It’s early. About 5 in the morning and I’m heading south on Highway 5 toward Corcoran, a farming town of about 24,000 people. However, that population count is misleading. About half of the people living in Corcoran are locked up in two of the state’s largest prisons just south of downtown.
But it’s not the 12,000 prisoners I’m driving five hours each way to report on. It’s one small pod of cells embedded deep inside Corcoran State Prison and a unit so secret I’ve been told by press officers inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation no reporter has ever been permitted to go inside. In fact, even they don’t know the names of the two-dozen inmates who live there.
At about ten on the morning, I arrive at the entrance to the prison and am met by Theresa Cisneros the Public Information Officer.
“I’m the only one that speaks to the media. So I will be able to respond to any questions you have,” she says.
“So no one can tell me anything about Corcoran but you?” I ask.
“But me,” Cisneros answers, “correct.”
With that she pulls out a binder and begins to explain why the PHU is so secret.
“PHU stands for Protective Housing Unit,” Cisneros reads, “and this is for inmates whose safety would be in danger by general population placement, meaning they can’t be placed with other inmates based on their notoriety, the case factors, their crime, the interest the media has generated based on the offense they committed. So for their own protection and the protection of others, we must provide them with the more secure area for them to live safely.”
Cisneros tells me that means inmates with verified enemies. Inmates who are infamous, have committed an especially egregious crime, or have received unusual media attention. Inmates in the PHU also can’t have serious medical or mental health issues, so they won’t pose a threat to the other infamous inmates locked up in the PHU.
“We don’t need other inmates,” Cisneros continues, “who may have an agenda on them to let them know where this inmate is housed so that’s why we protect their identity and actual information where they are housed and how many are in there.”
Even though the names of the inmates in the PHU are protected, when I ask, Cisneros confirms that one notorious inmate is housed inside the unit: “You are correct. We do have a Mr. Charles Manson. Sirhan-Sirhan is no longer in the Protective Housing Unit. He’s now transferred to another institution. There are other inmates that are in there and the one that I could think of right now. If you could just hold a second I have to get my list.”
Cisneros reaches down, opens an unlocked drawer, pulls out a loose-leaf binder and flips to a single page printout. It’s a list.
“Is that a list of everyone in the facility?” I ask.
“Everyone in the Protective Housing Unit,” Cisernos replies, “One of the ones we received recently was inmate Gardner.
Inmate John Gardner. Anyone living in San Diego County in 2010 knew his name. For months he was front-page news. Gardner, then 31 years old, pled guilty to the murder and rape of 17-year-old Chelsea King and 14-year-old Amber Dubois. That was in exchange for an agreement by prosecutors in San Diego not to seek the death penalty.
These were the crimes that led to Assembly Bill 1844, commonly known as Chelsea’s Law, which put severe restrictions on registered sex offenders, including life sentences without the possibility of parole for certain crimes. As part of the media coverage that surrounded Gardner’s trial, he was sentenced to two terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, one term of 25 years to life and an additional 24 years in prison.
“That’s the thing with Protective Housing Unit,” Cisneros continues, “The inmates who are in there may have stirred up a lot of media frenzy, a lot of interest in the community where they created the crime. So, for example, an inmate who committed a crime in San Diego County, a lot of reporters they very interested in the case – and then there’s the fame of inmates like Charles Manson.
“Mr. Manson is a national concern,” Cisneros says, “a lot of people know about him statewide and across other countries. There are other people, like Mr. Gardner, who may be famous or high notoriety to the community center where he came from.” We leave Cisnero’s office and walk in the heat to her car. To get to the PHU, we’ll have to drive all the way around to the far side of the prison.
Cisneros drives me around the perimeter of the prison past chunks of grey cement cell blocks with narrow slits for windows, large black numbers stenciled on the outside walls, to a small single story building. Turning off the car and stepping out into the hundred-degree heat, she says, “You do have your ID? I forgot to ask.”
Pulling my California Driver’s License from my pocket, I hold it up to her, “I do.”
Even though I have passed a background clearance check by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Sacramento, without a government issued photo identification card, I will not be allowed inside the institution.
Approaching the entrance to the small building, Cisneros begins describing the area of the prison we are entering, “We have two facilities. We have 4A and 4B. PHU is within facility 4A.”
Each Housing Unit or facility in this area of the prison, Cisneros says, is self-contained with it’s own laundry, chapel, canteen and medical services. “The way you can think about it is a city within. So any needs they have is provided there.”
We enter the small, single story building, approach an officer and pass through a metal detector to another door on the far side. Out the back door, a guard in a tower remotely opens the first side of a gated sally port. We walk into a security cage of sorts, spools of razor wire circle around the top, security cameras point down on the walkway. Just as suddenly as the gate opened, the same gate we just walked through shuts behind us and another gate in front of us opens.
Cisneros leads me through one security checkpoint after another. We’re getting closer to the PHU, but we’re not there yet.
“Before we can enter facility 4A the officer in the complex we will signal her to open the gate for us. It’s the only way we can have access,” Ciscneros explains.
On the other side of yet another steel gate, is a massive dusty field surrounded by more grey cell blocks. Stretched out across the wide field in front of us are row upon row of back-to-back chain link cages. Inside each cage that looks about 10 feet across, solitary prisoners wearing white boxer shorts and a t-shirt sit or stand in the already, hot sun. Cisneros says these inmates are from the Security Housing Unit and they’re being isolated from the prison’s general population because they’re perceived as being dangerous to other inmates or the public. This is their “yard time.”
As I lift my digital camera to take a photo of the row of cages, Cisneros immediately instructs me to pull my camera down. “You basically won’t be able to take photos of much else other than the actual area of the PHU,” says Cisneros.
“So if I go over there?” I ask, pointing to an area in the distance, “Can I shoot that way?”
No. Cisneros says, “You can shoot when we get to the PHU.”
Turning right, we walk down a long road away from the cages on the field and approach another two-story grey cement block building. As we get closer, I see 4A stenciled on the side of the building in large block type. It’s the Protective Housing Unit. We’ve finally made it.
In front of the cellblock we walk past a fenced-in park with thick green grass, fixed picnic tables and a basketball court.
Cisneros says, “This is the PHU recreational yard. This is where they come out. They come out several times of the day they get to exercise, play basketball, exercise with those boxing bags, punching bags.”
Unlike inmates in the Security Housing Unit, who are classified as dangerous, the inmates in the PHU are allowed to socialize and exercise together on this exclusive yard.
Looking through the gaps in the chain-link fence surrounding the PHU yard, just beyond the basketball court, I see the inmates have painted a 30-foot mural of an eagle flying over an ocean, it’s talons reaching out, its wings American flags and the words “Remember 911.”
As I read the words, Cisneros breaks in, “Never forget.”
Looking through the fence down at the edge of the grass, I notice a big green watermelon, then another. The inmates in the Protective Housing Unit are growing herbs, vegetables and cherry tomatoes on vines attached to the chain link fencing.
Passing by the yard, we walk toward a blue door. It’s the entrance to the Protective Housing Unit. Cisneros motions to a guard looking down from a window above and the door is opened remotely.
I follow Cisneros. It’s cool inside the thick cement walls of the PHU.
“In this housing unit,” Cisneros says, “we have the A section, B section and C section. B and C are regular SHU units. A is the only PHU unit and we’ll go in there.”
Just above our heads on a wall, riot helmets hang on hooks, and on another wall the words “Warning - No warning shots” are stenciled in black.
While we wait for the officers to open the PHU, we stand outside and look through a narrow security window into the unit. A few men in white and grey boxer shorts, t-shirts and prison blue button down shirts stand together outside one of the cells talking. An older inmate sits near them in a wheelchair. These are some of the most notorious convicts in California, and yet looking at them for the first time, they look comfortable with one another, like friends or buddies who hang out together and talk about the usual stuff. They look back at me, through the window.
“This is considered their day room,” Cisneros says, standing next to me, looking through the window. “They get to be inside their cells. They can come out of their cells and sit on the tables here and congregate with the other inmates. Watch TV. They have more freedom than the other ones. They have a bigger yard where they go and they have their recreational.”
Cisneros reminds me these men aren’t in the PHU because they’re considered a discipline problem in prison. They’re in the PHU because they need protection and can have the opportunity to socialize. They’re a fraternity of sorts.
Looking back through the window, I count. There are 20 cells in the Protective Housing Unit – ten on the first floor and ten on the second floor or tier.
“So you can see the numbers,” Cisneros says, “So you start from one through 20. Each cell can house two inmates so there could be up to two inmates per cell. So this is their life.”
“So they just talk to each other,” I say. “They kind of just hang out.”
“They live together,” the Public Information Officer says, “This is their life. This is their home. This is their house a house where they sleep eat work. They go out to the yard out here. They spend some time in the day room. They watch TV.”
Cisneros says they can have individual televisions, and radios in their cells, and that each cell has a solid door and a small window that looks out the back to the prison grounds.
“They come out to the day room to eat out here,” she says, “So during the evening meal or breakfast meal the food will be brought out from the kitchens and then they will set it up like so and they have the steam table and then they eat.”
Some of the men in the PHU are serving a determinate sentence, meaning they have already been given a date for their release. Others, like Charles Manson, are serving indeterminate sentences, meaning they have to be found suitable for parole by a board before they will be released.
Last year, Charles Manson was denied parole for the twelfth time. Now he’ll have to wait until 2027 – when he’ll be 92 years old – before he can ask for parole again. Above where we’re standing, just outside the door to the Protective Housing Unit, a guard motions to Cisneros.
“Now that all of the sections are secured,” she says. “We can go in there. However, I really don’t want the recorder on in case one of the inmates say something they shouldn’t say. I’m not allowed to allow you to do that.”
I turn my deck off. After driving five hours one way and facing another long drive home, I am probably not going to be returning to Corcoran State Prison any time soon, so I try to negotiate with Cisneros to allow me to turn my recorder back on before entering the Unit.
She agrees but only if she can order me not to use anything recorded while we are inside the unit. With terms set, I turn my recorder back on. The thick steel door to the PHU rolls to the side and we step inside the wide open day room to the sound of a large industrial fan. A few round steel tables with fixed stools are bolted to the cement floor in the middle of the room. Over to our left are some wheelchairs parked. Toward the back of the cavernous room are the two stories of cells. Cisneros tells me each cell can be open and closed remotely.
Turning back to face an officer high above behind thick glass, Cisneros asks the officer to open a door to one of the cells in the unit.
“It’s a concrete cell with sink, a toilet, a shelf,” Cisneros says, describing the cell. “You have two concrete beds with storage areas underneath. You have a stand, shelving. You have a window to the back of the cell. You have a lighting fixture on the ceiling. That’s what you have.”
“What’s this?” I ask pointing to a round hole in the wall.
“It’s for plugging in the appliances,” she says, “Like the tv or the radio they’ll have to go inside the electrical room in there.”
I ask Cisneros if the guards would close the cell door, so that I can see what it’s like to be inside the cell while the door is locked. The way it must feel for the inmates when they are inside, alone. Cisneros motions for the guard to close the door.
“Closed Cell,” an officer yells as the door rolls closed.
It is quiet, still. I ask Cisneros, “Have you ever been inside a cell before?”
“Yes.” She says,
“Locked?” I ask.
“Well. Not locked,” she says, raising her hand and pounding on the door, “I’m going to start kicking in a minute if they don’t open this fast enough. Ok.”
The cell door slides open. Cisneros says inmates can leave their cells at different times throughout the day to go to the day room, take a shower, watch television, or go outside the unit to the PHU’s exclusive yard. Some of the inmates in the PHU are paid a few cents an hour, Cisneros says, to mop, sweep, and set up the dinner that’s provided to the unit by the prison kitchen.
We walk a few feet along the first tier. About mid-way along the cells, I peek into the unit’s two central showers. The stalls are narrow, with barely enough room to turn around inside. Just beyond the showers we approach the inmates standing outside the cells. They are curious. Cisneros says she’s going to take me inside another cell and one of the inmate’s rooms, though he’s not there right now.
“Now we’re going to go ahead and give you access to a cell where an inmate lives,” Cisneros says, “but you can’t take photos of his property or anything like that…and this is their shower area.”
While we walk around inside the six- by eight-foot cell, one of the inmates standing outside the cell door watches, and begins to make comments, first on a guitar hanging on a hook on the wall.
“They’re personally owned,” the inmate says, adding, “This is Gardner’s cell from San Diego.”
Immediately I put my hand over the microphone. Even though it seemed like the inmate in the Protective Housing Unit was just trying to help, I don’t want to take a chance he might disclose any confidential information.
“Ok, so this cell is occupied, obviously,” Cisneros says, “So there is a mattress with sheets, a pillow, pillowcases, articles of clothing. Music CDs or cassettes. A guitar on the wall. Fan. Television. They have various canteen items. Bottles of drinks, food, books, condiments, boxing glove, glasses, various shoes, clothing, hygiene products. A typical apartment filled with items an inmate has while they live. Pictures on the walls. Basic living necessary items.”
There are boxes of macaroni dinners and packages of quick cook rice, jalapeno cheese-whiz, and file folders. On the wall, religious postcards, pictures of nature – a waterfall and a beach and a poster: “Good morning. This is god. I’ll be handling all of your problems today. I will not need your help so have a great day.”
Beneath the cement pad and the cotton mattress that serves as the inmates’ bed, are box size cubicles where the inmate has organized dirty and clean clothes. The back window to his cell has been covered.
“He’s covered up the natural light so he just has overhead light,” I offer.
“We request he remove it during our security checks,” Cisneros says, “Sometimes they will darken the light and we request the light is open so we can see through the back window as well.”
Back outside the cell, I notice the cell next door is completely dark. The window is covered and the lights are turned off. I ask Cisneros if it’s all right for the inmate to cover his window, and turn off the lights in his cell.
“Well no,” she says, “We can still have a visual here and look. And when a visual is like this we will have, we need to do a security check on him we will ask him to turn on the light and remove the back covering. Yes.”
We move back toward the center of the unit’s day room. Cisneros says we aren’t going to go up the stairs to the second floor. But I look up and see the faces of inmates peering out of their narrow cell windows. As we walk back toward the entrance to the Protective Housing Unit, one of the inmates in the unit approaches and tries to talk to me, asking where I’m from. But I’m quickly ushered out of the unit, the steel door sliding shut behind us. Back inside the prison’s administration building, Cisneros asks Lieutenant Robert Whitford of the Investigative Services Unit to review the photographs I shot while inside the PHU.
“There’s a few things I look for,” Whitford says, scanning each of the more than a hundred photographs saved on my digital camera. “I look at the overall photos to see if there’s anything that could jeopardize the security of the institution. For example, I saw that you took pictures outside the institution, entering how you progressed to the facility. Did that give an overall layout so someone could use inappropriately as possibly an escape plan or a way to illegally enter the secure perimeter? Also in the photos, I look to see, because it’s the Protective Housing Unit, and it’s exactly there for the purpose we call it. We’re there to protect those inmates. So was there anything in the photos that could jeopardize that would jeopardize their security or safety.”
Since this is the first time a member of the press has been inside the PHU in California, inside Corcoran, I ask Whitford if he has concerns about my visit.
“As long as we have the ability to review the information that’s been presented,” Whitford says, “the information you obtained such as your photos and make sure there’s no content that could jeopardize the security of the institution, that unit, the inmates housed there, and you probably realized how highly we controlled your visit, I think within those guidelines I don’t see an issue as long as we follow all the guidelines.”
Lieutenant Whitford hands my camera back to me and leaves the room. A few moments later, Cisneros walks me to the front of the Administration building.
By now, it’s one in the afternoon and it’s hot outside as I begin the five-hour drive across central valley land and back to the Bay Area. As I drive I think back over all of the restricted prisons I’ve had exclusive press access to over the past year.
Even though the Protective Housing Unit is the most secretive, most restricted cell block in all of California’s prison system, the place Charles Manson has been sent to live out the rest of his life, it isn’t so bad. He has access to a yard with a basketball court and watermelons – and that’s a whole lot better than the thousands of inmates locked up in Corcoran’s Security Housing Unit: a 10-foot square cage their only time in the sun. I drive on. Even though I’ve been given access to the most restricted cell blocks in the state, there’s no guarantee any reporter will ever be allowed back in, again.