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The Plot From Solitary

An exercise yard in the Pelican Bay SHU.  

It is also an amazing prison. Pelican Bay opened in 1989 in response not just to the escalation of crime during the 1980s but to the particular shape that crime had taken. In California, where the inmate population had quadrupled in a decade, prison gangs had been strengthened by the sheer number of people moving through the system. What were at first temporary self-defense cadres became more permanent, and powerful, until they grew into umbrella groups of street gangs. In 1989, a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, a gang formed in prison, shot and killed Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party, on a West Oakland street. Within a few years, senior leaders of the Mexican Mafia, another prison gang, were asserting control over all of the Hispanic street crews in Southern California: The Mafia taxed street drug sales in return for protecting affiliated gang members who entered the system. Throughout the ’80s, the state had been building ever-more-restrictive units in an effort to quarantine the most influential gang leaders, but none had been effective enough. Pelican Bay was meant to solve that problem.

“From the time it opened, Pelican Bay was seen as having some historical significance,” says Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies prisons. “Many of us saw Pelican Bay as perhaps the wave of the future, and that’s what it became.”

The Pelican Bay SHU, which houses 1,100 prisoners in almost as many cells, takes up half of the prison and operates under policies designed less to punish prisoners than to isolate them from other members of their gangs. Arriving inmates are often told that there are only three ways to leave the SHU: “Parole, snitch, or die.” But parole boards routinely inform SHU inmates that they will not be granted parole until they agree to leave their gang and explain its operations, a formal process known as debriefing. Doing so would send them back to a regular prison, where they would likely become gang targets. So many SHU inmates believe they only really have one option. “A while back, I realized I was probably going to spend the rest of my life in the SHU,” Ashker told me.

Haney visited Pelican Bay three years after it opened and surveyed 100 SHU inmates as an expert consultant to a prisoner lawsuit challenging the unit’s constitutionality. On his first day at the prison, the psychologist saw such florid psychosis that he called the attorneys and urged them to emphasize the confinement of the mentally ill. Once Haney began his interviews, he found serious psychological disturbances in nearly every prisoner. More than 70 percent exhibited symptoms of “impending nervous breakdown”; more than 40 percent suffered from hallucinations; 27 percent had suicidal thoughts. Haney noticed something subtler, too: A pervasive asociality, a distancing. More than three-quarters of the prisoners exhibited symptoms of social withdrawal. Even longtime prisoners reported feeling a profound loss of control when they entered the SHU, in part because they weren’t sure whether they’d ever be released. Many reported waking up with a rolling, nonspecific anxiety. The SHU “hovers on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” wrote Thelton Henderson, the federal judge who decided the prisoner lawsuit in 1995. You can sense a vast uncertainty in that first word, hovers. The judge ordered major reforms—the seriously mentally ill, for instance, could no longer be housed there—but he let the SHU stand.

That was more than 18 years ago. Some of the same prisoners are still there. Haney returned to Pelican Bay last year, for a ­follow-up study, and found that these ­patterns of self-isolation had deepened. Many inmates had discouraged family members from visiting, and some seemed to consider all social interactions a nuisance. “They have systematically extinguished all of the social skills they need to survive,” Haney says. Those inmates who do comparatively well tend to replace the social networks outside the SHU with those within it—which, in a society composed of alleged gang members, often means gangs. “In isolation,” he says, “gang activity is the only contact that is possible; it is the only loyalty that is possible; it is the only connection that is possible.”

This is one way of understanding the paradox of American mass incarceration: There are 2.4 million prisoners across the country, four times more than in 1980, and Supermax facilities managed similar to Pelican Bay in at least 44 states, and though this corresponds with a dramatic drop in street crime, the system of prison gangs has flourished. In Pelican Bay, there are significantly fewer murders in the prison than there were a decade ago, but the gangs’ power has hardly softened: Prosecutors allege that current SHU inmates manage the affairs of street gangs in Los Angeles and direct negotiations with Mexican cartels. Elsewhere, the situation is even less stable. Baltimore’s city jail had, by 2012, fallen so ­completely under the control of a prison gang that, according to prosecutors, its leader not only maintained a network of guards who smuggled in drugs and weapons, but also impregnated four guards while behind bars. Last year in Colorado, an alleged member of a white prison gang, who had served several years in SHU-like isolation, assassinated the executive director of the state’s prison system on the official’s own doorstep.