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Inside Pelican Bay State Prison's 'Secure Housing Unit'

Thousands of inmates in California prisons are held basically in solitary confinement, often for years on end. Authorities say the practice serves to isolate prison gang members. Human rights activists say it's illegal and inhumane.

Inmates staged a protest last month, going on a hunger strike for three weeks to object to the conditions. Yesterday, California prison officials took a handful of reporters to Pelican Bay State Prison to get a view inside. KPCC's Julie Small was one of them.

You walk into an area and the gate closes behind you, and the gate in front of you doesn't open until the gate behind you closes – that's how you know you're in a prison. Corrections officials took reporters into the Secure Housing Unit area, which is very bleak.

Outside, it's just gravel. Inside, all of the cells don't face out, they face into corridors. There's rows of cells of inmates side by side, where they can't look at each other, but they can talk to each other.

There's an exercise yard, the one place that inmates in the SHU get to go outside of their cell on a daily basis. They get an hour to an hour-and-a-half to exercise in a small, concrete yard with a patch of sunlight at the top. It's not much of a reprieve from being inside a cell.

The cells are very small – approximately 6 by 8 feet. They're gray, with just the basics.

There are metal toilets and sinks. The toilets are on timers, due to instances where inmates will protest by flushing things down a toilet; they only flush every so often.

The SHU eliminates everything they thought they could have in regular cells. They have televisions, but they're clear – they have a screen, but behind them you can see the construction of the televisions, so that prison guards can detect any weapons that might be hidden. Eventually Corrections is moving to flat screens for that very reason.

Prison officials' message was that the SHU is all about controlling the gangs in California prisons. Before the tour, reporters spent time with a warden and a gang investigator who went through a history of the gangs that have formed in the California prisons and have become very powerful.

There have been incidents where the gangs were able to order hits from inside Pelican Bay, when the whole idea of the prison was to isolate prisoners so much they wouldn't be able to do that.

Prison officials changed their strategy, rearranging inmates so they can't order hits. They're now more isolated, and officials say it's working.

The only way out of the SHU is to "rat" on another inmate, as they would say. Corrections officials use the term "debrief." That's where a prisoner is asked to renounce the gang completely and tell corrections officials everything they know about their gang, other gangs, crimes you were involved in, etc.

If a prisoner does that, they officials have a period of time where they try to determine if the prisoner is sincere, and if they determine that to be the case, the prisoner gets to leave the SHU. They're then taken to a yard with protective custody, because as inmates say, it's dangerous when you leave a gang. You can get retaliated against if you were in the SHU; you would probably be murdered.

Some inmates who've "debriefed" were pale, because they don't have any time in direct sunlight. One prisoner said that being in the SHU was the end of the line. He decided after a while that he didn't want to participate in the gang anymore; he became religious and decided he wanted to do something different with his life. He says he told them everything he knows. He didn't seem to regret it and believed that this is what he wanted to do.

Based on what the warden said, it seems like he wants to expand the program, not necessarily change it. There may be more people in the prison system that might be considered for this kind of confinement.

Prison gangs control the yards in California prisons, so pretty much every prisoner is associated in some way with a gang. One major change activists would like to see: Instead of putting prisoners in the SHU because they're gang affiliates, Corrections could add the criteria that the inmate would have had to commit some sort of crime in prison as part of the gang, not just be a member. Prison officials are considering that.

- Julie Small, Shirley Jahad & Mike Roe