Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pelican Bay State Prison

In 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison was cut out of a dense forest near Crescent City, CA. The highlight of the new super-max prison was the Security Housing Unit (SHU), the X-shaped building at front, where 1,300 prisoners are kept in long-term solitary confinement, under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation.

Image from :

This is where the CDCR keeps Bryan .  Although I didn’t think I would ever visit Bryan, I filled out the visiting form, just in case.  My first visit was September 2010.  After a background check and other processes taking about 4-6-weeks, I was approved.  For each visit, I must call on a Monday and leave a message requesting a reservation for a visiting booth that coming weekend.  His section is allowed a two hour visit on Saturday and a two hour visit on Sunday.

After driving the 15 minutes from Crescent City, I enter the gate at the bottom of the picture (near that blue tower in the lower left) and drive clockwise to the parking lot (at the top of the picture).  I enter the Visiting Processing Area at 10:00am (the top, center building), fill out my form and give the VR staff my ID. The CDCR Visiting Room staff is friendly in a professional way, I never feel bad about visiting a prisoner.

There are strict rules about what to wear, but it really comes down to no under wire bras and no blue jeans or blue shirts as they resemble the prisoners’ uniforms at most CDCR facilities.  We then remove any metal items like jewelry, take off our shoes and pass through a very sensitive metal detector…. Exactly like the airport.
My information is entered into the computer and Bryan’s Section is called and told to prepare him for visit.  At 10:45 I get on a small bus with about 20 other visitors for the ride to the front of the SHU (the black shadowed area where the  X-intersects.)

Once in the SHU visiting area, I give the processing staff my paperwork and am assigned a booth where Bryan is waiting.  Only once did I arrive first and see him brought into his side of the booth in shackles, which were removed and the door closed.  I wasn’t too bothered by this…chains are the price one pays for a visit.

A box of hand and leg restraints at Colorado State Penitentiary. When moved out of their cells, inmates are restrained by hand and leg cuffs.

What I don’t see and Bryan has never mentioned is that he must undergo a complete strip search, probably into and out of visit. Here is an image and description of a Pelican Bay SHU strip search, also from the  webpage:

An inmate in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison removes all his clothing, spreads his toes and buttocks and is handcuffed without coming into physical contact with prison guards before a visit to the prison dentist.

After our visits, I leave the booth and Bryan is returned to his isolated cell, without even a window in the door.

Imagine being locked up in a windowless concrete cell the size of a small bathroom for 23 hours a day, without any face-to-face contact with another human being. You never see sunlight or a blade of grass. Whenever you leave your cell you’re handcuffed and shackled, hands-to-waist, ankle-to-ankle. Imagine being locked in these conditions for years. This is what it’s like to be in the Pelican Bay SHU.

This has been Bryan’s reality for 16 years.  

A Pelican Bay Prison Guard carries a rifle in the control room of the ultra-maximum Security Housing Unit, known as the SHU, whenever a guard enters one of the groups of 10 cells.

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