|Location||Crescent City, Del Norte County, California|
|Population||2,239 (as of March 2016)|
|Managed by||California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation|
Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is the only supermax state prison in California. The 275 acre prison is located in Del Norte County, California. The prison takes its name from a shallow bay on the Pacific coast, about 2 miles (3 km) to the west. The prison lies in a detached section of Crescent City, several miles north of the main urban area and just south of the Oregon border. PBSP's primary purpose is to house the "worst of the worst" violent male prisoners from the California state prison system; 40% of Pelican State's inmates are serving life sentences and nearly all have histories of violence at other California prisons which resulted in their transfer to Pelican Bay. The sole exception are the institution's minimum security inmates who work as part of the prison's outside maintenance and firefighter programs.
Cellblocks C and D at Pelican Bay are the dedicated long-term Security Housing Units (SHU), designed to control the most intractably violent prisoners by keeping them in rigorously-monitored solitary confinement 22.5 hours a day, 7 days a week (often for years or decades at a time). In addition to the supermax population, Pelican Bay also houses two maximum security units: Block A is a traditional semi-open general population (GP) unit with 2-man cells while Block B a is smaller, closed/single cell block that serves as a transitional unit for inmates transferring out of the SHU blocks due to good behavior. There is also a collocated 400-bed minimum security unit (outside of the secure perimeter) which provides inmate orderlies for general service tasks at and around the main prison.
Pelican Bay opened in 1989. Pelican Bay's grounds and operations are physically divided. Half of the prison holds Level IV (maximum security) inmates in a General Population (GP) environment with outside exercise courts and yards. The other half of the prison contains the prisons best-known feature: an X-shaped cluster of white buildings and barren ground known as the Security Housing Unit, or SHU. An electric fence surrounds the entire perimeter.
The 8-by-10-foot (2.4 m × 3.0 m) cells of the SHU are made of smooth, poured concrete with perforated cell fronts and doors. There are no windows located within the cells. Instead, there are fluorescent lights, which the inmates can control. SHU inmates are confined to their assigned cells for up to twenty-two hours a day, looking out through a perforated steel door at a solid concrete wall. Food is delivered by correctional officers twice a day (breakfast, sack lunch, and dinner), through a slot in the cell door.
Each of the twenty-two housing units located in the SHU has an armed correctional officer in a control booth. Control booths are located in the center of each housing unit. The control officer can view into all six pods in the housing unit, from his or her central vantage point. The control officer controls the doors throughout the housing unit, which contains six pods. Each pod contains eight cells. The officer can supervise the release of inmates assigned to the housing unit. The control officer can allow one, or two inmates, if they are cell mates (cellies), out of their assigned cell to shower or exercise. Inmates are allowed to exercise for up to ten hours of court-mandated, outdoor exercise per week. Exercise takes place in a concrete yard, which extends the length of three cells, and has a roof partially open to the sky.
Inmates, their lawyers, and prisoner advocate groups have argued that confinement in the SHU is cruel and unusual punishment, due to severe conditions. Contrary to popular belief, the SHU is not composed of solitary confinement cells. Inmates housed in the same pod can talk with each other and even see each other when released from their assigned cells. The SHU consists of twenty-two housing units, with six pods per housing unit and eight cells per pod. Some psychiatrists and psychologists who support inmates housed in the SHU have described a "SHU syndrome",a condition which, they say, affects inmates who spend more than a few months in isolation. The symptoms reportedly resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder, including hallucinations, depression, anxiety, anger, and suicide. The cause of most of these symptoms is isolation; most SHU inmates experience isolation for 22 hours a day with limited human contact other than receiving meals through a slot in the cell door.
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PBSP, SHU prisoners have organized hunger strikes in protest of conditions there, chiefly the punishment of solitary confinement. In 2002, a reported 60 SHU inmates began a hunger strike.
Another hunger strike was reported to have begun on July 1, 2011. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that "less than two dozen" were refusing food. The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition reported close to 100% participation in the SHU on the first day, with the strike spreading to the Pelican Bay general population on the second day. The Coalition also reported that the strike had spread to Corcoran and Folsom prisons, with over 100 prisoners participating. The CDCR subsequently stated that 6,600 inmates had refused food in the first days of the strike, and that after five days, more than 2,000 remained on strike. Most inmates reportedly consumed food purchased from the canteen; however, others were refusing all food with the stated intention to strike indefinitely. SHU prisoner Mutop DuGuya stated, "No one wants to die. Yet under this current system of what amounts to intense torture, what choice do we have? If one is to die, it will be on our own terms."
On July 8, 2013, inmates resumed the July 2011 hunger strike, due to alleged broken promises and "cruel" conditions, with upwards of 29,000 prisoners across California joining in the hunger strike. These conditions were to end group punishment and administrative abuse, abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria, comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement, Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food, Expand and Provide Constructive Programing and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates. End Group Punishment and Administrative Abuse demand was as a result of individual inmates' rule violations.
Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria demand was a result of "gang members" being placed in isolation. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement demand is in response to prisoners not being able to engage in meaningful self-help treatments or have contact with anyone. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food demand is in response to prisoners using food as an excuse to punish inmates. The last demand of Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates is in response to prisoners mistreatment. The examples they stated for this demand were getting photos, weekly phone calls, packages, more TV, and expand visiting time.
Lawsuit and termination of unlimited isolation policy
In May 2012, California's prison system faced a lawsuit from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for inmates with Children, and other California attorneys on behalf of ten men incarcerated in the SHU. The plaintiffs were all housed in the SHU for 11 to 22 years, some having been transferred directly from other SHUs. The suit claims that the inmates "have been incarcerated California’s Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit ("SHU") for an unconscionably long period of time without meaningful review of their placement", that "California's uniquely harsh regime of prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay is inhumane and debilitating", and that "[t]he solitary confinement regime at Pelican Bay violates the United States Constitution's requirement of due process and prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment".
In August, 2015, as a result of the aforementioned class-action lawsuit, California agreed to end its unlimited isolation policy. Inmates are no longer isolated as a preventive measure; only those who commit new crimes while incarcerated are eligible for up to five years of isolation. Since the lawsuit's settlement, hundreds of inmates who had served years in Pelican Bay's SHU have been transferred to other prisons and are now doing their time in general population settings. The result has been the virtual depopulation of the entire SHU program, and it is anticipated by some experts the SHU program may soon be disbanded entirely.
- Hugo Pinell: One of six inmates infamous for their 1971 escape attempt from San Quentin State Prison that left six people dead. Spent 43 years in long-term confinement (23 of those years were spent in the SHU) - longer than any other inmate in California. Was stabbed to death during a riot at California State Prison, Sacramento, just two weeks after being released from the SHU into the general population.
- Joe "Pegleg" Morgan: First non-Hispanic Mexican Mafia member, sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1956. Morgan was housed in the SHU until his transfer to the hospital ward of Corcoran State Prison, where he died from liver cancer in November 1993.
- Sanyika Shakur: Former Crips member and author of Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, sentenced to five years in the SHU for assault and grand theft auto in January 1991. Was imprisoned again for six years for parole violation in May 2008 but paroled in August 2012. Currently incarcerated at Centinela State Prison.
- Rene Enriquez: Former member of the Mexican Mafia, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1991 for two separate murders. In 1993, he was sent to the SHU, but is now doing his time in protective custody at Ironwood State Prison after becoming a government informant.
- Damian Williams: Gained notoriety for attacking Reginald Denny and others during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Sentenced to 10 years for assault, but released early for good behavior. Williams was sentenced to 46-years-to-life for killing a drug dealer in 2003. Currently incarcerated at Centinela State Prison.
- David "DC" Cervantes as the highest-ranking member of the Nuestra Familia gang in California. Cervantes' rise marked the first time in decades that the Norteños had a single leader at the helm of their criminal organization.
- Arturo Castellanos: Leader of a Florencia 13 street gang, and high-ranking member of the Mexican Mafia, sentenced to 26-years-to-life for a 1979 LA County murder and isolated in Pelican Bay's SHU for continuing to run gang activities from his cell. He helped organize hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 in protest of conditions within California SHUs in which over 30,000 inmates statewide participated.
- Robert Walter Scully: Aryan Brotherhood member who murdered a deputy during a traffic stop and took a family hostage in March 1995 only five days after being paroled from Pelican Bay. Sentenced to death at San Quentin in 1997.
- Lloyd Avery II: Actor most famous for his role in Boyz n the Hood, sentenced in 2005 to life imprisonment for double homicide. In September 2005, he was beaten and strangled to death by his Satan-worshiping cellmate; his body wasn't discovered for another two days.
- Marion "Suge" Knight: Record producer sentenced to nine years for parole violation in 1996 and released in 2001. Sentenced to 10 months in 2003 for assault and parole violation.
- Charles Manson: Infamous cult leader, sentenced to life imprisonment on seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. In March 1997, he was charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics and transferred to the SHU for 14 months; died in 2017 from gastrointestinal bleeding while at Corcoran State Prison.
- Ricardo Medina Jr.: Actor famous for starring in Power Rangers Wild Force, sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter for stabbing his roommate with a sword.
In popular culture
Television and film
In the fictional series Life, Detective Charlie Crews spends twelve years in Pelican Bay for a triple homicide he did not commit, part of it spent in the SHU, as the background of the series' plot. In the TV series The Shield, the main character, Vic Mackey regularly threatens recalcitrant suspects with only the name of the prison. In the 2001 film Training Day, Alonzo Harris, the character portrayed by Denzel Washington, tells everyone in one of the last scenes that they are going to "be playing basketball in Pelican Bay" if they mess with him, continuing to say "SHU program, Nigga" referencing the solitary confinement portion of the prison. Pelican Bay is also referenced in two films directed by Michael Mann. In Heat, the psychopathic character Waingro, portrayed by Kevin Gage, admits to having spent time in "the SHU at Pelican Bay" during his most recent stint in prison. In the film of Miami Vice, the characters of Crockett and Tubbs, portrayed by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, are given fictitious criminal identities before they go undercover, which among other things imply that the two met while serving time in Pelican Bay.
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