On Memorial Day weekend, close to a hundred visitors traveled by plane, train, bus, and car to Pelican Bay State Prison. The long weekend, with the prospect of not having to rush back to work on Monday morning, meant that relatives could make the expensive, lengthy trip to the Northern-most tip of California, where a cluster of boxy-beige nondescript buildings warehouse the 1,500 men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), in the most extreme conditions of solitary confinement in the state.
Crescent City is 736 miles from Los Angeles, where many of the men held at Pelican Bay Prison are originally from. That can easily amount to a fifteen-hour drive, the last four of which are on a dark, sinuous road flanked by ancient redwoods. For families with limited money and resources, making this trip can be akin to the obstacle-laden course navigated by Odysseus on his ten-year journey home from Troy.
“At least three family members made it up this weekend that have never come before and would never have been able to make it on their own,” said Dolores Canales, co-founder of the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC), “people have health problems, the trip is too expensive—some are scared to come up.”
By pairing families together to share hotel rooms and carpooling through the night, CFASC has been able to winnow the cost of the trip down to one hundred and fifty dollars per person. For some of the families this literally opens up the opportunity to see their loved ones for the first time in ten years—the same eternity it took Odysseus to get home.
The Intake Room
A nervous carload of mothers, wives, and a lone brother are greeted at the gate by an overly cheerful Correctional Officer (CO). He chuckles as he sorts through their IDs, “SHU or Main?” he asks.
“SHU” several people say in unison, piercing the last ten minutes of silence. That means their loved ones live in cramped, windowless cells 23 hours a day; that their only opportunity to glimpse the world outside their cells is an hour a day in a slightly larger, open-air cell; and that visits with their friends and family will be through thick glass, with no physical contact allowed.
Inside the waiting room, about 25 women and 2 men wait impatiently for the CO to call their names and make sure their clothing complies with Pelican Bay’s regulations. No bras with underwire, no tight or revealing clothing, no skirts above the knee. A pregnant young woman gets sent back to her car to change her pants, deemed inappropriately tight. Others have to change their shirts if the fabric is too thin, take off earrings and leave behind letters and pictures they’ve brought—there is a limit of ten pictures and only stud-earrings are allowed.
On the wall in the waiting room is a mounted glass case filled with sweatshirts for sale. “Pelican Bay State Prison,” one reads, “Hard Luck Café.” “Security Housing Units,” reads another, “Like Two Peas in a Pod.”
“I probably would have laughed at that years ago,” says one woman,“assuming all these guys deserve what they get.” She says she’s made the trip to Pelican Bay four times a year since her son was sent here in 1997. “Now that it’s my son,” she adds, “I know better.”
This room of mostly women makes one think of the gaping holes left in communities during times of war, when traditionally it’s the women who step up to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of brothers and husbands in their absence.
“I’m goin’ crazy just sitting here waiting,” says one older woman, “I’ve been sick,” she continues, “I can’t fly. I can’t drive anymore. Here I am to see my son after thirteen years.”
As if on cue a frustrated young woman begins shaking the vending machine when her chips don’t drop down. One-by-one, family members are asked to creep sideways through a hypersensitive metal detector, the alarm constantly going off.
“When we first started coming up in 2011,” said Canales, “the visiting room would sometimes be empty—now we worry if we’re even gonna get in. This is a good thing.”
In 2011 the second major hunger strike began in California’s prisons, one of the core demands being the end of long-term solitary confinement. Canales and a few other mothers were at the center of outside support, “After that hunger strike ended we realized we needed to form a group and keep organizing. After all, our husbands and kids were still in solitary.”
Since then Dolores and CFASC have been at the center of it all. In 2013 another hunger strike erupted; this time 29,000 prisoners refused meals and a devoted core lasted over 60 days. CFASC was involved at every level: organizing demonstrations, sitting on the Mediation Team to negotiate the terms of ending the strike with prison officials and finding ways for families on the outside to constantly stay involved. “A lot if times it was the guys inside Pelican Bay that told their family members to call us,” said Canales, “they urged them to get involved in the political process.”
Groups of 15 are shuttled in a van to the SHU visiting room. Each person has received a number, and they make their way to the small booths where they will spend the next three hours talking to their loved ones through thick glass, their mouths pressed to a plastic phone receiver mounted to the wall beside them. Visitors are allowed access to a vending machine where they can buy soda and snacks, but they can’t share them. No contact is allowed, nothing but words can be passed between them.
Most these men are validated gang members or associates which means that “evidence” such as a letter, an address, drawing or possession of the wrong book is enough to place them in solitary confinement for year, decades or indefinitely. Many have never committed a violent act in prison, they are deemed guilty by association and the only chance they have to get back to the mainline is to debrief, which mean giving information, often false, on other prisoners.
Every once in a while, a young woman overcome with emotion will rush towards the public bathroom, her child in tow. Others press their hands to the glass to “touch” their husband, brother or son on the other side. The men are pale and smiling, wearing blaring white jumpsuits tied in the front like a backward hospital gown.
“Since the hunger strike,” Canales said, “The men inside have been allowed to order additional items from the canteen. They’ve been given shorts and bowls; a pull-up bar and access to a handball—you have to remember that for decades they’ve had nothing to work out with. More recently, the visits have been expanded to three hours instead if what used to be more like an hour and a half.”
Though these improvements have been largely well received by prisoners and their families, Canales points out that they do nothing to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement. “We definitely oppose the new legislation presented by Loni Hancock,” Canales continues, referring to the recently proposed California Senate Bill 892, “unless it’s amended. There are a few good aspects to it, but others are problematic. Ultimately, it still allows for the use of indefinite solitary confinement, no end in sight, that’s completely unacceptable.”
Leaving The Razor Wire Behind
Cars line up behind the security booth in the afternoon heat, eager to speed off and leave the razor wire and boxy-beige buildings behind, where they’re husbands, sons and fathers remain, many with no end in sight. Some will make their way to local restaurants to try and fill the nagging emptiness with warm food, while others will need to immediately start the long drive back to Los Angeles.
“Visits mean everything to these guys,” Canales says while sitting down to eat with a small group of CFASC members, “It can often put their routines back on a positive course. You hear stories of guys that have been doing nothing but watching TV months, they don’t even want to go out to yard. The guys call this ‘checking out’ and it can be dangerous, the worst cases ending in suicide. After a visit some of these guys turn their lives around and start being productive again.”
A small group of CFASC members stop for a walk in the redwoods. One mother in her 70s pierces the silence by telling scandalous jokes in Spanish and soon no one can stop laughing. “That’s why my visits keep my son going,” she exclaims, “I can always make him laugh.”
These women seem heartened by the simple joy of being together and the success of this weekend’s journey. “So many of the men don’t get visits,” comments one woman, thinking of the hundreds of men who went without, “I feel terrible for them.”