The easiest way to portray life in the SHU for the lay person is to just picture a maximum security prison inside the walls of a bigger maximum security prison. Now some prisons will have a unit built into the main prison, but if we are talking about a facility to house the most problematic inmates in CA, some will even have a stand-alone building. This building has its own staff that report right to the SHU and pretty much have no coexistence with the main prison. Pelican Bay State Prison, located in Crescent City, CA, is just this way. It is an infamous building, that has seen its fair share of controversy. Looking from above, the SHU at Pelican Bay is chillingly designed in the shape of an X.
Thirteen years ago 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 builing at front, where 1,300 of the state’s most hardened criminals are kept in near isolation.
After being in the system a bit myself, let me first tell you that these cells are not the deep, dark, solitary confinement you see in the movies. They are not thrown in there with no clothes, nor do they get firehoused every other day. But, nonetheless, they are extremely detrimental to the mental health of any inmate sent there. Just picture being locked in your bathroom for years at a time, with no windows, and at the mercy of just Correctional Officers. You rely on them for every meal, your clothing exchange, when the lights dim or do not. Why I say that is one of the two torturous methods used in the SHU is keeping the lights on 24/7, and disturbing inmates’ sleep every 30 minutes under the guise of “Suicide Checks.” This has been causing inmates already dealing with PTSD to suffer from serious Sleep Deprivation.
This practice has caused many prisoners’ rights’ advocate groups to publish videos and excerpts of Hunger Strikes by prisoners, and a call to action by family members of those incarcerated.
When we try to understand the motives behind the CDCR and its relationship to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, we may see how Pelican Bay in CA may have been somewhat of a model for the federal ADX in Florence, CO(Administrative Max-Florence, CO.
Before 1983, Solitary and Isolation Units were somewhat unheard of. It was in that year that Thomas Silverstein, a ranking member of the Aryan Brotherhood, murdered officer Merle Clutts at the USP in Marion, Ill. That same day, but in the afternoon another guard was murdered. It was the first time two guards had been killed by 2 different inmates on the same day. As a result, Marion went on a total lockdown but never came off. This was the actual birth of the Supermax, and inmates confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, only coming out for showers and exercise. Overnight, Marion became the prison to send all problem inmates in the Federal System too. It was now a Control Unit Prison. Control Units are another name for AdSeg, The Hole, The SHU and other units like those. As Marion aged, the need for a newer, state of the art facility arose that could be built for the sole purpose of confining and punishing problem inmates. ADX now houses Prison Gangs, Mafia Dons, Terrorists, and OKC bomber Terry Nichols. The ADX has, Soundproof cells, computerized opening of cell doors, Shower in the cell, and the need for limited human contact has basically been wiped out in this prison. Many prisoners have committed suicide as a result, mutilated their own body parts, and have become very delusional suffering from Psychosis as they now have visual and auditory hallucinations. In short, their is talk of opening a new ADX, with so many people, families, and congress seeing the devastation, it is hard to believe. In closing, in a 60 minutes interview, a former warden of ADX Florence has said he likens this facility to a “Cleaner Version of Hell.” Now that should get all of our attention. But the ADX is not the only Federal Supermax doing harm to its inmates. Older Penitenties in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, such as USP Lewisburg are known for leaving inmates in 4 point restraints up to 3 days.