Isolation: A look inside California's highest security lockup
Written by Anthony Skeens, Wescom News Service   
June 26, 2013 06:38 am

A Pelican Bay SHU inmate inside his cell, where he’ll spend about 23 of his 24 hours each day, in some cases for decades. Bryant Anderson/Wescom News Service
A Pelican Bay SHU inmate inside his cell, where he’ll spend about 23 of his 24 hours each day, in some cases for decades. Bryant Anderson/Wescom News Service
Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series about Pelican Bay State Prison.

Eyes open to the sight of the  bunk above. The glow of moving images on a small flat-screen television illuminates  the cell — wall posters, a stainless steel sink attached to a toilet, and a whole lot of concrete painted white.

Breakfast arrives by 7 a.m. A correctional officer slides it through a slot in the perforated metal door.

The view through the door is of another white concrete wall. Seven other cells face the same way, four on the ground and four above, plus a shower cell on each tier.

It’s quiet. The murderers in the cell to the left and right must still be sleeping. Soon enough all the inmates stir; beginning their daily routines. Conversations about politics or sports or television shows bounce off the concrete.

The cell is orderly. Books, magazines, legal paperwork, drawings, pens lie in piles. A T-shirt, a pair of shorts, socks, washcloth, towel and jump suit are neatly folded. The sink and toilet are cleaned to a polished shine.

Time to get up and start another unmarked day in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, where nearly 23 of every 24 hours are spent in the cell.

In it for the long haul

“You can go crazy real quick if you don’t occupy your mind and your body,” Ronnie Dewberry says about living in the SHU.

Dewberry is serving a life sentence for a murder he was convicted of in 1981 in Alameda County. He has been living in the “hole” since 1987 and came to Pelican Bay in 1990 — a year after it opened. There’s no telling when he will be let out of it, because he’s been labeled a member of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang.

He is one of 1,071 Pelican Bay inmates “validated” for having a connection to a prison gang. This lands prisoners in the SHU indefinitely, until they have remained inactive for six years, renounced gang activity or “debriefed” (divulged information about the gang and its members).

Earlier this month there were 307 validated gang members in the SHU, 764 validated gang associates and 18 debriefers, along with 97 unvalidated inmates serving set terms of up to five years for serious rule violations. About 200 have been in the SHU for more than 10 years and about a third of those have been in for more than 20.

Pelican Bay has two SHU facilities, C and D blocks. C block holds 12 units, D holds 10. Each unit has six pods. Each pod contains eight cells holding one or two men apiece. 

Dewberry’s cell is full of legal literature, black history books, court cases and essays he’s writing.

He has broad shoulders and a thick chest. His head is shaved and his smile exposes a gap in his teeth. His complexion is caramel — not his normal skin tone. He attributes it to a lack of sunlight. His hands are like a heavyweight boxer’s, his forearms like an arm wrestler’s. He’s 54, but looks like he’s in his 40s. He’s been in a SHU for 27 years.

His cellmate is bigger. A younger African-American who  wanted the aid of Dewberry in learning about activism and legal methods. Dewberry wouldn’t have let him transfer into his cell unless he was serious about learning.

If one man is standing in the cell, the other is lying on his bunk. There’s not enough room for them both to move about in the 7.6- by 11.6-foot cell.

Teaming up to protest 

It’s from deep within the concrete bowels of a prison surrounded by forests at the remote northern tip of California that Dewberry and three other men housed near him coordinated the largest hunger strike in California prison history to protest SHU procedures, then followed up with another a few months later. They plan to start a  third July 8.

The two who agreed to talk to the Triplicate deny gang involvement, but prison gang investigators will tell a different story. 

The first hunger strike lasted three weeks in July 2011, spanning 13 prisons and peaking at 6,600  fasting inmates. The second, that September, lasted about two weeks with 4,252 prisoners from eight different prisons at its peak.

The four main organizers are housed in the prison’s “short corridor,” the smallest of the four SHU corridors, with 192 cells.

In 2006, Pelican Bay began moving all of the validated inmates deemed leaders or highly influential gang members into the short corridor in an attempt to stifle gang communications.

The four call themselves the “Short Corridor Collective.”  Each has been validated as a member of one of the four main prison gangs identified by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as running illicit operations inside the prison walls and outside on California’s streets.

There’s the Black Guerilla Family, the Mexican Mafia (southern Hispanics), the Nuestra Famila (northern Hispanics, and the Aryan Brotherhood. 

The hunger strikes’ main objective was to generate awareness among prisoners and civilians regarding what the Collective considers a corrupt validation process.

They also proposed — some would say ordered — a truce among all state prison and jail inmates.

The Monday menu

The past three Mondays, breakfast has been the same — fresh fruit, six ounces of hot cereal, three pancakes, one packet of syrup, a sausage link, two packets of margarine, eight ounces of nonfat milk and a coffee packet.

A cold lunch bag is served with breakfast to be eaten later. The past three Mondays it has consisted of two ounces of peanut butter, a jelly packet, four pieces of wheat bread, a bag of almonds, two packages of graham crackers, fresh fruit and two beverage packages.

Soon the heaving breaths of inmates working out in their cells — pushups, squats, pilates — compete with the voice of a  youngster who’s new to this place. One of his own will gradually nudge him toward finding a hobby that will work his mind more and mouth less.

In Dewberry’s exercise routine,  he rotates calisthenics and throws in work on boxing moves one week and martial arts the next. On Sundays he jogs in an exercise yard inmates call the “dog run,” essentially an enclosed patio attached to each SHU pod. Its concrete walls are almost 19 feet high with a screen covering half to provide shelter from the elements. The yard is 13 by 25.6 feet. On his running days, Dewberry will get in about 250-300 laps —  he estimates 97 laps to a mile.

‘Find your freedom’

Antonio Guillen lives in the pod next to Dewberry’s, separated by a thick concrete wall. Guillen has been incarcerated off and on since his teens. The San Jose native was hooked for possessing PCP for sale and assault with a deadly weapon in 1990 and paroled in 1999. He was out less than a year before catching a murder rap connected to a Nuestra Familia hit in 2000. That one cost him 25 years to life after he accepted a plea deal.

Guillen was first validated in 1992 as an associate of a subordinate gang to the Nuestra Familia, and has spent most of his time in various SHUs around the state. After his latest conviction for murder, he’s been in Pelican Bay’s since 2002, now validated as a member of Nuestra Familia itself.

He joined the Short Corridor Collective after George Franco, who was the original Northern Hispanic representative, was relocated within the SHU.

Guillen has thick shoulders, a build like a fisherman. A graying goatee is the best indicator that he is 48. He’s got two tears tattooed beneath his left eye that he says represent the length of time he’s been down. There’s a spider web tattoo on the left side of his neck. His arms have various tattoos. The top of his right hand reads “ENE” (a common reference to the Nuestra Familia). His right pectoral has a tattoo dedicated to his wife. Covering his stomach in big letters is “NF” with a star  in the center. He laughs when he says it stands for “No Fear.”

“I’ve been in here for so long, at least for me it’s not as bad,” says Guillen. “You learn how to find  your freedom in other ways.”

Put him in any prison and Guillen will adapt, he says, though it’s those first couple of months when freedom is snatched away that are the roughest. Anybody who has been in the SHU environment for several years learns to adapt, he says.

“If people don’t have something to occupy their mind ... it can have a negative effect on them. You have to keep your mind occupied ... It will drive you mad if all you think about is these four walls.”

He has no roommate.

Guillen’s day is structured. A  structure that gang investigators attribute to a regimen dictated by the Nuestra Familia’s “constitution” that lays out how an inmate should spend his day.

His TV timer is set for 4 a.m., Collecting his thoughts, he’ll rise around 4:45 a.m. and wash up. At 5:30 a.m. his workout begins. Two days out of the week he will do Burpees, other days are dedicated to core and leg routines. He will tie up his mattress, put it on his shoulders and do squats. He works on his shoulders and arms. Guillen averages thousands of pushups a week.

“One of my neighbors practices pilates. It’s good for the older guys. Once I hit my 60s maybe I’ll get into that,” says Guillen, laughing.

Around 7 a.m. Guillen fills his sink with water and takes a “bird bath.” He finishes cleaning up his “house” before breakfast. Studying law will take up the rest of his morning. Guillen used to draw, but in 2007 he got into law. 

He keeps a thesaurus and dictionary permanently. Other books he might exchange when finished.

In 2007,  he filed his first writ to see how the process unfolded. He tried getting a local judge to change the prison’s mail policy, in which magazines with pages containing pornography, fighting techniques or other subjects violating prison policy are not delivered. He proposed tearing out the offending pages instead.

He failed.

Interlude in the ‘yard’

It’s midafternoon. Lunch is digested. The pod fills with chatter. Time for “yard.” The gunner  with an M-14 rifle uses a button to open and shut all the doors. One inmate at a time — or two cellmates — spend up to 90 minutes in the yard. Some days not all inmates get to go, and other times the privileges are revoked.

The gunner is in a control booth at the center of the unit. Windows and barred openings allow him to see into any of the six pods. The robotic tone of the door opening means an inmate is headed through the tier. He greets his caged neighbors as he walks to the yard. If he gets along with the inmate in the next yard over, they may chat or pass along information by talking through a metal door or yelling over the wall.

Guillen takes along reading material or walks around sorting through problems, whether they  be family- or law-related. It’s his “quiet time ... solitude within solitude.” There’s usually people talking on the tier throughout the day.

“It’s such a small enclosure you can’t help but listen.” 

Afterward, Guillen reads (he enjoys science fiction) or writes letters. 

“That’s my free time.”

At 4:30 p.m., he watches national and local news. By 6 p.m. he’s back to studying law until about 8:30 p.m. Then he watches TV until about 10 p.m.

Their own etiquette

Each pod is different, Guillen explains. Social etiquette varies.

“Most of the people back here already know a lot of it has to do with general respect. Each group lets their people know.”

Common courtesies are expected: Greet neighbors while walking by their cells. Stay out of private conversations. Books and magazines get passed around through a small opening in the bottom of the cell doors. Someone without canteen money may get a snack thrown his way. When a new inmate enters his pod, Guillen will give him a welcome package.

“I’m not going to give him everything in my house, but I’ll give him enough to let him know this is how we do things here. That little gesture changes something in you.”

Personalities and preferences are learned. Sometimes they clash. 

Guillen tries “not to ruffle feathers or clown around too much.”

“I know better than to start something because I know where it can lead,” says Guillen. “Youngsters, they don’t know that.”

The unexpected happens occasionally. The gunner in the booth accidentally opens two cell doors at the same time.  The pod grows silent. Step by step, one inmate heads to the exercise yard. The other stands at the door of his cell: ready, waiting. The heart rattles in his ribcage, adrenaline gushes. Body hairs raise. Pupils dilate. Steel-faced at his cell door, he postures. The inmate walks by, shakes the other’s hand, and heads to the yard. And if they don’t shake hands ...

“It can be a tense moment,” says Guillen. “You don’t know if today is the day.”

He says it has happened at least five times since he’s been in the SHU.

Yard and shower trips are the only times SHU prisoners aren’t escorted by correctional officers. Heading out of the SHU for medical services, visits or parole hearings, they’re strip-searched every time. Inmates then are escorted  through Pelican Bay’s concrete labyrinth of halls. 

“Anywhere else in the system they don’t have to strip-search — it’s a mental game they play back here” says Dewberry. “Often times you don’t speak about it because it’s just like drinking water. It’s a form of dehumanization, a mechanism to destroy a person’s mind.”

Another adaptation.

Clutching sanity

The SHU is meant to break a man, Dewberry says, an enduring fight he says he won’t back down from.

Another inmate, James Elrod, says the SHU is known among inmates as “the meatgrinder.” 

Elrod lives in a debriefing pod of the SHU with a “cellie.” He was placed in the SHU in 1995 for stabbing another inmate and validated as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood in 2001. The wiry white man with a bald head and brown goatee was sent to prison in 1992 after receiving a 29 year to life sentence for first-degree murder and second-degree robbery when he was 17 in Kern County.

“When you come here you have to learn how to do this time — it’s different than any place else,” says Elrod. “You’ve got to learn how to be by yourself and unfortunately, some people just can’t do that.”

He shares Guillen and Dewberry’s assessment that an inmate has to busy his mind in order to survive the SHU. Still, Elrod says, it’s not as bad as many people think.

“It’s not a concrete box with nothing, and that’s the public’s image,” says Elrod. “It’s what you make of it. Guys who have adjusted can make it 10, 15, 20 years.”

Adaptation doesn’t come without side-effects. SHU inmates can become socially stunted, Elrod says. He’s developed an obsessive compulsive disorder  — constantly washing his hands.

Time in the SHU has the ability to erode a man’s essence, Elrod says. He’s a touch withdrawn, socially awkward.

He wonders if the changes are reversible.

“I think there should be a cap on (SHU terms),” says Elrod.

Moonlight seeps into the pod. The neighbors are gearing down. Silence sweeps the cells. Fluorescent lights dim. It’s as quiet as it’s going to get.

Lie down on the thin, lumpy pad on the concrete slab that is the bottom bunk. The bunk above is the last sight before eyes close.

Drift into dreams, the only escape from the SHU.