Life in Pelican Bay SHU


B. General Conditions Within the SHU

From the outside, the SHU resembles a “massive concrete bunker.”[65] From the inside, it is a “windowless labyrinth of cells and halls, sealed off from the outside world by walls, gates, and guards.”[66] The overall effect of the SHU is “one of stark sterility and unremitting monotony.”[67] The physical environment reinforces a sense of isolation and detachment from the outside world and, for custody personnel, creates a “palpable distance from ordinary compunctions, inhibitions and community norms.”[68]

SHU prisoners are isolated in small cells for twenty-two and one-half hours a day,[69] separated by three locked doors from an armed control booth officer.[70] The inmates can see no other prisoners, nor can they see outdoors. They are watched on screens in a central control room. Their movements are monitored by video cameras. Cell doors open and close electronically. The ceiling is covered with heavy screening on one side and heavy plastic on the other.[71] The filtered light that seeps through the screen is the closest the SHU prisoners ever get to feeling sunlight—no direct sunlight ever reaches these cells. The National Prison Project describes the SHU as follows:

Each concrete cell contains a concrete stool, concrete bed, concrete writing table, and a toilet and sink made of heavy stainless steel. Nothing is allowed on the walls. The cells of SHU prisoners are lined with opaque materials, so that prisoners cannot see out. Prisoners never walk freely, they never emerge from their cells without being handcuffed and in chains. They shuffle to the law library single file, chained to each other at the ankles . . . . Toothpaste is removed from the tube. There is no unread mail.[72]

The design of the SHU’s cell doors calls for their construction in heavy gauge perforated metal. Although the prison officials probably chose this material to prevent the inmates from throwing things through their cell doors, the heavy metal reinforces the isolative nature of the SHU by blocking any available light, as well as the inmate’s vision.[73] In fact, the SHU was purposefully designed to reduce “visual stimulation.”[74]

The cells are contained in eight-cell units known as “pods,” with four 500-foot corridors that are also monitored by video. Each set of four corridors is viewed from a control room from which all video transmissions are monitored by control booth officers. In addition, the cells within the pods contain speakers and microphones which permit communications between control booth officers and inmates.[75] Many prisoners believe that their conversations are monitored.[76]

Unlike most prisoners, SHU inmates are fed in their cells on trays, twice a day.[77] The meals are placed on tray slots in the cell doors to be eaten inside. When Dr. Craig Haney made his first visit to the prison, he was told by a guard that this was the only design flaw in the prison—that they had not figured out a way to “automatically” feed the prisoners, eliminating any need for contact with them whatsoever.[78] SHU inmates are permitted to shower three times per week.[79] The inmates are not allowed to take classes, do not work,[80] and are not permitted to smoke.[81]

SHU inmates may exercise unshackled outside their cells for a maximum of ninety minutes per day in an area known as the “dog-walk.”[82] The exercise space measures twenty-eight by twelve feet and has twenty-foot walls.[83] At any other time the prisoners leave their cells, they must be in waist restraints and handcuffs, and have an armed double escort.[84] Before and after “exercise,” an inmate must stand naked at the front of the control booth and undergo a visual strip search by a control booth officer, which may be seen by other officers, inmates, and “whomever else happens to be in the open area around the outside of the control booth.”[85]

The term “exercise yard” is a euphemism. In reality, it is “a small bare concrete room with high ceilings,” which is attached to the end of each pod.[86] The pens “are more suggestive of satellite cells than areas for exercise or recreation.”[87] “In the control booth, the televised images of several inmates, each in separate exercise cages, show them walking around and around the perimeter of their concrete yards, like laboratory animals engaged in mindless and repetitive activity.”[88] Chief U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who presided over Madrid v. Gomez, saw inmates simply pacing around the edges of the pen.[89] He described the image as “hauntingly similar to that of caged felines pacing in a zoo.”[90]

With the exception of those inmates who are double-celled,[91] whenever SHU inmates are in the presence of another person, they are in chains at both the waist and ankles. They are even chained during their classification hearings.[92]

Thus, with minor and insignificant exceptions, the life of a SHU inmate is lived within the confines of an eighty square foot cell, a space that may be shared with another prisoner whose life is similarly circumscribed. This degree of isolation and deprivation of virtually all meaningful human contact is degrading, dehumanizing, and results in a significant risk to inmate mental health. Simply put, these conditions drive men insane.


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