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At Pelican Bay, A Look Inside California's Security Housing Units

Imagine spending 22 hours a day locked in a small, concrete room. That’s daily life for about four-thousand California prisons inmates. On a recent media tour, journalists got glimpse of that life on a visit to the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Nearly 1,200 men are housed in the complex of low, concrete buildings. To get to them you have to go pass through a series of heavy gates and doors.

Acting Warden Ron Barnes has been on the job for less than two months. He arrived at Pelican Bay after SHU inmates made headlines with a two-month long hunger strike intended to force an easing of conditions within the units. Barnes and other prison officials are eager to dispute claims that keeping men in the SHU for long periods of time amounts to torture.

“I don’t see that,” Barnes said. “The interaction that I’ve seen between staff and inmates and the inmates amongst themselves, and you’ll see that today, that the inmates have TV’s, radios and they’re able to find out what’s going on in the outside world.”

On this clear day, the sun streams through skylights, brightening the pods of cells. But the seven by eleven foot cells themselves have no windows. They’re stark, with concrete sleeping bunks built into the back wall. There’s also a shelf, a sink, a light, a toilet, and a mesh metal door.

Prisoner Robert Hoff has been in the SHU for about 20 years. His initial conviction was bank robbery, but then he was found with a weapon in prisons and is now serving 25 years to life. His cell is filled with books and pictures he’s drawn. He said it’s his way of surviving in isolation.

"I mean, it just depends on your mentality and what your program is. I mean, if you just come in here and just watch TV and don't do anything productive, you'll probably go crazy." - Prisoner Robert Hoff

  “I mean, it just depends on your mentality and what your program is,” Hoff said. “I mean, if you just come in here and just watch TV and don’t do anything productive, you’ll probably go crazy.”

Hoff has decided it’s time to get out of the SHU. So he’s agreed to go through the debriefing process, in which he tells prison officials everything he knows about prison gangs. He nervous to get out, but he’s more worried about what will happen if he doesn’t.

“For me, right now, my biggest concern is I’ve been in this environment for, like, 20 years now,” he said. “So I’m going to take every step that I can within myself that’s available within the Department of Corrections, anger management, things like that, to give me the tools that I’ll need to be able to reintegrate myself into a mainline setting.”

In another section of the SHU, Jorge Ornelas jumps to his feet, eager to talk.  He’s been in the SHU for nine months and he said it’s not going well.

“I’ve been incarcerated for 13 years, this is my first time in the SHU and it’s been a bad experience for me,” he said.

Ornelas is serving a life sentence for attempted murder.

“You know I even went on suicide watch once. It just became overwhelming for me,” Ornelas said. “But mental health has been helping out.”

Warden Barnes said inmates can get a mental health evaluation on request.

The men in SHU spend 22 1/2 hours a day in their cells. They get 90 minutes outside, alone, in a small exercise yard that has a pull-up bar and two small balls to bounce against the wall. They can communicate when walking past another cell and can pass notes. But there are few other interactions. The conditions may be harsh, but Barnes said he works to keep the lines of communication open.

“From what I’ve seen so far we have excellent communication with the inmates,” he said. “So, when an inmate has a legitimate issue that is something that we should be taking care of here at the prison, I make sure my staff does the right thing.”

But critics of Pelican Bay and the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department maintain prisoners in the SHU are treated inhumanely. And now inmate advocates have taken their message to the state legislature.  

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