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:

Pelican Bay Prisoners Reportedly on Hunger Strike 1 July,2011Joshua Johnson

  • OH WOW !!! these reports and what they are saying about the S.H.U., “SOME” of it is true., but a lot of it, is crap…. My sweetie, has been in their over 15 years., and He is not a “Shot Caller” , he is not a leader of a gang, and he is NOT the Worst of the worst…. has not had any type of a write up, in over 12 years, I so hope, the public does not believe everything these people are saying, My Husband to be, IS not any type of a Horrible person., AT ALL., he is Caring, and thoughtful, and sweet, and has the greatest sense of humor, than anyone I know. He is down to earth, and very level headed., and deals with reality,,,, take it from someone who Knows !!! Mel

  • keeping these men in here, is breaking the law, in it self…. so, whos in the right here? they need to do away with the SuperMax…………. and release some of these guys, who deserve it.

  • sis

    Housing inmates who “might” continue criminal activity in sensory deprivation isolation is cruel on its face and solves nothing. Mr. Montomgery has lost all objectivity in his reporting if he had any in the first place.

  • bill nomad

    these guys in shu have victiized other prisoners, and they are a threat to others. what do we do with them…..we cant let them go to victimize our friens and family. but puting them out of shu is not a option.

  • sis

    Some surely have done stuff but most have not. Please google pelican bay hunger strike and look for the hunger strikers demands so you can better understand how getting in the shu actually works. I do not have answers as to how to stop gang activity or criminal behavior. I wish I did . But what I do know is that placing human beings in isolation and stimulus depravation is not the answer. Most inmates will someday be released…what can we then expect?

  • Just got word that ALL Southern inmates through out the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are going on a hunger strike starting today (JULY 3rd) in order to improve harsh and inhabitable living conditions in the SHU and through out the main line population in California.

  • jim morrison

    These criminals deserve nothing. They claim a hunger strike will they stuff their mattress with little debbie twinkles; what a joke pathetic. The CDCR should charge them for the meals they do not eat. Not to mention the top notch medical plan they have, certainly nothing we the tax payers could afford. Face the truth stand in the light stop their evil before it all goes…

    • steve p

      Your ignorance is amazing. Inmates do not get top notch medical care. Often they get substandard care. You put a dog in a cage and poke him day in and day out one day he will snap and lash out on anyone he is near. How could we not expect the same from a man who will one day be released? Bet you will rethink your comments if one of your loved ones is hurt because of a man poked in a cage daily!!

  • sis

    I was going to respond to Mr. Morrison in a similar way that Steve did. I spent a lot of time considering Mr. Morrison’s post. Most people and I do mean most, have no idea about what goes on inside our prisons on a daily basis. Why would they? Our news media is not permitted inside, the code of silence among the guards and staff remains. The cruelty that the guards inflict on these men (and women) because guards do not like “these people’ never gets reported. But you can be sure that it does not have a positive affect of those we hold in prison. Two inmates die in prison every week due to neglect.
    Until someone has a loved one get in trouble and end up in prison will they ever know first hand about how it really is.

  • NCOE

    I am a detention chaplain. For many years I have worked with high level gang members both inside facilities and outside on the streets. As a civilized country, we should be standing up against ANYONE being subjected to SHUs. Solitary confinement has been condemned by the United Nations and the U.S. Office of the Inspector General. Research, again and again, has shown than SHUs are ineffective, expensive, and cause people to go mad. What is is gained? Not safer streets or institutions. Not more money for education and other social needs. Not productive, rehabilitated citizens.

    Prisoners have committed crimes, but are any of you reading this only the sum of your transgressions? We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of but those acts don’t define the whole of us, do they? It is the same with prisoners. Those of us who know them well, see THEM…the wrongs they’ve done and we don’t condone them, but we also see people, not so different than ourselves.

    Originally, SHUs were constructed to house “the worst of the worst,” however, this is not the current situation.Today, in too many cases, prisoners are accused of being members of gangs using false or circumstantial evidence. Validations can also be handed out for gang tattoos received prior to incarceration and for having magazine articles about George Jackson in their cells. Men who have been accused of gang membership but have DONE NOTHING can be sent to longterm isolation (SHU). They can escape the SHU only if they ‘debrief,’ that is, provide information on gang activity. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly sending other prisoners to the SHU, in an endless cycle) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.

    The requests of the prisoners on the hunger strike seem reasonable to me:

    1. Hold us personally accountable. Don’t punish us as part of a group if we didn’t do anything.
    2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify what is considered active/inactive gang activity.
    3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to longterm solitary confinement. (3,259 men are now in California’s SHUs. 800 more are waiting for a cell.) Some prisoners have been kept in isolation for 30 years.
    4. Provide food in accordance to prison regulations.
    5. Provide constructive, self-help programs, education, religious instruction and other productive activities. Provide sweatshirts and watch caps when it’s cold. Allow one telephone call a week.

  • jim morrison

    You libs check it out these criminals have a long list of victims behind them that is what they represent. If you care so much pick them up at the gate when they parole feed them shelter them and let them stay at your house while you are at work (yes I said work) and let them play with your children and then you will have the first hand experience that I have endured at their hands in being a victim. Your cries are empty and your words are ignorant.

  • sis

    Jim, I am so sorry that you have been a victim of crime. I see this matter from both sides. I don’t want more offenders. Not everyone who goes to prison is a violent person and some are actually innocent. My point is that if you treat inmates with cruelty, what we as a society get is no improvement and we pay a lot of money for all of this. I understand where you are coming from. The only way to end the violence is for the whole society to change. This starts at home for sure. We are a mess of a society.

  • bill

    I noticed something. All of these claims are from prisoners. Prisoners said this, prisoners said that. So we are to take their word for it? If they said the guards were pulling them out of their cells every hour and beating them for being on a hunger strike would this be taken as gospel? I have yet to see an article from a non- prisoner who has seen the prison conditions for themselves. These individuals are not in prison for being honest, kind, gentle, moral, etc. If being in a cell with meals brought to your door, free television, the best medical money can buy, the best psychological help money can buy, social interaction with at least 6 other people you are housed with, if that is what we call torture now, then most of the world is being MORE than tortured. Our military does not eat as well as these prisoners. If homeless people on the street knew how well they would be taken care of in prison they would commit a crime just to get there. Should I live on the street going through dumpsters or should I go to prison with a roof over my head, and meals brought to me? Probably 50% of the world live in worse conditions than these prisoners, and most people in America cannot have surgery for a $5 copay. Most people in America do not have the luxury of having a psychologist standing by to be able to talk to. Most people do not have guards standing by to protect them (even if it is from themselves). Inside prison you do not hear the cries of ones being “tortured” you hear laughter and lively banter in the pods. You hear cheering as their sports team score on the television. You hear conversations of life on the streets etc. Most people in the world would say, “If this is torture, sign me up!”
    Final note.. how can you have a cell mate in “solitary confinement”? SHU is NOT solitary confinement.
    Torture seemed to be a little more harsh in the past. Now I guess torture is redefined. I can see it in a movie now. “Talk or I will put you in a cell with no window!!” Boy oh boy that should do it!


Joshua Johnson

Joshua Johnson is the creator and host of Truth Be Told, a special series on race from KQED and PRI. Prior to creating the show, he served as the station’s morning news anchor for five-and-half years.

Prior to joining KQED, Joshua spent six years as an anchor/reporter for WLRN Miami Herald News. He’s a native of South Florida, with degrees from the University of Miami. His reporting and newscasting have won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and from the National Association of Black Journalists. Joshua is also active in his union, SAG-AFTRA. He lives in San Francisco.

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