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David recently was paroled and is now living with his family in a small house. He asked us not to say where they live. David says life outside Pelican Bay is not easy, but he's found a job and might enroll in college. David still misses a few friends from the gang, but he won't go back. In fact, he can't.
"I've burned my bridges," says David. "There are no more bridges. When you take that step, you're done. Period. There's no going back. And you'd better hope nobody catches you, because if they do, then you're going to become another statistic."
David says that is something he worries about.
"It's not something I'm going to let control my life. But yeah, of course I'm concerned and of course I'm taking every precaution to keep myself safe."
David's story is unusual. A large majority of gang members refuses to debrief, so they remain in the SHU without access to rehabilitation programs. Critics say this reveals a weakness in the program. They say California should copy states like Connecticut that encourage inmates to drop out and leave the Supermax without becoming informants.
"I believe that there are at least 50 percent of the members of the Mexican Mafia that would gravitate towards dropping out if it was less traumatic," says Rene Enriquez, a former high-level member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang. "The debriefing is stigmatic in itself. You're told, 'You're done, you're through and you're a squealer.' It's painful. It's a painful process. You're violating everything you're raised not to do."
For years, California officials said they had to demand debriefing. Otherwise, prisoners could pretend to leave the gang to infiltrate the dropout program. But the state is changing its stance. As part of a broader overhaul, California is considering new approaches to get inmates out of the SHU.
"If the only tool you carry around is a hammer, all you can do is hit nails," says John Dovey, director of California's adult prisons. "You're not good at doing anything else. So I think our repertoire has to expand so that we can be more adaptable to the offenders up there because not everybody, at the end of the day, wants to be at Pelican Bay."
Dovey wants to move California prisons to a behavior-based approach that would send men to the SHU for specific infractions rather than just for being in a gang. He'd like to reduce the time some inmates spend in isolation and offer more possibilities for self-improvement.
After 14 weeks of training, Pelican Bay recently graduated its 22nd class of gang defectors. The 19 men are in prison for crimes ranging from robbery to murder. Most still have long sentences to serve. They now qualify for transfers out of Pelican Bay to other prisons with special facilities for dropouts. About a third of the 330 men who have passed through the program have been paroled. Most of them have not returned to prison. Officials say the recidivism is less than half the rate of regular prisoners.
Instructor Dante Kun and administrator Sherry Heiser watched the ceremony with a cluster of prison staff.
"Since I've been here," recalls Kun, "I've seen that there is an internal search for meaning. There is a drive and you can see it. They do change. People get cynical and go, 'Oh nobody can change.' They always talk about sociopaths. These guys change. They do."
Heiser adds, "I'm just glad that, hopefully, this program prevents more victims out in the streets because the reality is that most men that go to prison are going to be getting out."
Men who turned their lives around in one of America's toughest prisons say change is possible, even for the so-called "worst of the worst." But for every person who abandons the gang life, new recruits are waiting in the wings.
California releases as many as 60,000 felons each year, but it sends just as many people into prison. Twice each week, prisoners arrive to Pelican Bay in a silver and green bus with darkened windows covered by iron bars. Those who are suspected gang members will be photographed and sent directly to the supermax.
Back to Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax