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Go Forth and Sin No More

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The outer perimeter of the Security Housing Unit it is grey and monotonous. There are no plants, nothing green at all, just gravel sloping up to high voltage security fences and thick, concrete walls. But it makes no difference to the inmates inside since they can't see out, not even the sky.

As prison spokesman Steven Perez walks past one section of the SHU, faint voices echo from just inside the walls. They appear to be two inmates in different exercise pens talking through a drain pipe.

"I think people find it hard to believe that these guys will do whatever is necessary in a security housing unit to pass on information," says Perez.

They might be gang members talking through the pipe, or they might be old friends desperately trying to connect. Many inmates describe how life in the SHU twists time and warps human relationships.

"One of the effects of being in the SHU, it really does have a detrimental effect, is you lose your ability to keep track of time," says Richard Brown, a 41-year-old man who has spent ten years in and out of the SHU. He has thick black hair, a mustache, and a deep and scary scar across his neck.

"It literally alters your perception of time," says Brown. "Short periods of time seem to drag on forever. Long periods of time fly by in an instant. And I noticed this one time when I hadn't seen a friend of mine in three years. Not at all. We were able to pick up a conversation as if there hadn't been more than a minute interruption and I got back to my cell and thought it was like no time had passed at all."

Brown says a monochrome hopelessness pervades the SHU, and enhances the gangs' ability to recruit young men.

"You don't immediately send him in here among these guys who've been in gangs 20 and 30 years," says Brown. "You don't put them in the SHU in Pelican Bay and bury them and surround them with people who really are in a hopeless situation."

Brown says guards occasionally use prison gangs to punish inmates who step out of line.

"If someone is giving the guards a hard time, it's not at all unusual for them to then go to a gang member and say, 'Take care of that guy, straighten him out.' It serves the prison's interest in the short term, it puts the knucklehead in line, but it also reinforces the prestige of the gangs."

Pelican Bay officials deny any systematic use of the gangs to enforce control, but they concede that individual guards have colluded with the gangs. In 2002, two Pelican Bay guards were sent to federal prison for conspiring in beatings and stabbings of inmates. The guards reportedly used prison gang members to carry out the assaults.

Prison officials say reducing violence in the general inmate population is the reason they have to lock all prison gang members in the SHU. But in spite of rigorous security, the SHU does not shut down gangs.

"Even though we do our best to segregate them in this kind of environment," says Perez, "they've adapted. They've learned where the weaknesses are in the system. They've adapted and they use whatever is available to them."

In some cases, the men in here are ordering murders, drug deals, all sorts of crimes on the outside, not just in prison.

"Yes," says Steven Perez. "And we never built it with the expectation that it would stop all crime."

Critics say consolidating inmates in huge prisons leads to overcrowding, and in some ways, helps the prison gangs. Former Pelican Bay warden Joseph McGrath says isolating gang members is justified, but he concedes that prison, even a supermax like Pelican Bay, does not always deter hardcore gang leaders.

"It sort of comes down to, I'm in Pelican Bay SHU what are you going to do to me? I'm already doing life, what are you going to do to me? So they do operate, pretty much, with impunity, and I'm not sure what the answer is," says McGrath.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks the answer is a massive overhaul of the California prison system. The get-tough policy of locking criminals away with long sentences costs the state $6 billion every year. So the pendulum may be swinging back, away from punishment, and toward rehabilitation. Like his predecessors, Schwarzenegger wants to reduce recidivism, in part, by bringing more educational programs to prisons. He even wants to bring back the term rehabilitation. One question the governor has not addressed is whether to also overhaul the Security Housing Units to try to loosen the grip of the gangs.


Back to Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax