Well, there it is. Pelican Bay.
Califas is notorious for its prisons, and many of its joints are legendary- San Quentin, Corcoran, Folsom, Alcatraz. These are some of the toughest prisons ever built, filled with violent men and staffed by sadistic guards shielded by one of the most invincible unions in history. The names of these facilities are synonymous with cruel and brutal prison time, even among lay people- but one stands out. It doesn’t really have an ominous nickname like “the Rock” or anything because its name and rep speak for itself.
Pelican Bay is the end of the line. Most times, once you go in you don’t come out. Some have, and then gone to other facilities, and there are very few badges of honor in prison more respected than having survived at Pelican Bay. It became fashionable enough that inmates at many facilities have had to institute a death penalty for lying about having been there.
In fact, when other prisons come under fire from the Justice Department, one of their main defenses is “hey, at least we’re not Pelican Bay.”
The main line
Half of Pelican Bay is “just” a maximum security prison, and like other prisons, the general population is known as the main line. This is how they roll on the main line at Pelican Bay. Skip to 0:51 to see just how quickly a prison fight starts, and why things like martial arts, “confidence,” and the like are totally worthless in prison. Those 2 guys aren’t punching him, they’re stabbing him. This is prison fighting 101.
Even the guards don’t mess around:
Madrid v. Gomez posted:
“The Eighth Amendment’s restraint on using excessive force has been repeatedly violated at Pelican Bay, leading to a conspicuous pattern of excessive force,” Henderson wrote in describing the severe beatings then common at the facility, the third-degree burns inflicted on one mentally ill inmate who was thrown into boiling water after he smeared himself with feces, and the routine use of painful restraining weapons against others.
These guards got convicted of setting up inmate attacks.
The four-page indictment says that Powers and Garcia told Pelican Bay prisoners that other inmates were child molesters, thus making them targets for retaliatory attacks.
On seven occasions, the two guards spread rumors about inmates to encourage attacks on them, then put them together with other inmates so that attacks could take place. In one instance, the inmate who was attacked, Watson White, died from stab wounds he received during the assault.
Pelican Bay’s SHU- supermax- is considered the gold standard by which all other SHUs and control units are judged. California was a pioneer in control-unit incarceration, it’s designed to “break” inmates like you’d break a horse. For those who can’t be broken, it’s a supermax warehouse where they can be kept out of the way. 22.5 hour a day solitary lockdown, with exercise time done in a 12×28 concrete chamber (with 12 foot walls):
SHU cells are specifically designed to reduce “visual stimulation” to an absolute minimum. The cells are designed so that inmates can’t see out, or can only with great difficulty, and they aren’t allowed to put anything on the wall. No direct sunlight reaches the SHU. Inmates are fed in their cell, twice a day, through a slot.
When Dr. Craig Haney made his first visit to the prison, he was told by a guard that this was the only design flaw in the prison—that they had not figured out a way to “automatically” feed the prisoners, eliminating any need for contact with them whatsoever. SHU inmates are permitted to shower three times per week.
No contact visits, no phone calls, no TV, no nothing. This level of isolation requires “step-down” programs for SHU inmates. After 8-12 years in a SHU, inmates usually need a 1 to 2 year program of resocialization to adjust even to a maximum security unit. The difference between SHU and the main line is almost as drastic as the difference between the main line and the street. Many in the SHU won’t have to worry about that because they are serving indefinite SHU assignments. This is called The Forever.
Needless to say, SHU time can cause severe psychological trauma– sometimes irreversibly so.
Dr. Terry Kupers, expert witness and preeminent prison mental health expert posted:
Even when I’m enjoying myself, I’m thinking about the 2 million people who can’t enjoy themselves. It’s not just the 2 million, though. As I said, there’s between 6 and 10 million people going in and out of prison each year. But then there are all the people touched by the prison system, families and children of prisoners, which is a huge population. Children’s lives are being destroyed by the fact that they have a parent in prison. If someone has a father who is in a SHU and they know their father is being tortured and beaten, they can’t go on with their life. They can’t live to their full potential while that’s gnawing at them. You find families broken up, and you have a generational cycle where someone’s parents are in prison, which has repercussions on their livelihood. And there are effects on the community. Communities become completely unstable when so many men and women are in prison.
Want to build your own supermax unit? It’s as easy as Legos!
In California, 34,164 inmates are serving life sentences.
New York Times posted:
Seven prison systems — Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and the federal penitentiary system — do not offer the possibility of parole to prisoners serving life terms.
That policy also extends to juveniles in Illinois, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. A total of 6,807 juveniles were serving life terms in 2008, 1,755 without the possibility of parole. California again led the nation in the number of juveniles serving life terms, with 2,623.
Note that you can still get life without the possibility of parole sentence in other states (even as a juvenile), it’s just that in the quoted states all life sentences are automatically no-parole.
Burk Foster, a criminal justice professor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and an expert on the Louisiana penitentiary system, said the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society.
“Angola was a prototype of a lifer’s prison,” said Professor Foster. “In 1973, Louisiana changed its life sentencing law so that lifers would no longer be parole eligible, and they applied that law more broadly over time to include murder, rape, kidnapping, distribution of narcotics and habitual offenders.”
Professor Foster said sentencing more prisoners to life sentences was an abandonment of the “corrective” function of prisons.
“Rehabilitation is not an issue at Angola,” he said. “They’re just practicing lifetime isolation and incapacitation.”