Ray Suarez: This is Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax, an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Ray Suarez.
Twenty years ago, a new kind of prison was taking America by storm. The supermax prison was designed to incapacitate dangerous criminals by locking them down in stark isolation, sometimes for years on end. Have the supermaxes lived up to their promise of stopping violent criminals?
Over the next hour, we'll go inside one of America's biggest supermaxes. American RadioWorks reporter Michael Montgomery spent six months following staff and inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in California.
Pelican Bay is not just a supermax. It's also headquarters to some of America's biggest and most violent prison gangs. Experts say some gang leaders on the inside control crime far outside prison walls. And on the streets is where our story begins.
[Bar sounds and music]
Michael Montgomery: Cap's Saloon is a bar and card room in downtown Salinas, California. On a warm evening in May, 2001, Armando Frias Jr. was here playing pool. Frias was 19 and an aspiring member of a gang that controlled drug sales in the area. At Cap's he spotted a man who was in trouble with the gang for selling drugs without sharing his profits. Frias called his street bosses on his cell phone. They met him in the parking lot. They gave him a gun, and he went back inside.
Armando Frias Jr.: When I walked in there, I went to the jukebox, you know what I'm saying, came up behind him, and shot him. I thought I hit him in the back of the head and I found out I hit him in the back of the neck.
Montgomery: The victim died at the scene. Armando Frias Jr. was arrested and imprisoned. But the leaders of the group behind the killing were already in prison. Frias was acting on behalf of a powerful Latino prison gang. The group is called "Our Family." In Spanish: Nuestra Familia, or NF.
Frias Jr.: All over Northern California you've got these regiments that are being ran by the NF. And all these regular street gang members out there selling drugs, they're paying a certain percentage to the NF, which they call paying rent or taxes. You know what I mean? That's the way the NF runs. That's the way they run the streets.
Montgomery: The NF isn't a street gang that's gone to prison. It's a prison gang that's hit the streets. The NF and other prison gangs have flourished in a place designed to shut them down.
[Crash of steel prison door and sound of keys]
Montgomery: At Pelican Bay State Prison, behind a maze of concrete walls, high voltage security fences and steel doors, lies a prison within a prison. It's known as a supermax. The state of California calls this place the Security Housing Unit or SHU.
[Unidentified voice in prison says, "Another groovy day."]
Montgomery: Most of the inmates in the SHU are gang members. Their cells are windowless and nearly bare. The men are locked here 22 and a half hours a day, usually alone. Inmates are held in virtual isolation to try to keep them from working together. But even the SHU can't stop some leaders from running their gangs. Joseph McGrath was warden at Pelican Bay until 2004.
Joseph McGrath: The head leaders of the Nuestra Familia, the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood, you name the prison gang, they are in prison. And they control the activities of the gang both within the prison system and in our communities in California and now unfortunately have spread even to other states.
Montgomery: Prison gangs that started in California are now in more than 20 states. Recent surveys report more than 300,000 gang members in America's jails and prisons. For convicts like Epitacio Cortina, the prison gang offered a strange kind of career: as teacher, fighter, arch criminal.
Epitacio Cortina: I lived, I breathed, I ate, I slept, I thought the gang.
Montgomery: Cortina is a heavy-set 31 year old Latino serving 15 years to life for murder. His body is covered with NF tattoos: a black eagle with arched wings on his wrist, the number 14 etched just above his left eye. Cortina spent eight years in the Pelican Bay SHU as a loyal captain in the Nuestra Familia.
Cortina: When I became a member of the NF I was then put in charge of a street regiment out there on the streets, meaning I was to help oversee that regiment making sure that the members that we had out there was generating revenue for the organization in prison.
Montgomery: Cortina says he trained other inmates prior to their parole. Once out of prison, these men managed the gang's criminal network, including street gangs.
Cortina: We'd educate them on vocabulary, how to speak properly, how to dress properly, blend in with society so that way you can do your criminal activity on the under. Then we also educated them on how to do bank robberies, how to do armored car robberies, how to do home invasions.
Montgomery: Cortina says the parolees faced brutal retaliation if they didn't follow the gang's orders. Cortina himself is now in danger because he recently left the gang.
Montgomery: Do you have any sense of how much money your group generated?
Cortina: A lot of money.
Montgomery: Tens of thousands of dollars.
Cortina: Yeah, a lot of money
Montgomery: And a lot of crime.
Cortina: Yes, a lot of crime. That's all they live for.
Montgomery: NF generals at Pelican Bay Prison controlled dozens of street regiments like Cortina's. 25 percent of profits, mainly from drug dealing, was deposited in NF bank accounts. To issue orders from prison and control gang members within the prison, the gang uses ingenious methods.
Montgomery: What do we have in front of us?
Guard: We've got several examples of what we call micro-writing.
Montgomery: The NF passes messages in legal mail and in scraps of paper filled with tiny script: micro-writing. Officer David Barneburg shows off a pile of recently intercepted messages.
Officer David Barneburg: This is what we refer to as a BNL, a bad news list. This one I've got here is actually 14 pages long and contains about 1500 names of northern Hispanics, their CDC number, any marks or tattoos they have that can identify them by. Whenever somebody arrives to a yard, this list will be referenced. If their name is on the list, they'll be targeted for assault. And this is only a partial list.
Montgomery: And where was that list being kept?
Barneburg: That was actually recovered from a northern Hispanic on our B facility. It was recovered by our B facility yard staff and was secreted in his rectum.
Montgomery: Gang members don't just hide messages in body cavities. They also write them in exotic languages. This method is so pervasive, Pelican Bay actually banned anything written in Swahili, Celtic Runic and Nahuatl. That's the language of the Aztecs used by the Nuestra Familia.
Lt. Robert Marquez: Every time we tighten the screws, so to speak, they're going to find a way around it.
Montgomery: Lt. Robert Marquez is Pelican Bay's chief gang investigator. He says even though guards read inmates' mail and monitor their phone calls, gang leaders still get their orders out onto the streets.
Marquez: If they know a certain gang member's paroling, they'll give him all kinds of messages, phone numbers, contacts, hit lists. So the guy leaves here with a cache of information: people who are supposed to be murdered, people that are supposed to be extorted.
Montgomery: Out of prison flows crime.
[Rap music. Unidentified person says, "This is a pretty decent neighborhood."]
Montgomery: No place has been hit harder than Salinas, the farming town in central California that once inspired John Steinbeck. In an East Salinas neighborhood with rows of tidy houses, three men in their late teens stand in an open garage. They are members of a street gang with close links to Nuestra Familia. One man, who calls himself Juan, is sealing a drug deal on his cell phone.
Juan: What's up? Talk to me. What's up? Wait one second.
Montgomery: The men wear short hair, red baseball caps and football jerseys. With pride, they show off torsos etched with gang tattoos and scars from bullet wounds.
Juan: I believe in being a homeboy. I believe, I just believe I will die for my cause. For my struggle.
Montgomery: Juan says the struggle is about defending Northern California Latinos, called Norteños, from the enemy: Latinos with roots in Southern California, known as Surreños. But it's really a struggle for drug turf that began behind bars with two long-feuding prison gangs: the NF, which spawned the Norteños, and the Mexican Mafia, an even bigger prison gang that rallies the Surreños.
This proxy war between Northern and Southern California Latinos has claimed hundreds of lives. It burns in places like Salinas where poverty and unemployment are severe.
Now some people are getting fed up with the violence. Demonstrators in Salinas recently gathered to mourn the city's 250th gang related killing since the early 1990s. They beat drums, chanted, and watched Aztec style dancing
[Drums and chanting]
Not all the victims are gang members. Elsa Sandoval came here to remember her 27-year-old son Joey. He was killed two years ago in what appeared to be a random shooting. His murder, like many in Salinas, remains unsolved.
Elsa Sandoval: We won't stop until we find these son-of-a-bitches that killed our sons. We'll find them.
Montgomery: NF old timers say this kind of street violence is not what the group was founded for. Like many prison gangs, the NF started as a prisoner defense group in the late 1960s. The NF established a constitution and an educational curriculum. But the NF moved into the drug trade and grew more violent.
[Man shouting military orders with loud chorus of male voices following his lead]
The NF expanded in youth jails and on the streets. Leaders imposed military-style discipline and a lifetime commitment often sealed in the killing of a rival. This surveillance tape shows an NF commander on a prison yard leading new recruits through a series of exercises called The Machine.
By the late 1990s, law enforcement started to see the true scale of the NF. George Collord, a police detective in Santa Rosa, was investigating unsolved gang murders when an informant linked the crimes to Pelican Bay. His investigation later triggered a major FBI task force. Collord was stunned to discover a sophisticated gang network throughout Northern California, all controlled by NF leaders in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit.
George Collord: Generally people in this country think that when people go to prison, that they're losers. These guys were not losers.
[Gang rap music fades in]
Montgomery: Collord started calling the NF leaders "puppet masters." He discovered the gang even produced low-budget films and rap CDs with chilling lyrics.
[Gang rap CD lyrics: "I'll call you target practice. Pinta bound."]
Montgomery: Pinta bound means headed for prison. This song's message is that prison is inevitable - even desirable.
Collord says the CD flew off the shelves and triggered more violence.
Collord: There's always been gangster rap around, but this was a little more direct in its approach. It had a selected audience, which were the young northern Hispanics that the NF really wanted to recruit, and tell them that they had - you're not alone, you've got a huge army, you've got a huge movement that is with you.
Montgomery: That message inspired young street gang members like Willie Stokes. That's why he arrived to Pelican Bay filled with the anticipation of a college freshman.
Willie Stokes: When I first went to Pelican Bay, it's like you're so fascinated by, "Oh here's all these guys you've always heard about, all these guys that run everything." You're just like fascinated by that all. And you hear the way they talk, Aztec language, just all this knowledge and philosophy from reading all this stuff. You just, you know, "Oh I want to be like that, I want to be smart and educated like he sounds."
Collord: I've sat in rooms with people, young kids, who say they can't wait to go to prison.
Montgomery: George Collord.
Collord: Because their uncles have gone, their cousins have gone, the people they respect most in this world have gone to prison. You scratch your head, and you go, "Wait a second, you want to give up all your freedom out here?" I've even said, "You want to give up girls for a while? Come on, you're a teenager!" Yes. The answer is, "Yes."
Montgomery: But before a young gang member gets to prison, he's expected to put in work on the streets. That might mean assaulting a rival, or murder. And that brings the story back to Armando Frias Jr..
[Sound of pool rack being broken and music]
On that warm May evening at Cap's Saloon, Frias was fresh out of juvenile lockup where he'd enlisted with a group run by the NF. Frias says some members had doubts about his loyalty because of relatives who'd dropped out of the gang.
Frias: So I used to go out of my way to show that there was no reason for them to have doubts about me. And I don't like nobody to question me. And the way I did that was by showing them - was through my actions.
Montgomery: At Cap's Saloon, a video surveillance camera recorded Frias proving his loyalty by shooting a man named Raymond Sanchez. Frias is now serving 25 years to life for the murder.
Frias was one of dozens of people prosecuted as part of the FBI-led crackdown on the Nuestra Familia. They include five NF leaders indicted while serving life terms at Pelican Bay Prison. Detective George Collord says the operation was a success and that the NF's leadership is disrupted, for now.
Collord: But the years and years of training and the philosophies that have gone down to the thousands that are below them. Leaders will emerge. As long as you've got the recruitment pool out there of people that want to work for you and want to be part of your organization, you're going to survive.
Montgomery: There is an epilogue to this story. The five Nuestra Familia leaders prosecuted in federal court are apparently still in business. Intercepted communications revealed the NF leaders were issuing orders even as they awaited probable life sentences from a federal judge. The men will serve their time far away from California. But now investigators believe the NF is plotting to expand to federal prison.
Ray Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax from American RadioWorks.
Our program continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
Ray Suarez: This is Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
The idea behind the supermax is not new. Nearly 200 years ago, America's first penitentiary in Philadelphia locked men in solitary confinement, giving them only a Bible. Since then, America has vacillated: at times we've used prisons to punish criminals, and at other times we've used prisons to reform them. Michael Montgomery examines the failure of a model rehabilitation program, and the harsh life in one of America's biggest supermaxes.
[Old news reel: "Behind these prison walls all men are privileged to develop their gifts."]
Michael Montgomery: Fifty years ago, California was leading America in a new approach to prisons.
[News reel: "All kinds of occupations and hobbies are allowed deserving inmates."]
Under Governor Earl Warren, California prisons abandoned a rigid focus on punishment.
[News reel: "Human skills are encouraged in self-expression bringing even to this lifer, the spur of artistic aspirations, not to coddle but to conserve human values."]
As this newsreel from the 1950s shows, new techniques, based on medicine, aimed to cure criminal behavior through therapy, work, education, and even hobbies.
[News reel: "Remember the old saying, the devil finds mischief for idle hands."]
To give treatment a chance to work, California gave most convicts "indeterminate sentences." That meant the inmate's time in prison was partly determined by his progress in rehabilitation.
John Irwin is a retired criminologist who served five years in a California prison in the 1950s.
John Irwin: The philosophy of the rehabilitative ideal is that you get out when you're cured. For instance a common crime like burglary or forgery. Burglary was one to 15 and forgery was one to 14. And then they put a big investment in vocational training and education, and then they introduced extensive group counseling. And they made, for them, a major effort at practicing rehabilitation.
Montgomery: But by the 1960s, there was a growing problem. Many convicts supposedly cured and released were returning to prison in droves after committing new crimes.
High recidivism raised doubts about whether prison could ever cure criminals. David Ward is a sociologist who has been studying prisons since the 1950s.
David Ward: The medical model of corrections, which is diagnosed as treatment and then we release the patient to go forth and sin no more, was based on a number of assumptions that turned out not to be accurate. One, we could diagnose accurately. Two, we had the programs and that they would be successful in changing people's behavior. And the great issue: how do you know when somebody is cured?
Montgomery: Then, a bombshell was hurled from academia. A Berkeley sociologist named Robert Martinson was commissioned to assess prisoner rehabilitation programs around the country. Martinson's findings were explosive. He explained them in a 1973 interview.
Robert Martinson: I looked at all the methods that we could find, vocational, educational, and a variety of other methods. These methods simply have no fundamental affect on the recidivism rate of people who go through those prisons.
Montgomery: Martinson also wrote a long magazine piece that became known as the "Nothing Works" article. That message was swept up by politicians and the media.
Mike Wallace: The crime rate rises and Americans ask, "Why?" Why is it we cannot seem to solve -
Montgomery: CBS broadcasted this 60 minutes report three months after Martinson's study was published.
Wallace: For years we've been told by penologists and sociologists that the way to make solid citizens out of criminals is to rehabilitate them. Reform them while we have them locked up. Well, it doesn't work. Statistics tell us that two out of every three ex-prisoners wind up behind bars again.
Montgomery: Some academics wanted to keep treatment programs but separate them from punishment. And to do that, John Irwin says, they helped convince California's legislature to abolish indeterminate sentences for many crimes.
John Irwin: You can't determine the length of a person's sentence based on your predictions of their success on the outside. And when you start doing that you actually practice all kinds of arbitrary and unconstitutional practices.
Montgomery: Many other states adopted fixed sentences. But over time, legislatures also began increasing the lengths of those sentences in a nationwide move to get tough on crime. Crime was rising dramatically. And in prison, there was violence, often racial. Blacks and Latinos formed groups to protect themselves from the white prison establishment. Prisons were moving firmly away from rehabilitation. In 1977, California actually removed the term "rehabilitation" from the mission statement of its department of corrections. John Irwin says America looked to new ways to contain, not rehabilitate, violent prisoners.
Irwin: That was part of the supermax thinking, too. Places to hold people. Incapacitate them for long periods. But they were really based more on the attempts to control this new obstreperous population of people who were into, first, racial violence, and then, gang violence.
Daniel Vasquez: That was the reason for Pelican Bay.
Montgomery: Daniel Vasquez worked in corrections for 30 years. He was warden of San Quentin Prison in the 1980s when courts approved the use of extreme isolation of inmates. That set in motion the rise of the supermax and the building of Pelican Bay State Prison in a remote corner of California's north coast.
Vasquez: It was no man's land. Nobody wanted to be there, but that's where you went. And that was the end of the line for you. And we built this mammoth prison to house you under the most adverse conditions possible of isolation, of light deprivation and human deprivation because you were a tough, dangerous gang member and by gosh, we were going to treat you that way.
[Music. Promotional video: "Behind the concrete and razor wire of California's prisons, you enter a world almost impossible to imagine. Brutal, violent, unpredictable, where gangs battle for control and inmates attack officers to make their bones."]
Montgomery: This promotional video was produced by California's powerful Prison Guards Union, which has lobbied for longer sentences and higher pay for prison staff. The video depicts the life and death struggle between inmates and staff at Pelican Bay.
[Numbers announced over prison speakers]
It was built as two prisons in one. The outer ring is a maximum security facility. Within that is a structure that looks like a giant concrete and steel X.
Inside the X, a labyrinth of halls and security checkpoints leads to the Security Housing Unit - the SHU. There are more than 2,000 beds here. Men involved in violence and gangs in other prisons are sent to Pelican Bay's SHU.
[Voice announces on prison speakers]
Pelican Bay's innovation was in fully automating cells. From a glass enclosed control booth, one officer can remotely control cells for more than 40 prisoners, leading them to showers and a small enclosed exercise pen. The aim was to limit contact, leaving inmates locked in their windowless cells, alone, for 22 or 23 hours a day.
[Guard commands, "Stand by." Doors make noise.]
Courts have consistently found that the isolation in supermaxes does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment for most inmates. But Pelican Bay did get in trouble with the courts soon after it opened. Guards were abusing and severely beating prisoners.
In 1995, a U.S. district judge found systematic abuses at Pelican Bay that were covered up by a pervasive code of silence among staff. The judge ordered that inmates with mental disorders be removed from the SHU. And he imposed a federal monitor to oversee the prison, something that continues to this day. Lt. Steve Perez is Pelican Bay's spokesman.
Lt. Steve Perez: When you read what the court documented as the problems that were going on at Pelican Bay, it would be very foolish to say we didn't have issues here at Pelican Bay. We had significant issues. The reality is that you had a management team that came in and changed the culture of this institution working in harmony with the court and that's the way it should be.
Montgomery: Court monitors concur that Pelican Bay is a different institution today. But have these new prisons achieved their aim of containing crime? California certainly locks up more people. The state's current prison population is more than 160,000. That's an eight times increase from 1970. And crime is down in California, just as it is nationwide.
But recidivism in California is highest in the country. And the supermax has not stopped prison gangs. The militant groups that emerged in the 1960s expanded into extortion and drug dealing in prison and sometimes on the streets.
[Metal clanking sounds from prison]
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.
[Prison metal noises and wrinkling paper]
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.
Montgomery: You've been here a long time. How do you stay healthy? Mentally healthy?
Raul Leon: Work out, do exercise, a little bit of studying. I've been inside confinement for over 20 years, though. It comes easy for me. But for others, it's a lot harder, you know?
Montgomery: 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.
Montgomery: What were you in for originally?
Leon: Murder. After our SHU terms were over, they hit us up with indeterminate, saying we're ganged up or whatever.
Montgomery: Are you ganged up?
Leon: That's what they say. According to us we're pacifists, we don't believe in that. [laughing]
[Another inmate passes by]
Leon: [yelling] Big Russell. Alright. Doing a little interview here. [Spanish slang]
Montgomery: Leon shouts to a shackled inmate being escorted by guards. The other prisoner appears to be in his 50s. Leon says older inmates like this man should be let out of the supermax to be with the general population.
Leon: I'm one of the younger ones, but there's guys in here that are in their 50s and 60s, and they're basically going to die in here. So, it'd be good somewhere down the line to sit down and say, "Hey, you know what? These guys have been cool for this long of a time, let them out."
Montgomery: 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.
Montgomery: How long are you here for?
Leon: The rest of my life.
Montgomery: That's a long time.
Leon: I figure if I could stay healthy - I'll do 70, 80 years straight.
Montgomery: Leon speaks with pride about how he'll outlast the staff here. Sociologist David Ward has interviewed hundreds 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.
Ward: 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. Their strength under circumstances in which all the rest of us would have folded long ago is something that really is 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.
Montgomery: Many inmates survive the Pelican Bay SHU by following the gang's strict daily regime of stationary exercise and intensive study. David was a member of a white gang who spent more than five years in the SHU.
David: I always looked at the SHU as like a piece of steel that you could sharpen yourself with. 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.
Montgomery: David committed himself to the gang after receiving a 25-to-life sentence.
David: All I was waiting for was someone who was in trouble so I could stab them. That's all I looked forward to.
Montgomery: 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. David grabs one book from a pile of his favorites.
Montgomery: What book are you looking at right now?
David: Oh, this is Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche.
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, that I had created my own society. Therefore the laws of this society [outside the prison] didn't apply anymore.
[Footsteps on gravel]
Montgomery: The outer perimeter of the Security Housing Unit is gray 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. It appears to be two inmates in different exercise pens talking through a drain pipe.
[Faint echoed voices in background]
Perez: I think people find it hard to believe that these guys will do whatever is necessary in a Security Housing Unit to pass information on.
Montgomery: 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.
Richard Brown: One of the affects that being in the SHU, because it really does have a detrimental affect, is you lose your ability to keep track of time.
Montgomery: Richard Brown is 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 looking scar across his neck.
Brown: It literally alters your perception of time. Short periods of time seem to drag on forever. Long periods of time, [snaps fingers] fly by in an instant. And I noticed this one time when I hadn't seen a friend of mine in about 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 I got to thinking it was like no time had passed at all.
Montgomery: Brown says a monochrome hopelessness pervades the SHU and enhances the gangs' ability to recruit young men.
Brown: You don't immediately send them in here among these guys that's been in gangs 20 and 30 years. 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.
Montgomery: Prison officials say they have to put all gang members here because that's the only way to keep them from attacking inmates in the general population. But in spite of rigorous security, the SHU does not shut down gangs.
Montgomery: I'm looking at these perforated steel doors which are the entrance to these cells. In spite of all this, these prison gangs are able to communicate, they are able to pass messages, they are able to conduct business.
Perez: Even though we do our best to segregate them in this kind of an environment, they've adapted. They've learned where the weaknesses are in the system. They've adapted, and they use whatever is available to them.
Montgomery: We're talking in some cases about the men in here in these segregated units ordering murders, doing drug deals, all sorts of crimes on the outside.
Montgomery: We're talking about the streets. We're talking about towns and cities in California, not just inside the prison.
Perez: Yes. And we never, ever built it with the intent, with the expectation that it would stop all crime.
Montgomery: 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.
Joseph Mcgrath: Well it kind of gets down to the issue of "Well, I'm already 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 really they do operate, pretty much, with impunity. And I'm not sure what the answer is.
Montgomery: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks the answer is a massive overhaul of the California prison system. The get-tough policy of locking away criminals 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 in the 1950s, 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.
Ray Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
To see photos from inside the supermax to the streets of Salinas, or to learn more about the Special Housing Units, visit AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can also hear this program again, read the transcript, or order a CD. That's all at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Our program continues in a moment from American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media.
Ray Suarez: This is Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
Once a prisoner is in a gang, it's tough to get out. Leaving the gang is too painful, and too dangerous. At Pelican Bay, gang members have to choose between lockdown and gang loyalty. Michael Montgomery follows some inmates as they put their lives on the line.
[Sounds of prison metal]
Michael Montgomery: Pelican Bay's supermax is a concrete and steel structure that looks like a giant bunker. [metal door slams] Inside, four guards in green jump suits and stab-proof vests carry truncheons and huge mace canisters as they prepare to search cells. [Motors whir as doors automatically open.] At the touch of a button, perforated steel doors slide open. Two guards lead a shackled prisoner to a holding cage.
Montgomery: The guards enter the man's cell. It's eight by ten, about the size of a bathroom, and bone-white. There are no windows. There's a concrete bed, a foam pad, a toilet and a small television.
[Sound of tapping on concrete]
Montgomery: Guards tap the walls looking for hidden weapons. They comb through a jumble of envelopes, mail, legal documents, and cardboard food containers. After about 20 minutes, a guard makes a find.
Guard: This is an address he was trying to conceal.
Montgomery: The guard pulls two addresses from the inside lid of a cup. He hands them to Robert Marquez, Pelican Bay's chief gang investigator.
Montgomery: What do you suspect those addresses are for?
Robert Marquez: They're drop addresses to conduct gang activity, and he didn't want us to find them. Well, now we know them, [laughter from background] and we'll monitor mail going to or from those addresses.
Montgomery: The prisoner is an alleged member of a white supremacist group called the Aryan Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is one of the prison system's oldest and most violent gangs. Marquez suspects the inmate is using these addresses to get messages to other gang members in prison and on the streets.
[paper rustling in background]
Marquez: They're not just sitting around for 22 hours and watching TV. They're studying. They're reading. They're educating themselves. They're looking for ways to beat us.
Montgomery: But prison officials hope they can use the SHU to beat the gangs. To get out of the SHU, the inmate has to prove to prison officials that he's left the gang. In theory, he can do that by severing all contacts with the gang for six years. But that's something most gang members say is impossible. Or, the inmate can agree to debriefing. In debriefing a prisoner has to divulge everything he knows about the gang and even agree to testify against other members. If he doesn't want to serve his whole term alone in a tiny cell, he has to become a snitch.
[Guard, "Stand by." Metal door noises]
One man makes that choice several weeks after the cell searches. Gang investigator Robert Marquez discovers the inmate is indeed sending coded messages to other Aryan Brotherhood members, and he's using his girlfriend as the conduit. Marquez gives the man a choice: quit the gang and debrief, or remain in the SHU for at least another six years, cut off from almost all mail and visits.
[Metal keys clanking]
Marquez: He decided at that point that he really didn't want to be involved with the gang anymore, and he chose to sit down with us for an approximate three-and-a-half hour interview during which time we were able to find out about the Aryan Brotherhood: activities that they have going on in the Security Housing Unit, activities they have going on in the mainlines, and activities they have going on in the streets.
Montgomery: The inmate had spent 12 years in the supermax. So why did he finally submit?
Man: [laughing] Without no names, somebody found my soft spot. Everybody has a breaking point, and they found it and used it to their advantage, and it worked.
Montgomery: The man, who asked that his name not be used because of possible retaliation, explains that his soft spot was his girlfriend, a woman that he's only seen through a glass partition. After prodding from investigators, the inmate says he decided a future with his girlfriend, after he paroles in eight years, was more important than the gang.
Man: I'm not a lifer. I'm not sitting here forever. I'm going home, and I need a start when I go home. I don't want to walk out there and end up right back here. I step out there to nothing, I'm coming right back. It's that simple.
Montgomery: The inmate is a hulking man with a walrus mustache. Crude gang tattoos cover almost every exposed part of his body, even his scalp.
Montgomery: I can't help noticing your tattoos. That's a pretty -
Montgomery: You're pretty covered.
Man: Yeah, I kind of kick myself in the ass for the head part. Everything else except my hands I could cover.
[Sounds from a basketball game]
Montgomery: In the same prison, but a world away from the SHU, six men are playing basketball in a small gym. A guard with a high-powered rifle watches from a balcony, and the doors are locked, but the atmosphere is loose. Sweat pours over tattoos stamped on the men's torsos. They are former rivals: blacks, whites, and Latinos. They debriefed and transferred out of the Security Housing Unit. They're in a unit for former gang members now, segregated from the general population so they won't be assaulted or killed for betraying their gangs.
Manuel: When they first take them handcuffs off, no one knows what to do with their hands.
Montgomery: Manuel dropped out of a Latino gang and left the SHU last year.
Manuel: So everybody automatically puts them behind their backs or puts them to their sides because you don't want to make a quick movement because, you know, everybody - even though we're coming out of our cuffs for the first time, you're still on full alert.
David: When I entered the process, I broke down and cried.
Montgomery: David is a dropout from a white gang who doesn't want his real name used for broadcast.
David: It was incredible to walk out, and not be handcuffed, and be in a room full of people. Or, to come outside and walk around on a big yard and actually see things around you like trees and mountains. When I debriefed, I hadn't seen a tree for about three and a half years.
Montgomery: Other men talk of not seeing the moon or stars for 20 years. Conditions here are dramatically different.
[Inmates shouting out on exercise yard]
Outside, on a large exercise yard, a cool wind from the Pacific blows mist over the pines and redwoods surrounding Pelican Bay. Three inmates, one white and two Latinos, are warming in the faint sunshine. They wear blue jeans and pale blue workshirts.
Montgomery: Do you remember what you felt when you came out of the SHU for the first time?
Man #1: Freedom.
Man #2: You're your own man. You're able to socialize with whom you want. Back in the day, you wouldn't see me and him standing next to each other.
Man #2: We're from rival gangs.
Montgomery: The men go through a standard prison curriculum: classes on computers, victim awareness, parole survival, and anger management. Some inmates were in the SHU so long that this is the first time they've ever handled computers. Some men have never even seen a compact disc before.
Salvador Hernandez: I tell my son to go holler, man. I tell him to go [hit a] punching bag.
Montgomery: Instructor Salvador Hernandez is leading 15 men through a class called "Breaking Barriers." Today he's talking about ways to control anger.
Hernandez: Anger gives us energy. That's the trip about anger. Anger helps us talk with others.
Montgomery: Several inmates nod in agreement, but one man shakes his head. He tells Hernandez that anger management won't stop prison violence.
Man: Violence is an instrument of communication in prison. It's the way people interact and communicate with one another. It's not a product of anger, it's a value judgement.
Montgomery: Prison staff say the men here 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.
Sherry Heiser: I mean, there are certain things in a gang - there's a lot of things in gangs that is not bad.
Montgomery: Sherry Heiser is a Pelican Bay administrator who helped start the program for gang dropouts.
[Background noise from many men talking]
Heiser: Respect, trust, discipline, education. Unfortunately, their very mission was in the wrong direction. It was wrong.
Montgomery: Men who have refused to debrief see it differently. They say the prison uses the SHU to try to force men to become informants. Raul Leon, an alleged member of a Latino prison gang, has been in the SHU for 15 years. Leon says debriefers are cowards.
Raul Leon: They sit back and say, "Hey you know what? We can't deal with this time no more. We got to be out of here and be with our families and our friends." 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.
Montgomery: 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.
Charles Carbone: Well, the debriefing process puts inmates in harm's way. And it needlessly puts inmates in harm's way because it says to them, "The only real way out of the gang is to snitch on your friends, to snitch on the people who are immediately around you, and people who have proven to be very violent and very capable of violent behavior." So it's a sure way for the prisoner to make a lot of enemies.
Montgomery: Carbone says California should copy states, like Connecticut, that allow gang members to drop out and leave the supermax without becoming informants. He says that would address another weakness in the Pelican Bay 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. Pelican Bay Warden Rich Kirkland says the prison is only asking inmates to come clean.
Rich Kirkland: We asked you, "What have you done? What do you know of that's been done that's of a criminal nature?" That's telling the truth. That's what we expect of our citizens. That's what we expect of 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 see anything wrong with that, and it's what we expect and what we actually want out of the inmates.
Montgomery: Former gang members like David, who provide information vital for criminal prosecutions, support the program. But they say California is failing high-profile defectors by not giving resources and protection after they parole.
David: You're providing information that puts your life in danger, and I just wish that there was a program that would assist people whose information is deemed valuable enough to get them killed.
Montgomery: By all accounts, David's information was invaluable. Connie Maguire is a correctional counselor who worked with David.
[Outdoor background noises]
Connie Maguire: This is a guy that 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. 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 like they were forcing him to be a terrorist. He saved a lot of officers' lives and a lot of civilians by the information that he shared.
Montgomery: David declined to go into details about his case because of ongoing investigations.
Montgomery: Did you feel that what they were thinking about doing were acts of terrorism.
David: Yes. I always looked at the things we did in prison as, you know, you get what you got coming. If you do 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 is kind of - is outside the boundaries that I pretty much had for myself.
[Young girl giggles]
Montgomery: David was recently 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.
David: I've burned my bridges. There are no more bridges. When you take that step, you're done. Period. There's no going back. And you'd better hope that nobody catches you because if they do, then you're going to become another statistic.
Montgomery: Is that something you worry about?
David: Of course. It's not something that I'm going to let control my life, but yeah, of course I'm concerned. And of course I'm taking every precaution I can to keep myself safe.
Montgomery: David's story is unusual. A large majority of gang members refuse 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. Rene Enriquez is a former high-level member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
Rene Enriquez: I believe that there are at least 50 percent of the members of the Mexican Mafia would gravitate towards dropping out if it was less traumatic. 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.
Montgomery: For years, California officials said they had to demand debriefing. Otherwise, prisoners could pretend to leave the gang to infiltrate the drop out 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. John Dovey is director of California's adult prisons.
John Dovey: If the only tool you carry around is a hammer, all you can do is hit nails. 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.
Montgomery: 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.
[Applause, laughter, Hernandez says, "Verified high school diploma."]
Montgomery: After 14 weeks of training, Pelican Bay recently graduated its 22nd class of gang defectors. The 19 men are here 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.
[Sounds of excitement from inmates continue in background]
Dante Kun: Since I've been here, 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.
Sherry Heiser: I'm just glad that hopefully this program prevents more victims out in the streets, because the reality is that most men that go in to prison are going to be getting out.
Ray Suarez: 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 at Pelican Bay in a silver-and-green bus with darkened windows covered by iron bars. Twelve men emerged in shackles from this recent busload. Three of them were suspected gang members. They were photographed and sent directly to the Supermax.
Locked Down was written and produced by Michael Montgomery. It was edited by Catherine Winter, with help from Sasha Aslanian, Misha Quill, and Ellen Guettler. Mixing by Craig Thorson and Tom Mudge. Web Producer Ochen Kaylan. The executive editor is Stephen Smith. The executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. I'm Ray Suarez.
This documentary was produced in cooperation with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
To see photographs from Pelican Bay, or to listen to this program again, visit our Web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. While you're there, you can subscribe to a podcast of American RadioWorks special reports. That's all at American RadioWorks.org.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
American RadioWorks is the documentary unit of American Public Media.
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