Standing in the warden's office at Pelican Bay, the notorious maximum security prison in Crescent City, California, I don my dark green stab-proof vest and accompany public information officer Lieutenant Christopher Acosta and Associate Warden Rawland Swift (who has since retired) to the Security Housing Unit, or SHU. Acosta is curt and bulldoggish, with a smooth, bald head. Swift is affable and mustachioed, wearing a casual short-sleeved shirt and jeans. "It's been a long week," Swift admits with good humor. He and Acosta are close to retirement and have endured multiple hunger strikes, intense media scrutiny, and the numerous day-to-day troubles you would expect from a place that houses what the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation calls "the worst of the worst"—the most feared prison-gang leaders in a state corrections system rife with violence.
From overhead, the Pelican Bay SHU looks like a star with a series of arms—each one a corridor opening into six pods that contain eight individual cells apiece. Swift says the SHU is akin to a "prison inside a prison."
Pointing into an empty cell, Swift smiles at me. "See?" he says brightly. "This is not a hole in the ground."
The pods seem to be lit by an unearthly glow, the result of the cloudy day's meager light being filtered through a layer of glass and mesh onto the concrete surfaces. I had expected darkness. The cells—four on the ground floor and four above—all have perforated doors that face a white wall and a small hallway, which leads out to the yard, a completely enclosed, paved space with a bench and pull-up bar (a concession to a previous hunger strike). Each windowless cell contains a built-in bunk and a metal sink-and-toilet combo. A guard in a panopticon-style tower watches via video and operates all the gates automatically, so no human beings ever need to get close enough to touch. The beauty of the pod is that it stays closed, so it's like watching ants in an ant farm at a remove. Swift was right—it didn't seem that bad at first.
We stood inside the cell, and everyone around us hushed. "They are listening to every word we say," Swift says.
In September of last year, the plaintiffs in Ashker v. Brown and the CDCR agreed to a settlement that should effectively end indeterminate solitary confinement in California. According to the Ashker complaint (named for the prisoner who filed it), about half of the inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay have spent upwards of 10 straight years in those pods, living in 80-square-foot cells for at least 22.5 hours per day. As of 2011, 78 inmates had been there for over 20 years. (The CDCR steadfastly denies the use of solitary confinement, claiming that sometimes inmates are double-bunked in one cell. The conditions of the Pelican Bay SHU match a 2013 definition by the Department of Justice—"the terms 'isolation' or 'solitary confinement' mean the state of being confined to one's cell for approximately 22 hours per day or more, alone or with other prisoners.")
This Ashker settlement comes on the heels of a steadily increasing drumbeat against indeterminate solitary confinement, as everyone from the DOJ to the United Nations has come out in opposition to the penal practice. In the Supreme Court's recent decision in Davis v. Ayala, a California death penalty case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that "research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price."
Releasing a group of inmates who have been touted for decades as "the worst of the worst" back into the prison mainstream can't happen all at once. In an effort to unravel longstanding policies of extreme confinement, the CDCR has instituted the Step Down Program, which relies on a behavior-based model to allow inmates to graduate through five steps, each of which grants greater privileges, including phone calls and visitation. The program culminates in a release from SHU housing entirely. The idea is to slowly phase out long-term SHU housing, and release solitary inmates who follow all the rules back into the general prison population.
But how will these men adjust to a bustling prison yard when they haven't even touched another human in decades?
A pale man—I've been told Pelican Bay SHU inmates are marked by their unearthly paleness—with long stringy hair ambles away from the enclosed dog run in the Pelican Bay SHU, stopping to drop off an apple and a book outside of a cell; even in solitude, humans are apt to connect, to share.
It wouldn't be entirely true to say SHU inmates don't talk with one another, either. They can call to each other from cell to cell in voices that reverberate off the concrete walls. The Ashker complaint alleges that these small acts of communication—talking and passing reading materials—are punishable offenses, although no one in authority seems at all compelled to do anything about them when I'm there. (The CDCR disagrees with this characterization.)
We go inside one of the inmate's cells while he's showering. The interior is meticulously clean, with a bucket and an unmarked spray bottle of yellowish fluid in one corner of the room. The cell is bare and white, and has no window—just a low-lying concrete bunk, a metal sink, and a toilet. This inmate has one of the SHU-approved television sets. Its screen is about the size of my small laptop's; its casing is transparent and its wiring exposed, to make hiding contraband inside impossible.
After we leave the cell, Swift proudly points out a phone booth craftily fashioned out of a small holding cell. Inmates in the SHU could previously receive and make no phone calls, ever. As a result, the SHU was not equipped for phones. But the Step Down Program allows one 15-minute phone call upon completion of Steps 1 and 2, so inmates need some private space.
We also pass the "short corridor" where Todd Ashker and the other leaders of the 2013 strike—all of them among Pelican Bay's highest-ranking gang members—live, so named because it has fewer cells than the others. "There's nothing different about it," Acosta says. Yet we don't walk down the short corridor.
The effects of solitary confinement have been proven to be psychologically and physiologically damaging. In connection with the Ashker case, Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert in solitary confinement, filed a report in March of 2015 describing what he called SHU Post-Release Syndrome, a series of symptoms including "a sense of being overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, massive anxiety when in crowded places, hyperawareness of every noise or change in lighting, a tendency to seek isolation in contained spaces, and difficulty expressing oneself in close relationships" that only emerge after getting out of the SHU. Pelican Bay inmates reported the same feelings— almost a complete alteration of their personality—whether they were paroled or sent to the Step Down Program.
"People who have been consigned to solitary for many years feel inclined to isolate themselves after they are released," Kupers writes to me in an email, "for example in their bedroom if they returned to the community, or in their cell if they went from SHU to general population in prison." While Kupers says those with SHU Post-Release Syndrome can be successfully treated, they might continue to feel symptoms like social anxiety and depression. "The scars will remain," he says.
The Step Down process begins when the inmate appears before the Departmental Review Board, a panel of CDCR administrators that reviews the inmate's files and assesses placement in one of five steps. The warden of Pelican Bay, Clark E. Ducart, explains that this process is time-consuming because the board reviews an inmate's entire file, which might be many binders long. "Some of them have volumes of documents," he says, in a tone that implies those documents contained ugly reports of prisoner behavior.
The CDCR, for its part, has been trying to ensure that all eligible inmates appear before the board swiftly. Prior to the October settlement agreement, according to CDCR Deputy Press Secretary Terry Thornton, 2,174 inmates who were serving indeterminate terms have been reviewed; 1,671 of them have been released directly to general population housing, and 325 have been placed in the Step Down Program. (The current Pelican Bay SHU population is 772, and there are fewer than 2,300 inmates in SHUs throughout the CDCR.) This means that 75 percent of the men once deemed to be too dangerous for the general prison population are now living a comparatively "free" life.
Back in Swift's office, Acosta and I are joined by two officers from the gang unit and an inmate counselor, Kathy Nealy. One of Nealy's tasks is establishing the inmate’s agreement to comply with the program's rules. Some inmates are suspicious of the process; there's a long-standing stigma in prison-gang culture against "debriefing," in which an inmate renounces gang membership and snitches on his fellow gang members. Debriefing also means putting one's life at risk of retaliation by other gang members—hence the saying, "parole, snitch, or die."*
But, Nealy explains, unlike past policy, participating in Step Down does not entail debriefing. While some inmates voluntarily debrief as they progress through the program, according to Nealy, the new regulations do not require inmates to name names or formally disavow their gangs.
Nealy distributes workbooks designed to ensure that participants are complying with the required programming. According to Laura Magnani, an expert on solitary confinement, it's unclear that these workbooks were ever designed for use by inmates coming out of long-term solitary. "Programming that was supposed to happen isn't happening," Magnani says, arguing that the CDCR hasn't yet delivered on its promise to offer more counseling for inmates.
To be sure, the workbooks do seem silly considering who they're being distributed to—men who've been locked up alone for years on end. The pages are filled with little drawings of faceless men and bubbles for writing down various thoughts. One book, titled Family Ties, asks inmates to "Explain how unhealthy family relationships may have contributed to your irresponsible, criminal behavior," and to "Describe a healthy family relationship."
Do Step Down administrators really think these workbooks might do the trick? Could people change from filling out worksheets? Nealy simply shrugs. "I tell them it's like getting through school," she says.
Swift chuckles as he talks about some inmates refusing to participate in the Step Down process out of preference for their pods. "And then they complain about their human rights," he adds, more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Most inmate advocates seem to think positively about the Step Down Program—Magnani points out, simply enough, that people are finally getting out of the SHU—and Charles Carbone, a San Francisco criminal attorney instrumental in the Ashker lawsuit, admits that "it is working, albeit in a clunky manner."
Legal scholar Keramet Reiter is more cautious. "I'm very cynical of long-term sustainability without transparency," Reiter says, emphasizing the need for accurate reporting and data to continue even though the lawsuit is ending.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union for all prison guards in California, wrote a press release in opposition to the lawsuit, citing concerns about the safety of officers. "CCPOA believes this settlement will further exacerbate gang activity and prison violence that threatens the security of our institutions," it reads, "and exponentially increase risks to the safety of both correctional peace officers and inmates."
Marie Levin, the sister of Ashker plaintiff Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Ronnie Dewberry), also expresses some skepticism about the Step Down process. "They're trying to make the public and the legislators think that there's an awesome program going on, but that's what they feed you," she says. The reality, she says, is that, although the CDCR claims the Step Down Program has been working effectively since 2012, there are no useful programs in place.
The new Step Down policies do seem like a reversal of previous CDCR rhetoric. The new program comes after a series of inmate-initiated hunger strikes over the last few years, as well as two lawsuits over the SHU filed since Pelican Bay opened. Yet the CDCR has historically maintained that these strikes undermine public safety. During the last hunger strike, for example, Jeffrey Beard, then secretary of the CDCR, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he characterized the strike as dangerous gang activity: "Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California." Even former prisoner Dale Bretches, who spent over 35 years in the Pelican Bay SHU, says it "is mind-boggling who they have been approving for Step 5/mainline.... No one even considered they'd ever let me out of the hole."
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask the officers in the room how they feel about releasing some of the men who were deemed too dangerous for human contact. They shrug, seemingly non-committal, though one had earlier told me that there will certainly be more violence in the yards. "If they want out so bad," Swift says, "then let them out."
Submit your response to this story to email@example.com. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium.
For more from Pacific Standard, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletter and subscribe to our print magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store and on Zinio and other platforms.
*Update — March 24, 2016: We incorrectly stated that Kathy Nealy, an inmate counselor at Pelican Bay State Prison, asks inmates to sign a form agreeing to comply with rules for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Step Down Program. Nealy herself signs the form—called a Notice of Expectations—after the inmates agree to participate and have gone through a program orientation. We regret the error.