Pelican Bay State Prison

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Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP)
Seal of the Calirfornia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.png
Aerial shot of Pelican Bay State Prison, taken 27-July-2009.jpg
Location Crescent City, Del Norte County, California
Coordinates 41°51′18″N 124°09′00″W / 41.855°N 124.15°W / 41.855; -124.15Coordinates: 41°51′18″N 124°09′00″W / 41.855°N 124.15°W / 41.855; -124.15
Status Operational
Security class Supermax
Capacity 2,380
Population 2,977 (125.1%) (as of 31 December 2012[1])
Opened 1989
Managed by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Director Eric Cardin, Warden (acting)

Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is a supermax California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison in Crescent City, California. The 275-acre (111 ha) facility has an 'X' section designed to keep California's known "worst of the worst" prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.[2] It takes its name from a shallow bay on the Pacific coast, about 2 miles (3 km) to the west. The prison lies in a detached section of Crescent City that is several miles north of the main urban area.


Pelican Bay opened in 1989.[3] Pelican Bay's grounds and operations are physically divided. Half of the prison holds Level IV prisoners in a "general population" environment with outside exercise courts. The other half of the prison contains Pelican Bay's best-known feature: an X-shaped cluster of white buildings and barren ground known as the Security Housing Unit (SHU).[4] An electric fence surrounds the entire perimeter.

The 8-by-10-foot (2.4 m × 3.0 m) cells of the Pelican Bay SHU, or Secure Housing Unit, are made of smooth, poured concrete. They have no windows. Instead, there are fluorescent lights, which the inmates can control. For at least twenty-two hours every day, prisoners remain in their cells, looking out through a perforated steel door at a solid concrete wall. Food is delivered twice a day (breakfast, sack lunch, and dinner) through a slot in the cell door.

A correctional officer in a central control booth controls these doors; he can press a button and allow one prisoner at a time to go out to a shower, or to his court-mandated five hours per week of outdoor exercise. This exercise takes place in a cement yard, often called a "dog run", which extends the length of three cells, and has a roof partially open to the sky. The correctional officer in the control booth is always armed; from his central vantage point in the control booth, he can shoot onto any one of six pods, each containing eight cells.[5]

Pelican Bay SHU[edit]

Prisoners in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU) spend an average of eight years in solitary confinement, before being released back into the general prison population, or onto parole. Some prisoners who were placed in the SHU when it opened are still held there, without indication that they will ever be released back into general population. While some prisoners have spent decades in the Pelican Bay SHU, most prisoners are eventually released. On average, sixteen prisoners per month are released directly from the Pelican Bay SHU onto parole in California. The majority of inmates housed within the SHU are alleged prison gang members/associates. A validated/alleged prison gang member/associate will spend an average of six years in the SHU. However, inmates are afforded the opportunity to "debrief" and give a written account of their gang participation. If their account shows a proper degree of repentance and is satisfactory to the authorities they will be transferred to a different prison and allowed to "do their time" in protective custody. However, most inmates choose not to participate in the debrief process, which they call "snitching". [6]

There are 1,107 prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU as of June 15, 2011 and 3,081 total prisoners housed in Pelican Bay as of April 4, 2012. The design capacity of Pelican Bay is 2,380 inmates.

Alleged psychological effect[edit]

Prisoners, lawyers for the prisoners, and prisoner advocates have argued that SHU confinement is cruel and unusual punishment due to the severe conditions. Some psychiatrists and psychologists have described a "SHU syndrome", a condition which, they say, affects prisoners who spend more than a few months in isolation. The symptoms reportedly resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder, including hallucinations, depression, anxiety, anger and suicide.[7]

Hunger strikes[edit]

Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have organized hunger strikes in protest of conditions there, chiefly the punishment of solitary confinement. In 2002, a reported 60 SHU prisoners began a hunger strike.[8]

Another hunger strike was reported to have begun on July 1, 2011. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported that "less than two dozen" were refusing food.[9] The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition reported close to 100% participation in the SHU on the first day, with the strike spreading to the Pelican Bay general population on the second day. The Coalition also reported that the strike had spread to Corcoran and Folsom prisons, with over 100 prisoners participating.[10] The CDCR subsequently stated that 6600 prisoners had refused food in the first days of the strike, and that after five days, more than 2000 remained on strike. Most inmates reportedly consumed food purchased from the canteen; however, others were refusing all food with the stated intention to strike indefinitely.[11] SHU prisoner Mutop DuGuya stated, "No one wants to die. Yet under this current system of what amounts to intense torture, what choice do we have? If one is to die, it will be on our own terms."[12]

On July 8, 2013, prisoners resumed the July 2011 hunger strike, due to alleged broken promises and cruel conditions, with upwards of 29,000 prisoners across California joining in the hunger strike.[13]


In May 2012, California's prison system faced a lawsuit from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and other California attorneys on behalf of ten men incarcerated in the SHU. The plaintiffs were all housed in the SHU for 11 to 22 years, some having been transferred directly from other SHUs. The suit claims that the prisoners "have been incarcerated California’s Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit ("SHU") for an unconscionably long period of time without meaningful review of their placement", that "California's uniquely harsh regime of prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay is inhumane and debilitating", and that "[t]he solitary confinement regime at Pelican Bay... violates the United States Constitution's requirement of due process and prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment".[14]

Television and film[edit]

In the fictional series Life, Detective Charlie Crews spends twelve years in Pelican Bay for a triple homicide he did not commit, part of it spent in the SHU, as the background of the series' plot. In the TV series The Shield, the main character, Vic Mackey regularly threatens recalcitrant suspects with only the name of the prison. In the 2001 film Training Day, Alonzo Harris, the character portrayed by Denzel Washington, tells everyone in one of the last scenes that they are going to "be playing basketball in Pelican Bay" if they mess with him, continuing to say "SHU program, Nigga" referencing the solitary confinement portion of the prison. Pelican Bay is also referenced in two films directed by Michael Mann. In Heat, the psychopathic character Waingro, portrayed by Kevin Gage, admits to having spent time in "the SHU at Pelican Bay" during his most recent stint in prison. In Miami Vice, the characters of Crockett and Tubbs, portrayed by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, are given fictitious criminal identities before they go undercover, which among other things imply that the two met while serving time in Pelican Bay.

Notable Inmates[edit]


  1. ^ Offender Information Services Branch (3 January 2013). "Monthly Report of Population". California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. p. 2. Retrieved 15 January 2013. 
  2. ^ Reiter, Keramet. "A Brief History of Pelican Bay". Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. Retrieved 20 November 2013. 
  3. ^ "Pelican Bay Website". Pelican Bay Website. 
  4. ^ Corey Weinstein and Eric Cummins, "The Crime of punishment: Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison", in Criminal Injustice, ed. Elihu Rosenblatt, South EndPress, 1996.
  5. ^ California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Department Operations Manual (Updated through January 1, 2009), available online at:, California Code of Regulations 2009: Title 15, Secs. 3000, 3341.5.
  6. ^ Reiter, Keramet. Parole, Snitch, or Die: California’s Supermax Prisons and Prisoners, 1987-2007. Institute for the Study of Social Change Working Paper Series 2009-2010.42 (July 7, 2010), available online at:
  7. ^ Haney, Craig. "Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and 'Supermax' Confinement", Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 49 No. 1, at 124-156 (Jan. 2003)
  8. ^ Warren, Jennifer. "Striking Prisoners Spurn Food: Pelican Bay Inmates Protest Policy that Sends Reputed Gang Members to Segregation Units." Times: November 4, 2002
  9. ^ Quinones, Sam. "State says prison hunger strike involves fewer than two dozen inmates." Los Angeles Times:,0,2724923.story
  10. ^ Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. "Hunger Strike Grows and CDCR Lies about Numbers":
  11. ^ Elias, Paul. "Thousands of Calif prisoners refusing state food." Washington Examiner July 6, 2011:
  12. ^ DuGuya, Mutop. "Why Prisoners are Protesting Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Units Peaceful Protest Hunger Strike Starting July 1, 2011":
  13. ^ Tim Phillips, "Civil Disobedient Begins Hunger Strike, as Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Resumes Tomorrow", Activist Defense, July 7, 2013.
  14. ^ "PLAINTIFFS' SECOND AMENDED COMPLAINT". Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  15. ^ a b c
  16. ^ Sanyika Shakur
  17. ^
  18. ^

External links[edit]

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