Toughest Cell Block In California: A Tour
Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border houses some of California’s toughest, most dangerous inmates. About a thousand of those inmates are labeled prison gang leaders or associates. They’re kept in indefinite isolation in the Security Housing Unit or the “SHU” - a prison within the prison.
Last month, hundreds of inmates in the SHU staged a hunger strike to protest the conditions there. They also protested the strict conditions for getting out.
Inside, the SHU looks like any other prison: long corridors, tiers of cells with grated metal doors, dim fluorescent lights. There are reminders that the Pelican Bay SHU is more dangerous than other prisons, like the red signs that read “Security Vest Required” and riot gear on a gurney outside the corridor. And there are other warnings. Lt Dave Barneburg monitors prison gangs. He reminded us reporters to think about what we say on the tour.
The 15-foot high walls block direct sunlight. Prison officials don’t allow exercise equipment in the yard. Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis says that would be too risky. "Anything attached to the wall they would use to scale the wall or the other concerns we have is them cutting metal. These guys are good at cutting metal," Lewis said. SHU inmates are allowed no phone calls. They see visitors only through a glass wall. Inmates call the Pelican Bay SHU “the end of the line.” Warden Lewis says 95% of the inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU who ran criminal enterprises inside and outside prison. He says Pelican Bay is a life they’ve earned.
"I haven’t seen any validated gang member or associate yet that had not committed and been prosecuted for a crime or they wouldn’t be in prison," Lewis commented.
Corrections officials didn’t allow media to talk to any of the inmates who participated in the hunger strike on the tour.