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“I haven’t seen the moon since 1998.”
That's inmate Jeremy Beasley, talking to me while sitting – shackled – in an interview room at Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s highest security lockup.
Beasley, a convicted murderer, was clearly surprised by my presence – he told me he hadn’t met with a visitor since 1994, when he was incarcerated.
It’s not just the moon Beasley hadn't seen in 15 years. During that time, in fact, Beasley rarely glimpsed the outside world. Before being transferred to another prison, he was held in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit, a windowless, bunker-like facility that houses more than 1,000 California inmates.
For 22-and-a-half hours a day, each inmate here is locked, usually alone, in an 8-by-10-feet cell. For 90 minutes the inmate is allowed to exercise in an adjacent room with 25-30 feet high walls. And that’s his entire day – every day.
“I’ve seen guys lose their minds back here,” Beasley tells me.
Today in Sacramento, lawmakers will delve into a growing national controversy over special security units like Pelican Bay's that are used to isolate thousands of inmates from the regular prison population. Civil rights groups say long-term isolation amounts to torture, while state corrections officials say the units are necessary and the conditions are humane.
Around the state there are four of these Security Housing Unit facilities. Pelican Bay's is the most controversial.
Conditions in the units are one part of the debate. Many inmates are held in windowless cells and have been denied everything from calendars and sweatpants to phone calls. Also at issue: criteria that determine which prisoners are placed there and how they can get back into the regular population again.
Then there is the long amount of time some inmates spend in the facilities. More than 500 California prisoners have been locked in the special units for 10 years or longer, according to state data. Of those, 78 prisoners have been held inside for more than 20 years.
Over the years, authorities have allowed media into Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, but access has been limited and the inmates carefully selected by the prison staff.
However, top corrections officials granted unusual access to a team of reporters and videographers from the Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED. We visited all areas of Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit except for a section that houses leaders of a 2011 hunger strike.
Using a small camera mounted to a wall, our team recorded Beasley exercising with a rubber handball in the small concrete pen (prison staff began allowing the balls last year). At all other times – day and night – he was held in his cell, alone. While skylights allow filtered sunlight into the units, there are no windows.
A class-action lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of civil rights groups states:
California’s uniquely harsh regime of prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay is inhumane and debilitating. Plaintiffs and class members languish, typically alone, in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell, for 22 and one-half to 24 hours a day. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming.
Defendants persistently deny these men the normal human contact necessary for a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. These tormenting and prolonged conditions of confinement have produced harmful and predictable psychological deterioration among Plaintiffs and class members.
The solitary confinement regime at Pelican Bay, which renders California an outlier in this country and in the civilized world, violates the United States Constitution’s requirement of due process and prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the most basic human rights prohibitions against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Indeed, the prolonged conditions of brutal confinement and isolation at Pelican Bay cross over from having any valid penological purpose into a system rightly condemned as torture by the international community.
But state corrections officials maintain that conditions in the special units are humane; that they do not practice solitary confinement; that inmates are “segregated” but not “isolated”; and that there is a valid purpose for keeping prisoners in the units – protecting other inmates, staff and the public from men who have been linked to violent prison gangs.
“These are the men who are propagating the violence, the drug trafficking, the extortions and the murders throughout the larger communities of our state,” said Pelican Bay warden Greg Lewis.
Without conceding any shortcomings, however, corrections officials are embarking on a new policy to bring in more educational and self-help programs, and to reduce the amount of time some inmates spend in the units.
Since last October, officials have reviewed the cases of 144 inmates and determined that 75 should be transferred immediately to regular prisons because they were not active in gangs. Some of the inmates have been held in the special units for more than 20 years, according to Kelly Harrington, an associate corrections director.
Pelican Bay inmates who led the 2011 hunger strike, as well as some prisoner rights groups, have denounced the new policy and are threatening more protests this summer. Amid a long list of demands, they are seeking shorter, fixed terms for inmates in the special units (currently, most are held there on “indeterminate” terms), more programs and more frequent visits with family members.
For his part, Jeremy Beasley said that while the conditions at Pelican Bay are awful, he doesn’t think they amount to solitary confinement. Although he can’t see other inmates from his cell (doors are made of perforated steel and face a wall), Beasley says he can carry on conversations with them.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “It sucks in here. I hate it. But some prisoners have found that they can get a lot of attention by exaggerating how bad it is.”
Beasley said he was an active member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-power gang, and committed assaults on behalf of the group. He agreed to drop out and provide authorities with incriminating information about other members, a process known as “debriefing.” In exchange, officials recently transferred Beasley to a different prison.
“I believe that some people should be isolated. If they were to cut me loose before I debriefed and I went back to the mainline," he said, using the term for the general prison population, "I would have killed somebody or at the very least I would have stabbed somebody else.”
Other Pelican Bay inmates see it differently.
“There is only one option to get out of here and that is to make up lies about other people,” said 39-year-old Henry Albanez, who is serving a 27-year sentence for kidnapping. Albanez said he expected the department’s new policies would fail.
“How do you expect to take all of these guys out of the SHU (Security Housing Unit) and throw them in the same yard and expect them to get along when you have all this sensory deprivation?” he said.
Still, Albanez said he probably would take part in a new step-down program that begins later this year. Corrections officials have said the program allows inmates to earn their way out of the special units in two to four years without being required to renounce the gangs they have been affiliated with. Instead, they must declare that they won't participate in gang activity.
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who visited Pelican Bay early this month, said he found the prison clean and professionally staffed but was troubled thinking that some inmates are locked up for decades in small cells with little or no regular human contact. Inmates must also be shackled whenever they are outside their cells and in the presence of another individual.
“I do think it's psychologically devastating to be in such a tight space for so long,” Ammiano said.
What, then, about the question of torture?
Ammiano said the strangest thing he saw at the prison was a group therapy room where inmates are locked in small cages during sessions.
“Could I say that's torture? Perhaps I could,” he said. "But did we witness any torture? No."
You can listen to Michael Montgomery report from California's most controversial, highest security lockup on The California Report, on the following stations around the state. The report will also be archived at the show's website.
This story was produced in collaboration with KQED.