MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The officers at Pelican Bay State Prison in California say most of the 1,200 inmates in their isolation unit belong to prison gangs. And they say that isolation is the only way to control the problem.
NPR's Laura Sullivan picks up our story about solitary confinement.
LAURA SULLIVAN: To understand how big a problem prison gangs are here, step out onto the yard where the regular prisoners at Pelican Bay hang out. Hundreds of inmates from general population are playing basketball, circling the yard and crowding around cement tables. On this day, without exception, every inmate is divided by race.
STEVE PEREZ: Straight across from us, the Mexican guys. Straight across, those are southern Mexicans right there. You see this is the white table right here by the lights. You have your blacks.
SULLIVAN: Prison officials like Lieutenant Steve Perez openly acknowledge that crimes are taking place right in front of them.
PEREZ: There's gambling that's going on. There's drug that's being passed and sold and things like that. There are criminal transactions that are occurring.
SULLIVAN: Do the gangs run the prisons?
Unidentified Inmate #1: Yes.
Unidentified Inmate #2: Yes. Well, they keep killing people you're going to do what they tell you to do.
Inmate #1: Exactly. Out of fear, out of self-preservation.
SULLIVAN: Two former high-ranking leaders of a branch of the Aryan Brotherhood are sitting at a table. Almost everyone else has left the yard. They and their families on the outside have bounties on their heads because they recently left the gang, so they don't want their names revealed.
Inmate #1: If you're 90 days in the house and a gang member tells you, you go stab that dude right there or you should go back in and stab your cellie, you're going to do what you're told. Because if you don't, you're going to be killed.
SULLIVAN: Officials say 70 percent of the inmates in California's prisons are in some way affiliated with prison gangs. Associate Warden Larry Williams acknowledges that prison gangs are an enormous problem that they do not have control over.
LARRY WILLIAMS: Every time we pluck one out, there's a new one that pops up.
SULLIVAN: And if you ask Larry Williams, do the gangs control this prison?
WILLIAMS: The biggest part of me wants to say no. But, you know, prisons only run with the consent of the inmates. The administration and the officers do have control of the prisons. But there's times when you lose control.
SULLIVAN: It's been this way since the 1980s, when officials say the number of inmates exploded and rehabilitative programs disappeared. Tension grew and so did boredom and the gangs filled the gap. California's answer to the gangs was and is the SHU.
Even locked in isolation, some inmates have managed to find ways to kill each other and assault staff. On a recent afternoon, half a dozen officers are tearing through the cells in one hallway.
(SOUNDBITE OF OFFICERS TOSSING CELL)
SULLIVAN: They're searching desperately for a metal binder clip they believe one of the inmates is hiding. Remember, there's really nothing in these cells beyond spare underwear, letters and paper cups. Everything else is cement.
NORRIS: I checked up inside all the -
SULLIVAN: It takes almost an entire day, but finally, hidden inside a crack in the concrete wall, Officer Buchanan discovers a piece of the binder clip.
BUCHANAN: So, you can even see where it's been sharpened.
SULLIVAN: What was once a paper fastener has become a lethal weapon. A binder clip transformed into a razor blade. In the cell next door, Sergeant France holds up a couple of staples she's found.
FRANCE: They use the staples and sharpen the point and they wrap paper real tight and make a spear out of it and it'll go through the perforations in the cell. They can spear someone with it.
SULLIVAN: Lieutenant Steve Perez says inmates pull out the elastic of their underwear and braid it into a kind of superpower bow to fire their weapon.
PEREZ: They can project a spear coming out of there with about 800 pounds per square foot. And 800 pounds per foot into your neck, it'll drive that right in there. And what does he have on it? Does he have feces on it? Does he have HIV? Does he have hepatitis? And that's not unusual.
SULLIVAN: Prison officials say by removing the most dangerous gang members and putting them in segregation, it makes the regular prison safer for the rest of the inmates and it weakens the gangs.
But Jim, a 38-year-old inmate from Long Beach, says that's wishful thinking. He says to gang members, coming to the SHU is an honor.
JIM: Coming up here, it was the big thing. Put in work. Come up here to be with the big homies.
SULLIVAN: He says gang leaders still control the gangs from inside the SHU. Mostly by mailing each other letters. If you show up to prison and don't join the gang of your race, says Jim, you'll be victimized by the other gangs within days.
JIM: You're a target just because of the color of your skin. So you might as well - the lines get divided and you got to take sides.
SULLIVAN: Jim was sent to prison 10 years ago for armed robbery. Several years later he was put in segregation for assaulting other prisoners when he joined a prison gang called the Nazi Low Riders.
JIM: It's racial. It's definitely racist.
SULLIVAN: Were you that way before you came to prison?
JIM: No. I wasn't that way before I came to prison, but prison made me that way.
SULLIVAN: There are really only two ways out of Pelican Bay SHU. Prove to prison officials that you have not been involved in gang activity for six years - this rarely happens. Or tell everything you know about your gang. This is what Jim is trying to do now.
But it has a cost. He says he's already been warned through the grapevine that if he gets out of the SHU, he's a dead man. But after seven years in isolation, Jim says he doesn't care anymore.
JIM: A place like this is designed to drive you crazy. It's not just designed to, you know, isolate you from the general population. This is designed to break you. It's hard. It's made me different. It's made me spiteful, you know.
WILLIAMS: Pelican Bay was designed to make the inmates feel, and to let society know, this is the end of the road. If you have to be housed in this facility, you're the worst inmates we have.
SULLIVAN: Prison officials like Associate Warden Larry Williams say without the SHU, the gang problem would be even worse. But after almost 20 years, California is now holding more inmates in solitary confinement than it ever has. And its gang problem is worse than it has ever been. And instead of getting less violent, over the years the violence rates at Pelican Bay have actually gone up.
Do you worry at all that segregation inherently may make them worse?
WILLIAMS: I can't totally disagree that it might affect the inmates some kind of way. Might make you mad for a while. But the benefit of these security housing units is we take those people who go out there and cause the trouble and we lock them up here to get them off the main line so that it can function the way it's designed to and the way we would like it to and the way the inmates would like it to.
SULLIVAN: Ninety-five percent of the inmates here in Pelican Bay SHU are scheduled to be released back into the public. They'll spend a few weeks in a local prison before rejoining society with little, if any, preparation for how to live a life around people. And for every inmate that leaves, there is another one waiting to take his place.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And you can trace the history of solitary confinement in the United States at our website, NPR.org.
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