Behind the walls of California's most restricted cells
This story was the first of a six-part series following Nancy Mullane in her efforts to increase media access to prisons. It first aired in October 2012. It begins seven hours north of San Francisco in Crescent City and Pelican Bay State Prison. That’s where more than 1,100 of the inmates considered the most dangerous and influential in the state are locked up in the state’s Security Housing Unit also known as the SHU.
Crescent City is the northernmost town on the California Coast. Pelican Bay State Prison is a twenty-minute drive north of that. The entrance is tucked back behind a small opening in a wall of redwoods that line the narrow two-lane road. Inside the clearing, it looks as if someone has taken a giant weed whacker to the towering trees. Left behind is a barren bowl-shaped landscape filled with razor wire fencing and single-story cement block compounds.
Lieutenant Chris Acosta is the prison’s public information officer. After greeting me outside the prison’s administration building, he introduces me to Warden Greg Lewis. He’s got dark hair, broad shoulders, and cautious eyes. He invites me to take a seat at the end of a long conference table. I turn on my microphone.
“I never aspired to be a warden, I’ll tell you that,” Lewis says, “but here I am. I’ve spent the last 20 years working in high-security prisons.”
After months of negotiations, the CDCR press office in Sacramento had given me permission to not only go inside the prison’s Security Housing Unit, but for the first time, to interview a SHU inmate inside his SHU cell.
Now sitting across the table from Warden Lewis, it’s immediately clear he was never informed I would have this sort of access. Acosta, the Public Information Officer steps in to try to clear things up: “He’s cuffed up. That’s what we said.”
“I’m fine with whatever restrictions,” I offer.
Warden Lewis is concerned: “At this point, I’m going to allow you to interview the inmate through his cell door.”
“But Terry Thornton (the CDCR’s Press Secretary in Sacramento) said this was approved.” I respond, “I told her that was the condition.”
“That has not been shared with me,” Warden Lewis says, his voice tense.
“Well, that was the condition of my interview,” I say, looking the warden in the eye.
“Can you turn that off, please,” the Warden says pointing to my microphone. “I’m going to take a break.”
The warden orders me to turn off on my recorder. He tells Acosta to get Press Secretary Terry Thornton, on the phone. It doesn’t look good.
After Acosta leaves the room, the Warden and I continue the interview. He tells me about his prison. The Security Housing Unit, also known as the SHU, was built in 1989. He says it was constructed in one of the most remote areas of the state to isolate the state’s most influential gang members.
“I think the SHU gives us the ability to attempt to interdict and stop the communication of the leadership to subordinates within correctional institutions,” says Lewis. “I think it’s been very effective.”
Effective now, maybe, but Warden Lewis says conditions in all California Special Housing Units needed to be standardized. Last summer, thousands of inmates throughout the state stopped eating to protest conditions in the SHU. That prompted Scott Kernan, the Undersecretary of the CDCR to fly to Pelican Bay to check up on the situation.
Lewis says as Warden of Pelican Bay, he joined Kernan in a meeting with the inmates: “I sat out there with Scott when he met with the inmates and it wasn’t a negotiation. It was a commitment he made to them to review this.”
Prior to the strike, Lewis says inmates inside the SHU at Pelican Bay were not getting access to the same goods and services as SHU inmates inside other CDCR institutions such as Corcoran and Tehachapi. But now, he says, that has been corrected.
“We are committed to standardizing how our SHUs operate because there is some disparity between the SHUs and their allowable food items and allowable property and television programming. We’re reviewing those so we are moving forward,” says Lewis.
But on the larger issues, such as the department’s commitment to review gang management strategies and create new SHU policies, Lewis says it’s going to take a whole lot more time before proposals are turned into policy.
Acosta returns to the conference room. I will be permitted to go inside the cell of a SHU inmate, but he will have to sit outside the open door of his cell, straddling a chair, his hands cuffed behind him, armed officers standing nearby. I agree to the terms of the interview.
Acosta then leads me out the back door of the administration building and into an electrified, high-security sally port.
The two entrances to the high-voltage cage are operated remotely by a guard watching from a nearby tower. That way no one can enter or exit the inmate-side of the institution without being visually cleared.
As the gate on the far side pulls back, we step onto an expansive, barren field of gravel. Stretched out before us, a sidewalk leads to a compound of cement block buildings a few hundred yards away.
“That’s the Security Housing Unit,” Acosta says.
Turning to look at the wall of redwoods, I tell him it is beautiful.
“It’s where I prefer to live,” he says.
I ask whether the inmates can see the mountains and trees surrounding the Security Housing Unit.
“No,” Acosta says. “If you look here, there are no external windows in the Security Housing Unit. All the natural light that is given to them is through skylights. You can see them from here.”
He points to the tops of the buildings where low plastic bubbles emerge from the roofs.
“You can see the domes on top of the buildings,” he continues. “That’s a skylight and also on the concrete yards. Half of the concrete yards are open to the sky. But windows? The cells don’t have external windows.”
If the inmates are here for 20 years, I ask if they ever see the outside in all those years.
“Sure,” Acosts says. “Inmates go out on a daily basis on medical or transports. But for the most part, most of the time it’s done within the confines. If they’re a SHU inmate, within the SHU.”
At the end of the long cement walkway, Acosta pulls open a heavy door and walks down a narrow hallway, which opens up to an octagonal central compound. Moving deeper into the prison’s Security Housing Unit, we flash our photo ID cards again and again to pass through one sally port after another.
Stopping at one of the command posts, Acosta collects a dark green, puncture-proof security vest, “We’ll give you a vest to wear to go inside.”
He asks one of the officers to give him a small-size vest, then turns to me.
“You’ve been around alarms before. If there is an alarm, we’ll have you stand against the wall. We’ll stay with you. There will be a lot of responding staff with keys running by. Just stay out of the way and we’ll respond to it appropriately.”
Acosta helps me pull the heavy, stiff vest over my clothes. He then alerts the supervisor of the unit we’re going into C 1-6, that we’re coming into his unit.
I follow Acosta into a long corridor. Overhead is a walkway where officers can patrol the area. As we move down the corridor, there are locked steel doors on either side. About midway Acosta stops and stands completely still. “If you look down, here are the six units in the Security Housing Unit in this one corridor and another six down there." Each one of the units has 48 cells in it. There’s a lot of men housed down here in the SHU, but if I take a few seconds to listen, all I hear is some steps, keys, a clang.
“People think of prison being very chaotic, a crazy place. It tends to be pretty quiet in the Security Housing Unit. It’s very quiet, very controlled. People always think that some horrible, torturous environment. There’s no one chained to the walls down here. You can’t hear screams echoing off the walls,” says Acosta.
With that, Acosta turns and leads me into the central core of one SHU unit. Fanning out in a circle around the core are six SHU pods. Each has its own rusty red security door filled with small holes. Inside each pod is an open space and eight cells. Each cell has its own perforated door to allow the inmates to get access to light and air, and to talk with one another.
“People talk about the isolation of the SHUs, but when they come to the yard, they are released from their cell. They can walk the tier unescorted. They stop at their neighbor’s cells and talk to their neighbor. They go out to the shower and stop by their neighbor cells. They talk to each other all day long within their individual housing pods,” says Acosta.
While I peer through one steel door, into one of the pods, an officer in uniform approaches. It’s Lieutenant Rick Graves.
For the past 28 years, Graves has worked in the SHU and has come to respect what it takes for the men inside the SHU to survive. “What he’s got in his cell and what his routine is every day or each day of the week is his entire life. And if you mess with that routine in some way, it can really screw with some people and they can’t handle it.”
One break in their daily routine is a visit from a reporter. For some inmates, this is the first time they’ve seen a member of the press in years. Standing just outside the pod, I move my microphone closer to the door and listen in. The dozen men locked up in their cells are talking about me – who I am, why I’m there, and what I want to know.
Acosta waves his hand, motioning for the Officer in the control booth above to unlock this pod’s steel door.
Now inside the pod, there’s a large open area with eight cells. Four of the cells are on the floor where I’m standing. Another four are up on the second floor. Looking up, a huge skylight fills the whole area with bright, natural light.
“This is pretty much where they live, where they come out, exit out of their cell to their concrete yard,” Acosta says. “We have our showers on the lower tier and upper tier.”
At the back of the pod is a door that leads to a recreation yard.
“They’ll come out here for an hour and a half a day and get their exercise, and rotate for the next person for an hour and a half. And next person, next person, next person.”
The yard is really just a 30-foot square cement box with high grey walls. Above, half of the ceiling is covered in wire, but is open to the sky and rain. The other half of the ceiling is covered in clear plexiglass. Officer Rob Hanson is the floor cop for this SHU unit.
“Most of the yard time they spend out here they’ll spend right here at the drain,” says Hanson. “That’s a telephone. You can communicate through the piping system from one unit to unit to unit or through the doors. This one connects you to the pod next door.”
Graves, the other officer standing in the yard, interrupts. He says not all inmates in the SHU want to communicate surreptitiously through the drain. He says inmates who have left the gang lifestyle and have gone through the prison’s debriefing process don’t want the option of communicating with active gang members, so they allow the drain to fill with water and don’t complain when it does.
“This drain here,” Graves says, looking down at a drain filled to the top with pooling water, “No one has complained about it being plugged up. But in an active unit, the inmates would never allow that to happen.”
I ask him whether an “active unit” means they are not debriefing.
“Correct,” Graves says, “They would be complaining.”
“So,” I say, “In a way this gives them cover. The fact that it’s plugged up.”
Back in 2006, prison authorities decided to try a new tactic that would control the flow of communication in the SHU from gang leaders to their subordinates. Instead of housing gang leaders in pods throughout the SHU, they decided to move all the leaders, what one authority called all the “alpha dogs” into one isolated section of the SHU, cutting off their communication.
“It has been extremely effective in reducing criminal activity within the prisons and had an immediate effect on other prisons and out on the streets,” explains Graves.
Since the prison isolated the gang leaders, Graves says there has been an uptick in the number of inmates asking to leave their gang affiliation.
“They write a biography of their entire gang life. Everybody they knew. Everybody that required them to do something. Everything they did. Where they were at. Where they knew them. It’s a full biography of their gang activity. Then our staff takes that and compares it to their intelligence and if what they’re saying is true, then they forward them on to the process,” says Graves.
“Is it possible,” I ask, “they can just give a name so they can get out [of the SHU]?”
“The process is double-checked by our staff here,” Graves says. “They tell us if they know anything about the whereabouts of drugs, weapons, their gang activity, hits out on staff or hits out on inmates. Where they’ve been ordered to be assaulted. We follow up on all that. And once they validify his statements, they know that he has been forthright and completely honest,” says Graves.
“Has anyone come to you and said, ‘I want to debrief?’”
“Yes,” Graves says, a confident smile on his face. “I’ve had many want to start the process and I do encourage them when I interview them from time to time about other issues.”
Even so, Graves says not every inmate who decides to debrief sticks with it. “We’ve had some inmates say, ‘I don’t want none of this.’ Because everybody tells on each other [in] the debriefing process. Because they’ve lived the life of secrecy for so long and ‘don’t tell or else we’ll kill you’ mentality that when they get in, everybody here has told on each other and it’s hard on them at first. There has been a couple that I know in the last couple of years. Did that. They get in here and they think there’s a bunch of rats in here. ‘I’m not a rat.’ But you really can’t get into this program without having first told on a bunch of people.”
Leaving the yard and stepping back inside the pod, Acosta leads me to the cell of Ruben Ruiz. He debriefed in 2011. Standing on the other side of his cell door, I squint to make eye contact, choosing one hole to focus my eyes on his eyes.
Ruiz is a young-looking man in his mid-30s with a short buzz cut, chiseled face and lean body. He’s wearing white boxer shorts and a white t-shirt. He tells me why he’s in prison: “I was a kid. I went to the liquor store to buy some beer and when I was in the liquor store, I thought we could get away with it and run out. And from that moment on, everything unraveled until somebody ended up dying behind it.”
Back in 1992, at the age of 17, Ruben was convicted under the felony murder rule and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He hopes that by undergoing the debriefing process, eventually, prison authorities will transfer him out of the SHU in Pelican Bay to Kern Valley State Prison. That way he’ll be a little closer to the family he now draws pictures of to fill the walls of his cell.
“That’s my grandmother up on the left hand corner,” Ruiz says pointing to one of his drawings taped to the wall.
I ask Ruiz whether his grandmother comes to visit.
“No. I haven’t been able to see her,” he says. “She has visited one time, maybe four, five years ago.”
“Does anyone else come to visit?” I ask.
“My parents visit me. My sisters visit me, and my nieces and nephews visit me once, twice a year,” Ruiz says, looking at the images on the walls.
Ruiz says since he was sent to the SHU, he’s gotten a business certificate and has taken 30 units of college classes. And now because of a change in the law, he faces the possibility of parole.
We leave Ruiz’ cell. Acosta says we have to hurry if there’s going to be enough time for me to interview another inmate in the SHU. He tells me this will be the first time a reporter has interviewed an SHU inmate in his cell.
As we walk, Acosta explains the terms of the interview: “So what we’re going to do is we’re gonna go inside the cell. They’ll cuff him up, secure him. We’ll put him on a chair then we’ll slide the chair up and you can ask him whatever. I’ll be in there with you.”
I ask Acosta who the inmate is.
“Inmate Luca,” he says.
Robert Luca has been in prison since 1990 on a murder conviction. At the time, he was 16 years old.
When we approach Luca’s cell, Acosta tells me to introduce myself. Luca’s hands are cuffed behind him. Straddling an orange padded chair that’s been pushed up to the open door of his cell, he watches me study his 9-by-12-foot world. Wires from a set of handmade speakers lead to a prison approved television. Pencil drawings of a leopard and a woman are taped to the walls.
In front of the cement pad he has for a bed, Luca has built a small desk. The legs are made of rolled up manila envelopes. Others have been taped together to create a thick writing surface.
Luca says he joined a gang when he was 13 years old. After getting locked up, he says he fell right in with the prison gang culture: “I received SHU terms for participating in gang activity, assaults, stabbings. I was involved in.”
Then in 2011, when he was 37, Luca decided to debrief and leave the gang: “It took me some time, ‘cause I was so indoctrinated in the ideology of gang culture and life, so there was a lot of thinking behind it, a lot of soul searching.”
He says for inmates like himself, the goal in the SHU is to keep a sound mind: “You wake up early. You discipline yourself. You study. You read. You draw. You write. You do everything possible that you have access to, and you take day-by-day.”
If he were still active in the prison gang, Luca says he wouldn’t be allowed to speak with me. Now that he’s out of the gang and making decisions on his own as an independent – if incarcerated – adult, it’s a little unnerving.
“Since I debriefed, I’m learning to feel what I hope feels like… it’s undescribable. I’m very grateful to still be alive and still have this opportunity. Before I used to think I was repaying my victim by condemning myself. But all along, I can see now I was just making it about me. Me and my guilt. Me and my condemnation. Me and my pride. I’ve been able to put that all aside and make it about what it really was about all along. My penalty for a crime I committed. That’s the way it should have been from the start.”
I ask Luca if he’s done paying.
“No,” Luca says, “I’m just getting started.”
As I leave Luca and begin to make my way out of the SHU, I peer into one pod of cells where inmates are held who have not yet debriefed. Large sheets of thick plastic are screwed over the porous cell doors, making any conversation among inmates in this pod nearly impossible. Acosta says these inmates are not available for interviews. What their world in the SHU is like remains a mystery.
This summer, Robert Luca was transferred out of the SHU in Pelican Bay to the Protective Custody Unit of Kern Valley State Prison. No longer in the SHU, he was able to visit with and hug his family for the first time in 15 years.
This story originally aired in October of 2012.
Nancy Mullane is a reporter and producer of the criminal justice program Life of the Law. She is also author of the recent book Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption.