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Prison staff say inmates in the SHU are disciplined and surprisingly well read. During their countless hours locked down, the men were required by the gangs to study philosophy, military strategy, and even how-to books for corporate managers.
An inmate studies in the prison library - courtesy California Department of Corrections
"There is a lot of things in gangs that is not bad," says Sherry Heiser, a Pelican Bay administrator who helped start the program for gang dropouts. "Respect, trust, discipline, education. Unfortunately, their very mission was wrong."
Men who have refused to debrief see it differently. They say the prison uses the SHU to try to force men to become informants. Raoul Leon, an alleged member of a Latino prison gang, has been in the SHU for 15 years. Leon says debriefers are cowards.
"They sit back and say, 'Hey you know what? We can't deal with this time no more. We gotta get out of here and be with our families and friends,'" says Leon. "And they'll sell out their own mothers just to get the hell out of here. They're traitors. To us it's always going to be that way."
Dropouts are often at the top of gang hit lists. That danger is one reason some prisoner rights groups oppose the debriefing program. Charles Carbone, an attorney with California Prison Focus, a prisoner rights group, says debriefing is too high a price for prisoners to pay to get out of the supermax.
"The debriefing process needlessly puts inmates in harm's way because it says the only real way out of the gang is to snitch on your friends, to snitch on people ... who have proven to be very violent and very capable of violent behavior," says Carbone. "So it's a sure way for the prisoner to make a lot of enemies."
Carbone says California should copy states like Connecticut that allow gang members to leave the supermax without becoming informants. He says that would address another weakness in the program - a large majority of gang members refuse to debrief and remain in the SHU without access to rehabilitation programs. But prison staff say they have to require inmates to debrief. Otherwise, some men might pretend to leave the gang in order to infiltrate the program.
"We asked you what have you done, what do you know of that's of a criminal nature? That's telling the truth," says Warden Rich Kirkland. "That's what we expect of our citizens, that's what we expect of our peace officers. And when an inmate chooses to do that, maybe in an effort to completely sever their ties with a criminal organization that's responsible for rapes, murders, extortion, I don't think anything's wrong with that and it's what we expect and want out of the inmates."
Former gang members like David support the program, but he worries about life on the outside. He says California is failing high-profile defectors by not giving them the resources and protection they need after they are paroled.
"You're providing information that puts your life in danger," says David, "and I just wish there was a program that would assist people whose information is deemed valuable enough to get them killed."
By all accounts, David's information was invaluable.
"This is a guy who was getting out and they wanted him to commit crimes on the outside which he considered terrorist acts on innocent people and he wasn't willing to go there," says Connie Maguire, a correctional counselor who worked with David. "A lot of people will do it because they're in trouble and that's their only way out. But he didn't do it for that reason. He did it because he felt they were forcing him to be a terrorist. He saved a lot of officers' lives and a lot of civilians by the information he shared."
David declined to go into details about his case because of ongoing investigations.
But he says he considered what they were thinking about doing as acts of terrorism.
"I always looked at the things we did in prison, you get what you got coming," David explains. "If you did something wrong and you know you're wrong then you got to pay for it. But involving people that aren't involved in the game and starting to target them was outside the boundaries I had for myself."
Continue to part 4