You could call it a "prison within a prison": a supermax facility so isolating that some inmates say they haven't seen the night sky in years.
Prison reform advocates say that inmates at the Security Housing Unit of California's Pelican Bay State Prison began a hunger strike this morning, protesting conditions they call inhumane. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that some prisoners had refused breakfast.
Pelican Bay houses some of the state's most hardened criminals, but the SHU is for the worst of the worst. A third of that prison's inmates are in SHU: a warren of sterile, white pods, connected to exercise pens. No windows. No noise. Often, no view of the sky. And no contact allowed with the outside world or the main prison population. Inmates spend more than 23 hours a day in their pods, with an hour or less in their pen.
It's enough to drive a person crazy ... and reform advocates say, that's exactly the problem.
“April, '99: Here I am in this hole, locked down in the cement cell, 24 hours a day. I've lost my skin color, and I am pale.”
Ernesto Lira journaled his time in SHU. He was a petty thief the state determined was associated with a violent gang.
“October 28, 2000. What a nice day. I almost felt the sun. This isolation is wearing me down. I can't believe I've been in the hole for five years. I believe I'm losing my mind. Days go by without protest or outcry—just a silent endurance of time. I'm in the wind.”
The wind was the only element of nature Lira says he could sense from the outside. It's a disconnection from humanity that reform advocates say triggers mental illness -- something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.
A federal court determined Lira was denied due process when the state put him in SHU. He didn't win any monetary damages, but the state did clear his name.
CDCR officials have maintained that SHUs are their best bet to control a population of inmates that would otherwise create much more havoc. Some avowed gang leaders have told KQED's Michael Montgomery they can still transact business from within an SHU.
"This is the point that the Department of Corrections makes," Montgomery says. "Some of these people are determined to carry on criminal activites no matter where you put them. So at least, arguably, putting them in isolation is going to limit the amount of damage they can do."
Admittedly, CDCR has a much bigger problem: a court order backed up by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its overall prison population. There's no indication that state officials plan to change SHU at all, but even if they wanted to, there's not much they could do to modify the facility.
"It's not like you can add windows to these facilities," Montgomery says. "There aren't any rooms for inmates to be in together (for group educational programs)."
Reform advocates are demanding more educational materials for the inmates, more visiting time, one photo per year (possibly of their families), and an end to the debriefing process inmates endure before leaving SHU. In debriefing, inmates must rat out their criminal accomplices—presumably to ensure they can't go back to their lives of crime.
California's overcrowded prisons may soon be stacked with even more of the worst offenders. As part of the state budget, Governor Jerry Brown is realigning the prison population, shifting lower-level offenders to county lockups. That means more of the worst offenders will be in state prisons like Pelican Bay and others with SHUs.
Note: An earlier version of this post stated the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay was "full." The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said today (July 1, 2011) that the unit is at 93 percent design capacity.
More coverage of Pelican Bay from KQED News and The California Report: