Faced with massive overcrowding, budget cuts and a weeks-long hunger strike by inmates, California is considering making changes to how it handles its toughest prisoners.
A state legislative panel will hear Tuesday about conditions at the state prison at Pelican Bay, where California's most dangerous convicts are shipped. Located near the Oregon border, Pelican Bay is hundreds of miles from any major city. It's the most isolated prison in the system: Think Alcatraz, but on land.
A violent prisoner or a member of a prison gang is sent to the half of the prison known as the Secure Housing Unit. Prison officials say it's the only way to safely house the worst of the worst.
Inmates are in their cells 23 hours a day. They are allowed an hour of exercise, alone in a small concrete pen. Visitors are highly restricted. The eight cells in this section are small: 6 feet by 8 feet. Inside, there's a bed, a metal toilet, a sink and a TV. Armed guards stand watch over the men 24/7.
Reporters were only allowed to talk to prisoners cooperating with officials.
Living In A 'Cage'
Convicted murderer Harold Rigsby has been in the SHU's solitary confinement for 14 years. His skin is pale from lack of sun. Prison officials brought him out shackled at the waist and feet.
"Twenty-three hours in your cell a day you realize that this ain't the lifestyle you want to live," he said. "You don't want to spend the rest of your life back here in a cage."
Rigsby is doing the only thing that gets a prisoner out of the SHU: He's dropping out of his prison gang and naming names.
Snitching can get you out of the SHU — one reason why California legislators are looking to make a change. Hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement won't snitch and remain isolated for years.
"What that means in California is that you accumulate these men in Special Housing Units and when Pelican Bay filled up, then it was necessary to build more of them," says David Ward, a retired criminologist who has studied California's prison system extensively.
There are now more than 3,500 men in the state's three isolation units. It costs more than $70,000 a year per prisoner to keep them there — nearly double the cost of a prisoner in the general population.
Trying Something New
Ward co-authored a study four years ago in which he urged the state to use the SHU as a punishment for bad behavior. Pelican Bay's SHU is now primarily used to house gang members and leaders; it's up to prison officials to determine who they are. A tattoo and hanging out with the wrong people in the yard can be enough.
Ward's study was shelved. The state says SHUs work and have significantly reduced prison violence.
Scott Kernan of the state's prison department says Ward's recommendations weren't possible because of prison overcrowding. Kernan says now it's time to try something new. (A recent court ruling has ordered California to drastically reduce its inmate population.)
"We are going to make the changes that we think are reasonable," Kernan said, "and with the realignment we think we are going to make changes that we have never had the chance to do before."
By then Rigsby will be out of the SHU and back in the general prison population. He says he found God during his long isolation, adding that without the harsh punishment he'd still be a gang member and be causing trouble behind bars.
"I'm putting my life in danger," he said. "If those gang members were to catch up to me, they are going to try to stab me or take me out. I'm willing to risk that because I feel it's the right thing to do."
But there are many in Pelican Bay who won't renounce the gangs. Five hundred prisoners in the prison's SHU have been in isolation for more than 10 years — many for more than two decades.