Pelican Bay Supermax Pelican Bay SupermaxAfter listening to and or reading the transcripts of Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax by Michael Montgomery, one gets a glimpse of prison life, sociological issues inmates and staff face, and the subculture of prison life faced by staff and prisoners alike on a daily basis. However, instead of delving completely in to the situational circumstances of prisoner life, it is more important to understand the history of this Supermax prison and why it was constructed to begin with. Further, it is important to understand the philosophy of the need for the Secure Housing Unit, which is the most secure and isolated portion of Pelican Bay Prison. Pelican Bay Prison was designed, constructed and finally opened in Northern California in December 1989 at a cost of 217. 5 million dollars. It was designed to accommodate 3384 prisoners, of which 2280 may be assigned to solitary confinement and another 1056 to the Secure Housing Unit or "SHU." These housing numbers however are typically greater and often exceed the designed accommodation by more than 1000.
Pelican Bay takes pride in the fact that it was designed to be the most secure, isolated, and intimidating prison in the country. This takes an average of 938 sworn personnel and 460 support staff to accomplish. It was designed to house the most violent convicts and attempts to isolate known gang members from other prisoners and the outside world for 22 + hours a day. Those in the SHU are often the gang leaders and are under constant surveillance by prison staff.
The big factors in determining who is placed in the SHU are a history of violence and an affiliation with one of any numerous known gangs. Pelican Bay and other California penile systems do not hide the fact that they do not attempt to 'rehabilitate' prisoners as they had in earlier years. In fact, 'rehabilitation' was removed from the mission statement of the California Department of Corrections in 1977. While many other prison systems across the country still subscribe to rehabilitation, Pelican Bay was strictly designed to contain prisoners. In which, the idea of the SHU arose and was therefore designed into the prison.
SHU is an intense, solitary, confinement solution that puts the 'Super' into Supermax at Pelican Bay. The SHU of Pelican Bay has a long history of being the most severe form of isolation and way to 'do time.' This history has made heroes out of many of the inmates to family, relatives and to a larger extent, fellow gang members. Being confined in the SHU for years on end is almost looked-up upon by gang members and they feel that they too have a destiny with the SHU of Pelican Bay. Many gang related activities are directly controlled by the gang leaders in the SHU. Although prison staff attempt to block outgoing gang orders, many get through with surprising regularity.
Orders such as murdering rival gang members, prison guards, and civilians are often traced directly back to those inmates in the SHU. There are ways that prisoners in the SHU can be placed into a less restricted area. This area is separate from the general population, yet more restrictive. Former SHU members must be able to get along with other former members, including prior rival gang members and mixed races.
To be allowed to leave the SHU, members must show for a period of 6 years that they have no gang affiliations. They can not communicate in any way with other gang members either inside or outside the SHU. Another way that they can leave is through a lengthy debriefing process with prison staff as to their criminal gang history, plans, known members, names, tattoos, and so forth. This debriefing can take hours and information must be validated before a prisoner can actually be removed. Members in the SHU claim that it is impossible to not associate with other gang members and therefore the only realistic hope of leaving the SHU is through a debriefing process. For every gang member that either leaves the SHU or even Pelican Bay, there are just as many gang members that desire to enter it.
It is considered a right of passage in many aspects to young gang members looking to move up the ranks of a gang. Prison officials battle this phenomenon on a daily basis and have little hope of solving this problem. Prison officials know that the only way to truly solve these problems would be to eliminate gangs altogether. They face the reality that this will not happen in society and are simply tasked with an attempt to control it. The Pelican Bay SHU is their answer, and in a sense, a double edged sword. Another concern for prison officials is their staff and prisoner safety.
In the SHU, any time a prisoner is removed from their windowless cell, they are shackled and their hands are cuffed. Simply put, they are considered too dangerous to allow any free movement whatsoever around others, be they fellow prisoners or guards. This constant shackling has significant psychological impact as well. Many SHU members have debriefed simply to be able to use their hands and feet outside their cell.
If a prison guard intercepts any intelligence regarding potential violence inside or outside the prison walls, they will conduct intense prison cell searches that may take several hours. They are constantly looking crude handmade weapons which could be used to stab or cut someone. These prison cell searches also take place on a random basis and done day or night to effect the element of surprise. If any weapons or intelligence is located, they are further isolated, labeled as potentially violent and can expect closer scrutiny and ongoing cell inspections. Prison officials have routinely been accused and sued for abuse of authority in the past by prisoners. In 1994 a prisoner won a settlement for 997, 000 for being scalded by boiling bath water by former prison guards.
In March 1998, the FBI began investigating prison guard abuses; such as guards ordering certain prisoners to assault and even the murder other prisoners. Prison guards were indicted out of charges and face prison time them selves. These are some of the many ongoing issues that the Pelican Bay prison administrators are facing. Although reading transcripts of Locked Down: Gangs in the Supermax by Michael Montgomery, one can not fully grasp all of the issues that prison officials and prisoners face on a daily basis. It is a good opportunity however to gain a basic understanding of issues facing the prisoners and staff alike, that house the most violent members of society.
References American Public Media; Montgomery, M. (Locked Down; Gangs in the Supermax) Wallace, B. , & Podge r, P J. , & Van Derbeken, J. (2000, February) Guard Kills Prisoner at Pelican Bay, 12 other inmates shot in knife wielding melee.
The San Francisco Chronicle. Web Based article. web bin / article. cgi? file = /chronicle / archive /2000/02/24/.