A Brief History of Pelican Bay by Keramet Reiter

 In 1989,California opened Pelican Bay State Prison, equipped with 1,056 cells explicitly designed to keep California’s alleged “worst of the worst” prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation.  The 8 x 10 foot cells of the Pelican Bay SHU, or Secure Housing Unit, are made of smooth, poured concrete. They have no windows. Instead, there are fluorescent lights, which stay on 24 hours per day. For at least twenty-two hours every day, prisoners remain in their cells, looking out through a perforated steel door at a solid concrete wall. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door.

A guard in a central control booth controls these doors; he can press a button and allow one prisoner at a time to go out to a shower, or to his court-mandated five hours per week of outdoor exercise.  This exercise takes place in a cement yard, often called a “dog run,” which extends the length of three cells, and has a roof partially open to the sky. The guard in the control booth is always armed; from his central vantage point in the control booth, he can shoot onto any one of six pods, each containing eight cells.

PelicanBaywas built with little legislative or judicial oversight.  TheCalifornia legislature delegated building and design decisions to Department of Corrections administrators. These administrators toured high-security prisons across the United States. They identified Florence,Arizona’s Secure Management Unit (SMU) as a “model” prison and collaborated with prison architects to copy its floor plan and high tech design forPelicanBay’s SHU. (Pelican Bay was one of 21 new prisons built in Californiain the 1980s and 1990s.)

Correctional administrators purchased land in rural Del Norte County, on California’s northernmost border with Oregon. Its lengthy distance away from most prisoners’ families was considered a plus.  One of the few legislative comments recorded about the institution concerns whether to call it Dungeness Dungeon or Slammer by the Sea. There was no legislative discussion of the novel punitive design ofPelicanBaynor that it would be the site of indefinite SHU commitments.  The original planners did not contemplate that some prisoners would spend decades there.

Federal district courts inCaliforniafirst heard about the prison after it opened in the early 1990s, when they started receiving letters and legal complaints from PelicanBayprisoners detailing the draconian conditions at the institution, along with the egregious constitutional violations taking place there.

In Madrid v. Gomez, a federal court case evaluating the constitutionality of the conditions atPelicanBay, Judge Thelton Henderson recorded myriad staff abuses of prisoners at the institution.  The most memorable: Vaughn Dortch, a mentally ill African-American prisoner, whom guards forced to take a  “bath” in near-boiling water.  One guard said, as he was holding Dortch down in the water: “Looks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is through.” Dortch sustained third-degree burns over half of his body; guards waited more than an hour after the conclusion of the bath before taking Dortch to a hospital for burn treatment.  Judge Henderson ordered numerous reforms to the policies and practices at the institution, including better staff training and diversion of mentally ill prisoners from the SHU. However, Judge Henderson stopped short of declaring the physical structure of long-term solitary confinement unconstitutional.

Courts of law do not sentence prisoners to the SHU.  Rather, correctional administrators assign prisoners to the SHU, either for a fixed term, because they broke an in-prison rule, or for an indeterminate term, because they were “validated” as prison gang members.  Jailhouse lawyers and political activists are disproportionately sent to the SHU.  Although a gang validation finding is reviewed regularly and, by law, is not supposed to extend for more than six years, the prison’s gang unit inevitably comes up with “new evidence” to extend the validation finding.  Prisoners who have been “validated” as gang members can escape the SHU if they “debrief.”  To debrief is to provide prison officials with information incriminating other prisoners.  Debriefing can be dangerous to the prisoner who debriefs, or to his family; conversely, prisoners are often falsely identified as gang members by prisoners who debrief in order to escape the inhumane conditions of the SHU.

SHU assignments can affect sentence length in two ways.  Prisoners cannot earn “good time credit” while in the SHU.  Therefore, a prisoner with a determinant (fixed) sentence will be released later than he otherwise would have.  Second, an unwritten rule prevents any lifer in the SHU from being granted a parole date.  For prisoners with an indeterminate SHU commitment, the only way to get out of the SHU is to “parole, debrief or die.”  As a practical matter, lifers can only get out of the SHU if they “debrief or die.”  In this way, the life sentence imposed by a judge is administratively converted into an LWOP (life without parole) sentence, regardless of the prisoner’s present dangerousness.

As of 2007, prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU spent an average of just over two years in solitary confinement, before being released back into the general prison population, or onto parole.  Prisoners have spent as long as eighteen years in the Pelican Bay SHU before being released back into the general prison population, or onto parole. While some prisoners have spent decades in the Pelican Bay SHU, most prisoners are eventually released. On average, sixteen prisoners per month are released directly from the Pelican Bay SHU onto parole in California.  They are provided no pre-release services to assist them transition from long-term isolation to life on the outside.

Supermaxes have a psychological cost.  Extended social isolation and physical deprivation in a hostile environment is profoundly painful. Psychiatrists and psychologists have documented something they call “SHU syndrome,” which affects prisoners who spend more than a few months in isolation.  The symptoms resemble those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and might include hallucinations, depression, anxiety, anger and suicide.

SHU confinement in California disproportionately impacts Latino prisoners.  In 2007, Latino prisoners made up 42 percent of the population of all parolees inCalifornia.  However, of the paroled population who had served a supermax term, 56 percent were Latino.

CDCR does not release data about annual per prisoner costs broken down by individual state institutions, like Pelican Bay.  However, in states that do release such data, the average annual cost of supermax confinement is twice as much per year as the average annual cost of non-supermax confinement. The average cost of incarceration per person per year in Californiais $49,000; the average annual per person cost of supermax confinement is likely much higher.

Although supermaxes were designed to reduce violence in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), there is little evidence that they have any impact at all on violence levels, either within high security prisons or within the Department overall.

There are 1107 prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU as of June 15, 2011.


CaliforniaDepartment of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Department Operations Manual (Updated through January1, 2009), available online at: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Regulations/Adult_Operations/DOM_TOC.html, California Code of Regulations 2009: Title 15, Secs. 3000, 3341.5.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation population reports, available online at: http:// www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/Offender_Information_Services_Branch/WeeklyWed

Conference Committee Notes to California Senate Bill 1685 (1988).

Corwin, Miles. “High-Tech Facility Ushers in New Era of State Prisons,” Los Angeles Times,May 1, 1990: A-1.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley:University o fCaliforniaPress, 2007).

Grassian, Stuart. “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement,” Redacted Declaration Submitted pursuant to Madrid v. Gomez litigation (September 1993)

Haney, Craig. “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement,” Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 49 No. 1, at 124-156 (Jan. 2003).

Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1168, 1213 (N.D.Cal. 1995).

Reiter, Keramet. Parole, Snitch, or Die: California’s Supermax Prisons and Prisoners, 1987-2007.  Institute for the Study of Social Change Working Paper Series 2009-2010.42 (July 7, 2010), available online at: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/04w6556f.

7 thoughts on “A Brief History of Pelican Bay by Keramet Reiter

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