The Crime of punishment

Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison

by Corey Weinstein and Eric Cummins

from the book

Criminal Injustice

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 as persecutory.

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 23 men.

"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 in prison.

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.

Criminal Injustice