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Toughest Cell Block In California: A Tour

Acting Warden Greg Lewis fields reporters' questions about Pelican Bay State Prison's policies of indefinitely confining validated gang members in isolation units.
Julie Small, KPCC
Acting Warden Greg Lewis fields reporters' questions about Pelican Bay State Prison's policies of indefinitely confining validated gang members in isolation units.

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.

A cement path from the prison staff entrance crawls up grey-graveled yards. An electrified barbed-wire fence encircles the perimeter. Lieutenant Chris Acosta has worked at the Pelican Bay for 21 years.
“We call this like the “no man’s land” out here, where there will be no inmates out here at all," he said. "The only persons you’re going to see are the corrections officers, or maintenance staff cleaning up doing landscaping or security checks.” 

By “landscaping,” Acosta means pulling weeds. There are no shrubs, plants or trees outside.


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.

“Any inmate worth his salt down there already knows there’s a tour coming through the SHU and there’s a bunch of people coming through SHU," Barneburg said. "They know when there’s an alarm because they can hear the alarm and our keys jingling. You’re talking to each other, you’re talking to us, but you’re also talking to the inmates, so just keep that in mind."

Inmates in the SHU spend nearly every hour of the day inside individual eight-by-ten foot cells.  There’s just enough room for a metal sink and toilet, a built-in bunk bed, some shelves, a wastebasket and a desk. And for those with families that can afford to spend $200 to purchase it - a television with a cable hook up, that offers access to ESPN. The TV’s made of see-through plastic that shows all its components. "The correctional officers and the staff love them because they’re easy to search," Acosta said. "Throughout the years being here, a lot of guys would take their TV’s apart and hide weapons in them."

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.


The Department of Corrections offers all inmates in the SHU a way out: renounce prison gang life - and tell Corrections officers everything you know about the gang.  Do that – and you’re out of the toughest prison block in California.

Corrections officials didn’t allow media to talk to any of the inmates who participated in the hunger strike on the tour.