It’s a Tuesday morning. The sun shines on the tree-studded hills of the North Coast. Danny Forkner stares out at a green field with basketball courts, soccer goals, chin-up bars and other exercise equipment sectioned off by chain-link. He could see for miles save for the cement buildings obstructing his view.
Forkner is one of the 824 people tasked with guarding California’s so-called “worst of the worst” as correctional officers at Pelican Bay State Prison north of Crescent City.
They oversee the murderers, rapists, robbers and gang members that no other prison wants. Outcasts banished to a remote location hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from their families.
Most are likely to serve the rest of their days surrounded by cement in a cell big enough to fit two metal bunks, a small metal toilet, a desk and two stacked dressers.
This is where many residents of Del Norte and Curry counties – neighbors, friends, coaches – go to work every day.
Lockdown changes life
Forkner deals mainly with the privileged inmates. They get to leave their cells for the openness of “A yard” and mingle with other prisoners.
On a typical day, rain or shine, the African Americans tend to be on the basketball courts, the Hispanics on the soccer field, and the whites at a workout station near a now-defunct baseball diamond.
“The weather doesn’t stop these guys,” says Forkner.
But a lockdown does. On this day, besides a couple of inmates in a chain-link corral awaiting medical attention, “A yard” is empty.
All the inmates are in their cells until cleared to leave by administrative staff. Eleven days earlier, a riot broke out involving 45 inmates and lasting about five minutes. Correctional officers fired one warning shot and used pepper spray, pepper spray grenades and their batons.
The “A yard” is expected to be back to normal next week. Correctional officers have slowly been allowing inmates back into the yard in small groups.
“If there’s a riot, usually it happens on the yard,” says Forkner.
He has been on yard duty for five years and with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for 15, joining after serving in the military. He spent time in housing units before being placed on the yard.
“I like this job better,” says Forkner.
He usually monitors inmates on the yard after he and other officers pat every one of them down to make sure they have no hidden weapons. That’s always a risky endeavor – inmates may react violently if a weapon is found.
Today, instead, Forkner searches cells to aid investigations into the cause of the riot and to check for possible contraband fashioned from metal cut from furniture in cells. He also interviews inmates, including ones not involved in the riot.
“It’s a slow process,” says Forkner.
He and a group of four other officers head toward Block 5 across the yard. At the entrance, they yell up to an officer armed with an M14 rifle in a control room.
The door opens, and then another leading into the block. An orange hue from fluorescent lights fills the room amid the strong smell of fragranced deodorant, soap and cleaning supplies. The air is stale. It’s quiet in the block and most of the prisoners, some wearing only boxers, stand at their metal doors peering through the windows of their cells.
The officers walk up a stairway and call for the man in the control room to open a cell on the top tier. Two Asian inmates are brought out, frisked and commanded to sit at one of the picnic tables in an open area below.
During a cell search, officers comb through an inmate’s belongings, including all of the pages in the books and papers they possess, to seek out signs of gang involvement or communication with other gang members. They also check the integrity of the beds, toilets, TV sets, desks, drawers, floors, ceilings, walls and doors to make sure everything is intact.
If they find a chunk missing from any of the furniture, they spray paint it for the sake of future searches. They also look for the missing piece, likely being formed into an inmate-grade weapon.
“They’re improvising, too,” says Forkner.
Weapons have been found in walls and desks after a hole was bored out and camouflaged, Forkner says. Sometimes inmates hide them in their bunks or toilets.
The cell has stacks of books, anime cartoons, ramen noodles, other snacks and a small, flat-screen TV that is transparent so correctional officers can ensure nothing is hidden inside it.
The inmates have fashioned a wire from personal speakers that plugs into an outlet, which they use to heat water for coffee or ramen noodles. A sheet divides the cell, so an inmate can use the restroom in semi-privacy. Such items can be confiscated, but more can be made and likely there the next day, Forkner says.
“A lot of it is based on respect,” says Forkner. “They know they are going to get searched.”
He will place a prisoner’s belongings on the bunks in neat piles after it is rifled through.
“You want to take some respect for their property,” says Forkner. “We deal with them every day.”
Alertness becomes the norm
Officers also inspect the yards to make sure fences, tables and equipment are intact. They took metal detectors to the yard earlier this year, finding 10 buried weapons and about 350 nails that had been deposited into the ground when crews were building the prison in the 1980s.
An officer’s eyes are always moving, scanning and reading social interactions with the inmates to decipher whether something is awry.
The politics of gang prisons and threats of abrupt attacks force officers to stay aware at all times.
“Every day you are walking into the unknown,” says Correctional Sgt. Dell Higgerson.
The alertness is so ingrained that it doesn’t switch off when it’s quitting time, says Higgerson.
“You don’t turn off your awareness with that job,” he says, adding that in public settings he often automatically positions himself so that he can observe his surroundings.
Communication with inmates is also crucial, Higgerson says. Familiarity with their mannerisms makes it easier to identify odd behavior, possibly anxiety about a crime that is about to take place, he says.
Officers are paired up in the yard and whenever chaperoning inmates, and other officers armed with rifles and positioned at higher lookout points provide more assurance, Higgerson says.
“The gunners in the booth give us that, knowing we can go out on the yard,” says Higgerson.
All that inter-dependence builds a fraternal sense among correctional officers.
The relationships extend past the prison’s walls into friendships and shared time in adult league sports and volunteering as coaches.
“A lot of people out here are all about the youth in this community,” says Forkner.
They also volunteer as firefighters and reserve deputies who help the Crescent City Police Department run the annual Police Explorer Academy.
‘Anyone can be assaulted’
With inmates on lockdown, Billy Jackson’s protocol changes a bit as well. Jackson is an officer in the medical care facility for “A block.”
Inmates who are in a chain-link corral awaiting medical treatment would normally just walk up as if they were outpatients. During the lockdown, they are escorted in handcuffs attached to a waist chain and shackles. They are also separated by race because of the recent riot, Jackson says.
Usually 100-150 inmates a day are escorted through the facility to see a doctor or nurses, he says. Ailments vary from colds and coughs to sprains, concussions and broken bones caused by sports-related accidents. This is also the place inmates involved in a riot who aren’t seriously injured are checked. For more serious injuries, they are taken to Sutter Coast Hospital.
“We always have eyes on them,” says Jackson.
Inventory checks to ensure nothing has been swiped are performed at the beginning and end of each day, he says.
Jackson also emphasizes communicating with inmates and reciprocating respect as a key to keeping the environment relaxed.
“I have no problems with saying ‘thank you’ or ‘please,’” says Jackson. “They need respect too.”
He has worked in the law library, on “B Yard” and in the kitchens during his 22 years at Pelican Bay – he’s been here since it opened.
“This isn’t a hard job here,” says Jackson, referring to overseeing the medical facility. “They are a lot more courteous in here than out there.”
“‘B yard,’ that was the rough yard,” he says. “When I first started, we didn’t have vests.”
Officers didn’t have pepper spray either, he says. Now they carry pepper spray, handcuffs, whistles, batons and flashlights, and they all wear stab-proof vests.
“When we got our vests, I was assaulted the next day,” says Jackson, who has been assaulted six times, ranging from being stabbed to being spat on.
He and his partner got jumped once, he says, but they were never clear why.
“There are a lot of politics with the inmates with what they have to do,” says Jackson. “Anyone can be assaulted.”
Assaults can include spitting and “gassing” – when an inmate allows his feces or urine to sit in a container and then throws it at a passing officer. And there’s always the chance that the offending inmate has hepatitis, HIV or tuberculosis.
There have been 35 assaults on officers so far this year: eight gassings, 24 batteries and three with weapons.
When Jackson was working in the law library, an inmate stabbed him in the throat with a pen.
“That guy I’d never seen before,” says Jackson.
He suspects the inmate assaulted him to be transferred to a single cell or to another prison.
Still, Jackson mostly enjoys working here.
“Every day can be an exciting day,” says Jackson. He gets the most fulfillment when finding contraband, whether it’s a weapon or a tattoo gun.
“It’s always a good feeling when you get that off the yard,” says Jackson. “That’s Hep-C or HIV you’re passing” with the contraband.
He decided on prison work after serving in the military and discussing job opportunities with his uncle. He has since grown a family in Del Norte County and expects to retire in two years. His wife and son also work at Pelican Bay.
“We don’t talk about this place when we get home because it’ll get us going,” says Jackson.
He doesn’t think working at the prison has changed him too much, but he admits to a little less patience and a little more gruffness.
This particular lockdown limits the privileges for white and Hispanic inmates, who are only allowed to talk by phone with visitors on the other side of thick glass windows – a restriction that normally applies only to Security Housing Unit inmates.
Normal visitation rights will likely be restored next week.
Most visits occur openly across tables and can be preceded by a brief hug and kiss. The prison was forced to switch to tables only about 3 feet high, so visitors can’t pass contraband smuggled to prisoners or engage in any inappropriate contact.
This day the two visitation rooms are empty, but on some weekends more than 100 relatives and friends pay visits.
In each room, a children’s area is sectioned off with plastic slides, stuffed animals and toys near a beach mural used as a background for photos.
There is a courtyard with concrete picnic tables attached to each of the two visitation rooms, where inmates can go outside with their visitors.
This is a sanctuary – violence and politics are left in the yards, Correctional Officer Christina Alanis says.
“It’s sacred ground for them.”
Inmates don’t want grandmothers, mothers, wives and children subjected to their everyday life, she says.
Visitors are screened with background checks and searched before being allowed into visitation rooms, Alanis says.
Then there are the four apartments reserved for inmates whose good behavior qualifies them for rare three-day visits with their families.
Each unit has a long front yard with grass and a concrete picnic table, enclosed by 15-foot-high walls.
There is a living room area with a small love seat and TV, a kitchen with basic appliances including a range-top stove and microwave, two bedrooms and a bathroom. A grocery list is supplied that offers items to be purchased. Prison staff members will buy the selected items at local grocery stores at the inmates’ expense.
There have been nine such visits this year and two more are pending.
“It’s to bring that family relationship back together,” says Alanis. “We want to see normalcy. We definitely promote that in visiting.”
Most of her time is spent accommodating the public, running background checks and monitoring the visits.
She has been at the post for four years and spent two years before that rotating through assignments, including the SHU.
“I was respected as a female,” says Alanis. “I had no problem with the inmates.”
The life-long Del Norter previously worked as a bank teller. She switched to the prison because she felt she could handle it, and she’s grown more confident on the job.
“We have the prison and I’m thankful for that,” says Alanis.