Go Forth and Sin No More
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Prison gang members rarely get a chance to talk publicly. California usually prohibits broadcast interviews with inmates, and the gangs impose a code of silence. But Pelican Bay does allow occasional visits by the media.
After putting on stab proof vests, we enter a section of the Security Housing Unit known as "F-pod." An inmate agrees to talk to us. His name is Raul Leon, and he's allegedly a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Leon was in one of the first buses to Pelican Bay in 1989. He's 40 and has been in confinement since Ronald Reagan's first term as president.
Leon places his hands through a metal slot where a guard shackles them on the other side. He's brought into a metal holding cage and speaks through holes in the steel door.
An inmate places his hands through a slot in a door to be cuffed - courtesy California Department of Corrections
Leon explains how he stays mentally healthy.
"Work out, do exercise, a little bit of studying. I've been inside confinement for over 20 years. It comes easy for me but for others it's a lot harder."
Leon is about six feet tall. He's wearing a white t-shirt, shorts and sandals. His hair is short and graying at the sides. His skin has a ghostly pallor, a common feature for men here who almost never see the outside world except on television.
He says he's in for murder. "After our SHU terms were over, they hit us up with indeterminate [sentences], said we're ganged up."
Then Leon laughs.
"That's what they say. According to us, we're pacifists. We don't believe in that."
Leon shouts to a shackled inmate being escorted by guards. The other prisoner appears to be in his 50s. Leon says that older inmates like this man should be let out of the supermax, to be with the general population.
"I'm one of the younger ones," says Leon, "but there are guys in here that are in their 50s and 60s and they're basically going to die in here. It'd be good somewhere down the line to sit down and say, 'Hey, these guys have been cool for a long time, let them out.'"
But getting out of the SHU is difficult. It requires either renouncing the gang and cooperating with authorities, or remaining inactive for six years, something inmates say is almost impossible.
Leon says he'll be in prison for the rest of his life. "I figure, if I stay healthy, I'll do 70, 80 years straight."
Leon speaks with pride about how he'll outlast the staff here. Sociologist David Ward has interviewed dozens of men like Leon who endure long periods in the supermax. He says their status in prison comes from being the strongest of the strong.
"I think in some quarters, that these would be the people who would be in combat, they would be your medal of honor winners because they would never give in, they would never give up," says Ward. "Their strength under circumstances in which all the rest of us would have folded long ago, is something that is really extraordinary. I don't say this in a way of admiration as much as in a way of wondering how people can survive this kind of regime forever."
Many inmates survive the Pelican Bay SHU by following the gang's strict daily regime of stationary exercise and intensive study.
"I always saw the SHU was a piece of steel you could sharpen yourself with," says David, a member of a white gang who spent more than five years in the SHU. "You're not going to get that kind of opportunity to look at who you are and what you need to change about yourself to be stronger like you will in the SHU."
David committed himself to the gang after receiving a 25-to-life sentence.
"All I was waiting for was someone who was in trouble so I could stab them," says David. "That's all I looked forward to."
Even after his sentence was reduced, David stabbed his way to the SHU. In spite of the isolation, he apprenticed with an older gang member who opened his world to books on philosophy, history, and politics.
"This is Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche," says David as he pulls one book from a pile of his favorites. "I think that it's hard for normal people to understand, but the way I used to look at prison when I was younger was like it was kind of like college. I had to go there to further myself. If I wanted a career in what I was doing, then I needed to go to prison and make a name for myself in there in order to do so. By all standards, my whole philosophy was wrong, but I thought that by creating my own system of morality, that by living within the codes of the prison, doing what's right in there, being respected in there, I had created my own society. Therefore the laws of society didn't apply anymore."
Continue to part 4