There is a new home for the "worst of the worst," the most violent and escape-prone of California's 92,000 prison inmates. It is Pelican Bay, an eerie, high-tech prison within a prison that is touted as the nation's most secure lockup.
Its name may make it sound like a resort, but Pelican Bay is a stark, silent, X-shaped place monitored by video cameras and microphones. Here, more than 1,000 prisoners live in a world of concrete and steel and silence, confined to their 80-square-foot cells for 221/2 hours a day. They are allowed out for a 90-minute exercise period, alone and without athletic equipment, in a tiny concrete "yard" with 20-foot-high walls.The prisoners in the Security Housing Unit, the core of the Pelican Bay State Prison, are set apart from the rest of the prison population. They live in eight-cell "pods," one man to a cell. Each pod has its own adjacent exercise area.
The other inmates, about 1,700 in the general population, are treated like conventional prisoners. They have access to barbells and basketballs. They eat in the prison kitchen and spend time in the "day room," with telephones and cable television. They can have conjugal visits with spouses.
But the Security Housing Unit prisoners exist in isolation.
"These are the worst of the worst, the ones who have shown they can't be managed safely," said Lt. Al Deines, a prison spokesman.
Pelican Bay opened its well-secured doors seven months ago. Previously, the state's worst prisoners usually went to San Quentin or Folsom prisons - places rich in the folklore of criminology but no longer adequate for the state's huge prison population.
At Pelican Bay, prisoners are shackled and flanked by two truncheon-wielding officers every time they are moved outside their cells.
Aside from that, guards have little direct contact with the prisoners. They open the sliding cell doors - slabs of steel perforated with small holes - by remote control pneumatics, and they use loudspeakers to direct the inmates in and out. Except for the periodic sound of a door slamming or a voice on a speaker, the Security Housing Unit - the "Shu" - is strangely quiet.
"Listen!" an officer tells a visitor. "What do you hear? Nothing. It's not like other prisons."