Somewhere far up the North Coast—well out of sight and out of mind for virtually all of us—is California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. It’s a facility built for the most violent, dangerous inmates in the state prison system. Many of the 3,300 prisoners there are in indefinite isolation.
Pelican Bay’s in the news today because of a prisoner attack on three guards. From the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation:
The attack occurred about 9:25 a.m. when two inmates rushed the officers with prison-made weapons while being released into the exercise yard. Custody staff in the immediate area responded and stopped the attack with physical force and batons. Two weapons were recovered.
At least two inmates have been identified as suspects. One inmate, age 20, is serving a 50-year sentence from Los Angeles County for first-degree murder. He has been in prison since Oct. 26, 2009. The second suspect, age 36, is serving 60 years for carjacking and making terrorist threats. He also was convicted in Los Angeles County and has been in prison since Feb. 7, 1997.
One of the newsroom veterans here reminded us of a series reported by NPR’s Laura Sullivan in 2006. This is how she set the scene inside Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit:
Associate Warden Larry Williams is standing inside a small, cement prison cell. Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet.
You can’t move more than eight feet in one direction.
“Prison is a deterrent,” Williams says. “We don’t want them to like being in prison.”
The cell is one of eight in a long hallway. From inside, you can’t see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard.
A reminder—a valuable reminder—of what’s happening in the prisons we pay for while we’re going about our lives.
Links to Laura Sullivan’s series:
- At Pelican Bay Prison, A Life in Solitary
- Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary
- Working the Isolation Unit: A Prison Officer’s Tale
- As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax