often
shoots and wounds the prisoner with a pellet gun and then with
a taser stun-gun before opening the cell door. Once the door is
open, the guards rush inside, beat the prisoner, and fully restrain
him with chains. Once restrained, the inmate is often beaten again,
and then left hog-tied for hours in the corridor or a cell.
Verbal harassment is another common form of abuse. Guards
taunt prisoners with threats, denial of simple requests, or by
boasting about their latest beating. The largely Latin-American
(approximately 59 percent) and African-American (approximately
23 percent) SHU population complain that the predominately white
guards also commonly direct racial slurs against them.
Faced with constant harassment, sensory deprivation, and isolation,
some prisoners become enraged and aggressive. Others retreat into
themselves, choose to sleep most of the day, refuse exercise,
stop writing to family and friends, and turn on their lights only
to get food or medication. Some enter a private world of madness,
scream incessantly in their cells, and even cover themselves with
their own feces This psychological decay is worse for prisoners
who cannot afford a state-issued TV or radio. The often confused
and delusional prisoners who are on psychiatric medication and
housed in what is called the "ding-block" are victims
of an even higher frequency of abuse.
The devastating consequences of long-term solitary confinement
are predictable and well-documented. In his 1980 study at Walpole,
Massachusetts prison, Dr. Stuart Grassian confirmed the impact
of isolation. Prisoners developed:
...vivid hallucinations of sight, sound, smell and touch;
dissociative features including sudden recovery as from a dream"
with amnesia for the events of the psychosis; agitation and motor
excitement with aimless violence; delusions, usually described
Grassian's study suggests an ominous self-fulfilling prophecy:
SHU will drive men mad, predispose them to violence, and thus
legitimize their solitary confinement.
Snitch, Parole, or Die
The Institutional Classification Committee at Pelican Bay-essentially
a kangaroo court-decides which prisoners are confined in the SHU.
Their decisions range from vindictive to arbitrary, and are often
based on vague information from confidential informants. Some
SHU inmates have attacked guards and participated in fights (often
after deliberate provocation), or have been caught with weapons.
Other prisoners are consigned to the SHU as punishment for exercising
their legal rights, such as filing suits against the CDoC or engaging
in political activity and resistance. Still others were simply
in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In about half the cases, however, the decision to send a man
to a SHU is based on a charge of gang affiliation or membership.
Consistent with the CDoC's intent to make the Pelican Bay SHU
its first-line weapon against prison gangs, all gang-linked inmates
receive an indeterminate sentence. Once linked to a gang, the
prisoner's only hope for release from the SHU is to snitch, wait
to be paroled, or die. Snitching requires that a prisoner confess
violations of prison rules to the Criminal Activities Coordinator
and implicate gang members in illegal acts. Since it is illegal,
even in wartime, to isolate a prisoner to extract information,
this policy violates not only U.S. law but the Geneva Convention.
The SHU prisoner with an indeterminate sentence is in an untenable
situation: if he snitches, he becomes a target for retaliation
by those he implicates and must become a regular informant to
maintain the protection of the guards. SHU inmates who choose
not to snitch or have no information to trade for freedom remain
confined indefinitely. Others use snitching to their advantage
by falsely accusing enemies of being gang members, and recruit
new inmates into gangs by threatening to snitch. Many who are
pressured into snitching just try to name the lone wolf, the mentally
unstable, the individual entrepreneurs (inmates who collect debts
or sell drugs, sex, condoms, etc.) or anyone too weak to retaliate.
Inmates released from SHU are automatically assumed to have
gotten out because they snitched. The frequency of retaliation
against inmates suspected of complicity has helped give B Yard
(the exercise area in Pelican Bay's adjacent 2,200-man maximum-security
section) the reputation as the most violent in California's 106,000-person
prison system. Guards reported 67 stabbings there in a single
three-month stretch during 1992. In 1993, one inmate died and
21 were injured in Pelican Bay's largest gang fight to date, involving
"The way the system works," said one Pelican Bay
prisoner, "is that the guards run it. Prisoners have no more
power. Back in '84 to '85, prisoners had power, they ran the prisons,
and the guards had to treat prisoners with respect. That's all
changed because of Pelican Bay. Now you have to snitch to get
any favors at all, even a phone call. Snitch or stay here [in
SHU]. This is an atmosphere of total fear.''
Rehab and Race
Pelican Bay as prototype prison of the future is a clear repudiation
of the "treatment era" prison. What is more, its misguided
efforts to control gangs and violence in CDoC by returning to
the tortures of the pre-treatment past have backfired and made
Pelican Bay an extraordinarily violent place. The forces that
sent the rehabilitative model to an early grave are complex. Perhaps
the most important component-the racial inequity that pervades
society-is reflected in the justice system, and then reproduced
Prisons are increasingly and disproportionately non-white,
with the Pelican Bay SHU particularly targeting Latino-Americans.
While. only about 15 percent of the state population, in 1992
Latinos made up 37 percent of the CDoC prisoners and 59 percent
of the Pelican Bay SHU population. One rumored explanation for
this dramatic discrepancy in the SHU is that in 1989 just before
Pelican Bay was opened officials at Folsom Prison cut a deal with
African-American gangs. if they would control yard violence at
Folsom, rival Latino gangs would be transferred to Pelican Bay.
The percentage of Blacks in California prisons also far exceeds
their representation in the population and the pattern goes back
decades. Around World War II, a disproportionate number of African
Americans-many of whom migrated to California for jobs in the
aircraft and shipbuilding industries-ended up in prison. By 1970,
African Americans made up only 7 percent of the state's population
yet prisons were 29.8 percent black. By 1993, in the United States
as a whole, African-American men suffered an incarceration rate
of over 3,000 per 100,000, six times the national average. South
Africa was able to maintain apartheid at the much lower rate of
729 per 100,000.
At every stage in the justice system-arrest, pre-trial hearing
conviction, sentencing, classification hearing during imprisonment
and parole hearing-California's African Americans and other minorities
received harsher penalties than whites. At the same time, no other
group of prisoners showed more rage at the persecuting machinery
of the state than California's Black inmates. In the early 1950s,
in the relatively freer atmosphere of the "treatment era"
prison, Black prisoners began to seize and dominate the state's
prison yards as a means of fighting segregation and reversing
their position at the bottom of the convict caste system. As the
1950s civil rights movement heated up outside the walls, the Nation
of Islam mounted a nationwide prisoner recruitment drive that
made it the movement's in-prison arm. By 1960, the Nation had
65,000 to 100,000 members, many in prison. Although the group
originally advocated submission to authority, prison officials
overreacted. They banned the group, broke up Muslim meetings,
and segregated militants in solitary cells called Adjustment Centers
(ACs). These ACs were predecessors to the SHU.
The Risk of Prison Gangs
In the early 1960s, these Adjustment Centers were showcased
as humane alternatives to dungeons of the past. The state considered
them the ultimate rehabilitative tool through which incorrigible
prisoners could receive intensive daily rehabilitative psychiatric
assistance as well as group counseling, quality education, and
a specially designed work program. ACs soon evolved into prisons
within prisons, with their own exercise yards, dining rooms, and
schools. Although designed for a maximum of three-month "rehabilitation,"
they soon became a long-term solution to undermine inmate organization
and isolate political agitators such as Muslims.
This repression peaked when Muslim temple minister Booker
T. (X) Johnson was killed in 1963 by a gun-rail officer in San
Quentin's AC. His successor, Eldridge Cleaver, established links
to radicals outside San Quentin, proving to California's prisoners
that a radical convict political union could change power relations
within the prison. A year later, as if inspired by this insight,
the California prison gang system emerged. An increasingly vocal
minority of politicized prisoners formed political "gangs"
in an emerging revolutionary convict culture. They founded groups
like the Black Family/Black Guerrilla Family, and the San Quentin
chapter of the Black Panther Party. These prison gangs were an
attempt by the disenfranchised to exercise control over their
immediate environment and to reverse the effects of racial discrimination.
Other gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood, La Nuestra Familia,
and La Eme (the Mexican Mafia), were political only to the extent
that controlling the yard and the inmate sub rosa economy entailed
reshuffling power relations within the prison.
All the gangs provided crucial social, economic, and security
services that helped prisoners survive the human degradation,
deprivation, violence of incarceration, and endemic racism.
With the advent of the California prison gang system, inmate
fights and yard attacks escalated, resulting in the deaths of
guards and prisoners. Inmate assaults against guards jumped from
32 system-wide in 1969 to 84 in 1973.
Gang members, revolutionaries, prisoner union organizers,
and jailhouse lawyers joined the radical Muslims in the AC. This
AC was now a transformed unit, which no longer sought to rehabilitate,
but to punish, to limit treatment and education, and to restrict
human contact. By the end of the 1960s, the ACs-which became the
prototype for Pelican Bay-were filled with political "troublemakers."
In 1970, a Soledad, California prison AC gun-rail officer
killed three Black prisoners. Inmate George Jackson declared one-for-one
vengeance on guard staff. Almost immediately, a young white guard's
corpse was thrown from a cell tier. Responding in kind, California
prisons came down swiftly on prisoners by beginning to control
movement, access to information, visitors, and legal services.
From his cell in San Quentin's AC, which was by now a hotbed of
revolutionary thought, George Jackson secretly composed his book,
Blood In My Eye, a call to guerrilla action.
On August 21, 1971, the San Quentin AC inmates tried a takeover,
ending in the deaths of Jackson, two other inmates, and three
guards. Three wounded guards recovered. That autumn, prison riots
swept the country. In the bloodiest of these, at Attica Correctional
Institution in New York State, 32 prisoners and 11 staff died
when police and a National Guard army put down the uprising with
gas, helicopters, and heavy gunfire.
Authorities cracked down hard around the country. By 1972
cell-blocks at San Quentin were subdivided for closer inmate scrutiny
and inmate contact with outsiders was severely cut back. From
the AC, reports of widespread beatings and other prisoner abuses
began to reach the courts. That same year, Governor Ronald Reagan
called for the development of new, high-tech, maximum-security
prisons to deal with what he termed "troublemakers."
Moe Comacho, then president of the California Correctional Officers
Association, seconded the call. And in 1973, the House Internal
Security Committee began conducting hearings on revolution in
U.S. prisons, Attica and San Quentin in particular, with a mind
to devising ways of putting down the ongoing turmoil.
The legacy of the August 21 San Quentin takeover and the subsequent
uprisings fed the official drive to build the largest solitary
confinement prison in the United States-the SHU at Pelican Bay.
Pelican Bay is a nightmare fulfillment of widespread demands
for more punitive prisons. This abandonment of rehabilitation
imprisonment is the apotheosis of the Adjustment Center concept
gone bad-the AC without treatment. The SHU demonstrates that the
more cruel and overcrowded our prisons, the more violent the prison
yard will become.
Indeed, prisoners subjected to imprisonment in a SHU return
to their communities untrained, untreated, poorer, and more disenfranchised
than when they left. This system of dehumanizing, high-tech torture
promotes violence, exacerbates gang activity, and deepens the
fissures of race and class that already divide the United States.