Editor's note: This is part four of a four-part series about California's highest-security lockup at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Antonio Guillen stares through a visitation window at Pelican Bay State Prison and speaks of spirituality.
His brown eyes are intense, his voice deep. He says he doesn't fear death.
Guillen figures he's kept his chin up through his 48 years - mostly spent behind bars, in San Quentin, Folsom and Pelican Bay, navigating inmate politics and surviving fights.
"I don't consider myself an evil person. I don't feel that in me," says the convicted killer.
What does concern him is the idea of spending the rest of his life in the SHU.
Guillen is stuck in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit after being "validated" as a member of the Nuestra Familia - considered one of the deadliest prison gangs for orchestrating violence and drug trades within the perimeters and on the streets.
It's a label he denies, though investigators say he is near the top of the gang's structure.
Without the changes he and other inmates are seeking, he likely will die in the SHU, a concrete waiting area for the afterlife.
Guillen and three other inmates known as the Short Corridor Collective are crusading to ensure their lives don't end in whispers. A meticulously planned hunger strike in 2011 drew in thousands of inmate protesters and led to a national rallying cry for prisoner and human rights advocates who converged upon the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, demanding reforms to indefinite solitary confinement.
Some state legislators have held hearings and called for changes. Attorneys have taken up the effort to release all inmates who have been in Pelican Bay's SHU for more than a decade through a lawsuit that was originally filed by a member of the Collective in 2009.
CDCR has already amended nearly all SHU policies, giving inmates another way out that doesn't include dropping out of their gang. But inmates like Guillen want more.
They say stronger evidence should be required for "validation" of inmates as gang members deserving of the SHU.
Ironically, they also want CDCR to end the "debriefing" process - currently the most common way for inmates to get out of the SHU.
"Thorn in their side"
Lifer Javier Zubiate is one of the debriefers, a group of inmates hated as much as the prison's gang investigators. The former high-ranking Nuestra Familia member decided to leave the gang behind and divulge information about its conduct, rules and other members - information that could keep Guillen in the SHU even longer.
"I have a lot of respect for Guillen compared to other people I've met through the years," Zubiate says. "He has a good heart."
Guillen and Zubiate were housed in the same pod a few years ago. They shared the same ideas and strategies, Zubiate says, adding it was Guillen who informed him he was tapped to move up in the organization.
But Zubiate stepped away.
"I miss him. He's a good dude," says Guillen. "I think things just caught up."
Zubiate is among 18 inmates in Pelican Bay's SHU who are in the debriefing process, and one of 139 current prisoners statewide who have left the Nuestra Familia.
The process begins with several months in a separate area where debriefers are closely monitored to ensure their sincerity. They share information with the Institutional Gang Investigations unit to help identify strategies and gang affiliates. Information-sharing is also meant to ensure the prisoner will no longer be accepted by the gang.
Debriefers are eventually transferred to a Transitional Housing Unit, where they live with other inmates and are expected to participate in self-help programs and work assignments. After about six months, they are released to a "sensitive needs yard" - or a general population yard if they prefer.
Sensitive needs yards are relatively new for CDCR. They were started in the late '90s for debriefers or other inmates considered to be in danger on a general population yard.
Twenty California prisons have them now, currently housing 32,972 of the state's 119,214 inmates.
Having a place where inmates can virtually disappear makes the debriefing process safer, says inmate James Elrod, a debriefer himself.
Currently, 1,471 inmates who have debriefed are still in California prisons.
Guillen and other inmates living indefinitely in the SHU blame their fates mainly on debriefers.
"I'm a victim of those who have debriefed on me," says Guillen.
He says confidential informants and debriefers embellish stories for overzealous gang investigators hell-bent on keeping political thinkers and influential inmates in the SHU.
One of the core demands of the Collective is to end the debriefing process.
"It's a thorn in their side," says Mike Ruff, Special Agent in Charge for CDCR's Office of Correctional Safety. "They want to get rid of that because it's basically detrimental to their process. It reveals secrets to the method the gang uses. It helps us to combat them."
In addition to the CDCR reforms, validated inmates already get "inactive reviews" every six years to determine if they have refrained from gang activity and are therefore eligible for release from the SHU.
Statewide, 476 current prisoners got out of the SHU through this process.
Guillen's last inactive review was in 2008. In it, investigators used seven pieces of evidence to keep him in the SHU, including a wall calender, written material and information from informants and a debriefer.
Among the communications investigators claim were authored by Guillen were a message that contained current Nuestra Familia leadership information, guidance for a San Jose regiment and codes to be used in mail sent to Pelican Bay.
In July 2011, while Guillen was at Corcoran State Prison for medical treatment after participating in the first hunger strike, correctional staff members searched his cell.
They found a "kite" (a thin strip of paper with tiny writing) that was to be sent to another Corcoran inmate in which Guillen stated he had the authority to make a decision because of his position in the gang. An investigator identified Guillen as the author because of handwriting recognized from monitoring Guillen's mail.
The kite will likely be used to prove that Guillen is still involved in gang activity at his inactive review scheduled next year.
"They operate on hunches"
The Collective is seeking external oversight of the validation program. Lifer Ronnie Dewberry, a validated Black Guerilla Family member and representative for African-Americans in the Collective, says the IGI has a history of locking people in the SHU for "thought crimes" (something that could happen).
"They don't operate on facts," says Dewberry. "They operate on hunches and what they believe. Once you get locked up, you're through."
When an inmate is validated, there are levels of internal appeals in which he can attempt to refute evidence used against him. But in the case of evidence provided by informants or debriefers, their identities are not revealed. If the internal appeal is not successful, the inmate can take it to the courts, but that can be costly.
Dewberry considers himself a victim of a corrupt validation process that has kept him in the SHU for 27 years due to his political leanings and respect among inmates. Investigators have identified him as an enforcer within the Black Guerilla Family.
"They don't have the documentation to express that I'm a leader." says Dewberry. "I've never had charges brought up against me while I've been in prison for the last 32 years, but I'm supposed to be a dangerous person."
In 2002, Dewberry's cell was searched by correctional officers. Some papers were confiscated, including the constitution, rules and ideological beliefs of the Black Guerilla Family. Also taken were papers related to organizations called the New African Revolutionary Nationalist and New Collective Think Tank. Dewberry denies he is in the Black Guerilla Family, but proudly states he's a New African Revolutionary Nationalist.
In several of the writings of the alternate groups, the initials "WGJ" were found, according to court documents. Those initials are known by officers to be an abbreviation of Black Guerilla Family in Swahili. Also found were drawings containing a dragon, a symbol IGI has deemed to have important meaning within the BGF. There was a handwritten Swahili dictionary, code names for California prisons and a document containing a current count of BGF members in the prison system.
Dewberry appealed the confiscation, stating it was a violation of his first amendment rights and the IGI was being racist and discriminatory due to his political, cultural and religious beliefs.
The appeal was denied.
Dewberry blames his original SHU placement on being rebellious and an inmate who stood up against perceived injustices.
"In my early days, when I came to prison, I had a problem with staff trying to tell me what to do when I knew the rules of CDCR. I addressed them as they addressed me ... I was proactive and a prison activist in the '80s. I'm the same person, just a little smarter. They tell me I'm out here talking against the prison. You're damn right I am."
Opponents of the validation process claim the IGI uses scant information to lock a man in the SHU indefinitely.
A 2009 lawsuit filed by inmate Todd Ashker and another codefendant was picked up in 2012 following publicity about the hunger strikes.
Attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, California Prison Focus and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children retooled the lawsuit, calling for improvements in the Bay's SHU conditions, the immediate release of inmates who have been in the SHU for more than 10 years and a "meaningful" review for validated inmates.
All of the plaintiffs have been in the SHU for longer than 10 years. The suit also demands CDCR cover court costs and pay the attorneys.
Filed in California's Northern District of the U.S. District Court, it names Gov. Jerry Brown and several CDCR officials as defendants.
The attorneys added eight more inmates to the original lawsuit and changed the lead plaintiff to George Ruiz, 70, who has been housed in solitary confinement for the past 29 years for being validated as a Mexican Mafia member. He first came to prison in 1977 on a seven-years-to-life term for robbery and kidnapping. He's been eligible for parole since 1993, but will not be considered while he is in the SHU - no inmate will.
"If and when we win, it won't just benefit one person. It will benefit everyone in the class," says Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
CDCR filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last year, but it was denied. Last May, a motion was filed for class action certification, which will be heard in August.
Two views of reform
A pilot program was implemented in October 2012 that revamped the validation process and ways an inmate may be released from the SHU. At the end of next year, CDCR will have to decide whether to formally adopt the program.
Officials say they are seeking to decrease the amount of people they place in the SHU.
If it's continued, it will eventually replace the "inactive reviews" conducted every six years.
Part of the program is to review the validation of all inmates serving indefinite terms in California's SHUs. There were about 3,100 when it began. As of earlier this month, there have been 378 reviews - 161 inmates have been selected to be transferred to general population facilities and 83 inmates have been placed in various phases of a "step-down program."
The reviews are being conducted according to the new validation process, which has increased the amount of evidence prison staff needs to deem an inmate an affiliate of a "security threat group" (CDCR's new term for prison gangs). Previously, the validation process called for three pieces of evidence that were unweighted.
In order for an inmate to be validated now, officials must find three separate pieces of evidence amounting to at least 10 points with at least one having a connection to gang activity.
Types of evidence have different point values. For instance a symbol such as hand signs or distinctive clothing is worth 2 points. Debriefing reports are worth 3 points. Gang-related communications are worth 4 points. Tattoos are worth 6 points. Gang activity that led to a conviction is worth 7 points.
"We think the criteria for getting in is still not behavior-based," says Strickman. "It's not behavior that would be considered objectionable in the street."
An inmate validated as an associate of a "security threat group" will not automatically be sent to the SHU unless there is behavior that called for discipline at the time of the validation.
"The IGI does have a mission to validate," says Marilyn McMahon, an attorney in the lawsuit working on behalf of California Prison Focus. "I don't know what their mission exactly is, but I think they have an incentive to validate as many people as possible because that shows how important their jobs are."
Critics claim that by going after "security threat groups" instead of the more narrowly defined prison gangs, CDCR can now cast a wider net.
"We see the double talk," says Guillen. "They used to focus primarily on the prison gangs. It no longer focuses on any traditional gang. They have a wider net. At best it'll be a revolving door."
Special Agent Ruff estimated that at least 70 percent of crimes in prisons are motivated by gangs.
As of March, 17,230 Californians have been validated as prison gang members or associates, including those who are still in prison. Ruff estimates CDCR has identified about 40 percent of the actual gang representatives.
"There's two sides to the story," says Ruff.
Steps toward the exit
The new step-down program enables an inmate to leave the SHU by renouncing gang activity but keeping his association with the gang. Inmates will have to complete educational and cognitive instructions, avoid disciplinary problems, maintain proper hygiene and follow all staff instructions throughout.
The program includes five "steps," each taking about a year.
The first two years, inmates are monitored to determine their sincerity. If there are any disciplinary issues, an inmate could move back a step. The first two steps occur at Pelican Bay's SHU. When an inmate reaches the third step, he will be transferred to a SHU at Corcoran or California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. In the fourth step, the inmate will have the opportunity to eat in a day room.
Each step affords more privileges such as telephone calls and more money to spend at the canteen. After an inmate successfully completes four steps, he will enter a general population yard where he will be monitored for a year. An inmate who has a serious rules violation will be sent back to a prior step.
"We shouldn't have to go through the step-down program," says Dewberry. "Prove ourselves for what? We've been placed here illegally ... who wants to go through some crap like that when we didn't have to initially?"
Guillen views the step-down program as another way of keeping inmates in the SHU indefinitely.
"There's multiple ways to get around this; if they want to keep you back here they will find it," says Guillen. "We want something that's determinate, a system they cannot manipulate."
Officials see the step-down program as another opportunity for inmates to choose to leave their gang activity behind.
"What's important is that these men are here based upon their decisions in life," says Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis. "They are not coerced to become prison gang leaders. With the new pilot program, it all boils down to their personal choice."
Elrod sees the step-down program as a positive that will allow inmates who are not directly involved in making gang decisions to get back to a general population yard.
"The step-down program is where you really have to earn it. It's why guys are bitching because they know who they are."
San Quentin model
The Collective is seeking a return to something implemented in the 1980s by the CDCR known as the "Max B" Program. Instead of being housed in a SHU, they want a yard like the rest of the general population. Dewberry and Guillen have both argued that this is already a prison, and they are no more dangerous than any other inmate on a high security yard.
But, Lewis says, when San Quentin was practicing integrating the gang inmates "there were deadly force incidents daily."
Special Agent Ruff worked as a correctional officer in San Quentin in the '80s.
"When I started in 1986, San Quentin was like one of the SHUs ... there was a lot of violence when I was there because it wasn't built like our current-day SHU. Violence was prevalent. A friend of mine was stabbed on the tier by a gang member ... Every day there was an incident on the yards. Every day there was a stabbing and those yards were infested with gangs."
The Short Corridor has been deemed a success by officials in cutting off gang communications and getting inmates to debrief through complete suppression, but the current surge of attention from outside could threaten it.
"I think it has its place. It definitely should be limited," says Elrod. "I totally understand the position CDCR is in, being between a rock and a hard place. There are dudes dedicated to a way of life, what do you do with these guys? How do you go about stopping that or containing that? I don't know that answer and I don't believe they have that answer either. Their answer has been full suppression."
The Aryan Brotherhood is on its last leg, Elrod says. Its members are trying to "outlast CDC's policy ... to get past this era of suppression." The BGF is pretty much dead, he says.
To Lewis, "these men are simply trying to get released to build their criminal enterprise. I think this is it," he says. Their "last push."
"If they get out andhellip;"
The Collective is now calling for another hunger strike to protest what they perceive as CDCR's failure to meet their original five demands, despite the changes CDCR continues to implement. They have also presented an additional 40 demands.
"July 8th we're going on a hunger strike," says Dewberry. "Let's see if we can get 24,000, 48,000. Then what is CDC going to say?"
This event may prove to be more than a hunger strike. The Collective is calling for inmates who have prison jobs to stop working.
"If they win their demands, they win their human rights," says attorney McMahon. "I believe gang members should have their human rights respected ... if he ceases to be tortured by the extreme isolation that makes California stand out, if he wins better treatment, that will be a good thing for all of us."
Zubiate, current debriefer and former Nuestra Familia member, doesn't see it that way.
"If they get out, I guarantee you will remember this conversation because there will be blood on these yards."