Pelican Bay State Prison

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Pelican Bay State Prison
Seal of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.png
Aerial shot of Pelican Bay State Prison, taken 27-July-2009.jpg
LocationCrescent City, Del Norte County, California
Coordinates41°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
Security classSupermax
Population2,608 (109.6% capacity) (as of April 30, 2020[1])
Managed byCalifornia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
WardenJames Robertson

Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is the only supermax facility in the state of California. This prison (which is 275 acres (111 ha)) is located in Del Norte County, California. The prison takes its name from a shallow bay on the Pacific coast, about 2 mi (3.2 km) to the west. The prison lies in a detached section of Crescent City, several miles north of the main urban area and just south of the Oregon border. PBSP's primary purpose is to house violent male prisoners from the California state prison system; 40% of Pelican State's inmates are serving life sentences and nearly all have histories of violence at other California prisons which resulted in their transfer to Pelican Bay. The sole exception are the institution's minimum security inmates, who work as part of the prison's outside maintenance and firefighter programs.

Facilities A and B are designated as Level IV, General Population (GP) facilities with two-man cells. Facility-C, Restricted Housing (RH), consist of the only remaining, dedicated long-term Security Housing Units (SHU), C-7 through C-12, in the state. In addition to the supermax population, RH also consist of Administrative Segregation (Ad/Seg) housing units, C-1 through C-6 and Short Term Restrictive Housing (STRH) Facility-D is designated as a Level II Facility. There is also a collocated 400-bed Level I, Minimum Security unit (outside of the secure perimeter) which provides inmate orderlies for general service tasks at and around the main prison.


Location of Crescent City in Del Norte county and location of Del Norte in California

Pelican Bay opened in 1989.[2] Pelican Bay's grounds and operations are physically divided. Half of the prison holds Level IV (maximum security) inmates in a General Population (GP) environment with outside exercise courts and yards. The other half of the prison contains the prison's best-known feature: an X-shaped cluster of white buildings and barren ground known as the Security Housing Unit, or SHU.[3] An electric fence surrounds the entire perimeter.

The 8-by-10-foot (2.4 m × 3.0 m) cells of the SHU are made of smooth, poured concrete with perforated cell fronts and doors. There are no windows located within the cells. Instead, there are fluorescent lights, which the inmates can control. SHU inmates are confined to their assigned cells for up to twenty-three hours a day, looking out through a perforated steel door at a solid concrete wall. Food is delivered by correctional officers twice a day (breakfast, sack lunch, and dinner), through a slot in the cell door.

Each of the twelve (12) housing units located in Facility-C, RH have an armed correctional officer in a control booth. Control booths are located in the center of each housing unit. The control officer can view into all six pods in the housing unit, from his or her central vantage point. The control officer controls the doors throughout the housing unit, which contains six pods. Each pod contains eight cells. The officer can supervise the release of inmates assigned to the housing unit. The control officer can allow one, or two inmates, if they are cell mates (cellies), out of their assigned cell to shower or exercise. Inmates are allowed to exercise for up to ten hours of court-mandated outdoor exercise per week. Exercise takes place in a concrete yard, which extends the length of three cells, and has a roof partially open to the sky.[4]

As of April 30, 2020, Pelican Bay was incarcerating people at 109.6% of its design capacity, with 2,608 occupants.[1]

Psychological effect[edit]

Inmates, their lawyers, and prisoner advocate groups have tried to argue that confinement in the SHU is cruel and unusual punishment, due to severe conditions. However, contrary to popular belief, the SHU is not composed of solitary confinement cells. Inmates housed in the same pod can talk with each other and even see each other when released from their assigned cells. RH, SHU and Ad/Seg consists of twelve (12) housing units, with six pods per housing unit and eight cells per pod. Some psychiatrists and psychologists who support inmates housed in the SHU have described a "SHU syndrome",[5][6][7] a condition which, they say, affects inmates 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.[8] The cause of most of these symptoms is isolation;[citation needed] most SHU inmates experience isolation for 23 hours a day with limited human contact other than receiving meals through a slot in the cell door.[citation needed]

Hunger strikes[edit]

PBSP, SHU prisoners have organized hunger strikes in protest of conditions there, chiefly the punishment of solitary confinement. In 2002, a reported 60 SHU inmates began a hunger strike.[9]

Another hunger strike was reported to have begun on July 1, 2011. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reported that "less than two dozen" were refusing food.[10] The CDCR subsequently stated that 6,600 inmates had refused food in the first days of the strike, and that after five days, more than 2,000 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]

On July 8, 2013, inmates resumed the July 2011 hunger strike, alleging a failure to uphold promises on the part of the CDCR, with upwards of 29,000 prisoners across California joining in the hunger strike. Strikers demanded reform to "cruel" policies used to identify and subsequently isolate or punish alleged gang members, including lengthy solitary confinement, as well as quality of living improvements.[12]

Lawsuit and termination of unlimited isolation policy[edit]

In May 2012, California's prison system faced a lawsuit from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for inmates 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 inmates "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".[13]

In August 2015, as a result of the aforementioned class-action lawsuit, California agreed to end its unlimited isolation policy. Inmates are no longer isolated as a preventive measure; only those who commit new crimes while incarcerated are eligible for up to five years of isolation.[14] Since the lawsuit's settlement, hundreds of inmates who had served years in Pelican Bay's SHU have been transferred to other prisons and are now doing their time in general population settings. The result has been the virtual depopulation of the entire SHU program, and it is anticipated by some experts the SHU program may soon be disbanded entirely.

Notable inmates[edit]

  • Hugo Pinell: One of six inmates infamous for their 1971 escape attempt from San Quentin State Prison that left six people dead. Spent 43 years in long-term confinement (23 of those years were spent in the SHU) - longer than any other inmate in California. Was stabbed to death during a riot at California State Prison, Sacramento, just two weeks after being released from the SHU into the general population.[15]
  • Bryan Oliver: Taft Union High School shooter, who was charged as an adult and is serving 27 year and 4 month sentence for attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon [16]
  • Joe "Pegleg" Morgan: First non-Hispanic Mexican Mafia member, sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1956. Morgan was housed in the SHU until his transfer to the hospital ward of Corcoran State Prison, where he died from liver cancer in November 1993.[17]
  • Sanyika Shakur: Former Crips member and author of Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, sentenced to five years in the SHU for assault and grand theft auto in January 1991. Was imprisoned again for six years for parole violation in May 2008 but paroled in August 2012.
  • Rene Enriquez: Former member of the Mexican Mafia, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1991 for two separate murders. In 1993, he was sent to the SHU, but is now doing his time in protective custody at Ironwood State Prison after becoming a government informant.[18]
  • Damian Williams: Gained notoriety for attacking Reginald Denny and others during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Sentenced to 10 years for assault, but released early for good behavior. Williams was sentenced to 46-years-to-life for killing a drug dealer in 2003. Currently incarcerated at Centinela State Prison.[18]
  • David "DC" Cervantes as the highest-ranking member of the Nuestra Familia gang in California. Cervantes' rise marked the first time in decades that the Norteños had a single leader at the helm of their criminal organization.
  • Arturo Castellanos: Leader of a Florencia 13 street gang, and high-ranking member of the Mexican Mafia, sentenced to 26-years-to-life for a 1979 LA County murder and isolated in Pelican Bay's SHU for continuing to run gang activities from his cell.[19] He helped organize the 2013 hunger strike.[20]
  • Robert Walter Scully: Aryan Brotherhood member who murdered a deputy during a traffic stop and took a family hostage in March 1995 only five days after being paroled from Pelican Bay. Sentenced to death at San Quentin in 1997.[21]
  • Lloyd Avery II: Actor most famous for his role in Boyz n the Hood, sentenced in 2005 to life imprisonment for double homicide. In September 2005, he was beaten and strangled to death by his Satan-worshiping cellmate; his body wasn't discovered for another two days.[22]
  • Marion "Suge" Knight: Record producer sentenced to nine years for parole violation in 1996 and released in 2001. Sentenced to 10 months in 2003 for assault and parole violation.[23]
  • Charles Manson: Infamous cult leader, sentenced to life imprisonment on seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. In March 1997, he was charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics and transferred to the SHU for 14 months; died in 2017 from gastrointestinal bleeding while at Corcoran State Prison.[24]
  • Ricardo Medina Jr.: Actor famous for starring in Power Rangers Wild Force, sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter for stabbing his roommate with a sword.[25]
  • Donny Johnson: murderer and painter.[26]

In popular culture[edit]

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.

Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) threatens gang members with a sentence in Pelican Bay and the SHU program in the movie Training Day (2001).

Waingro (Kevin Gage) explains to a bartender he was in the SHU at Pelican Bay, B-wing, to get work in the movie Heat (1995).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Monthly Report of Population As of Midnight April 30, 2020" (PDF). California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Division of Internal Oversight and Research. April 30, 2020. Archived from the original (PDF) on May 2, 2020. Retrieved May 2, 2020.
  2. ^ "Pelican Bay Website".
  3. ^ Corey Weinstein and Eric Cummins, "The Crime of punishment: Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison", in Criminal Injustice, ed. Elihu Rosenblatt, South EndPress, 1996.
  4. ^ "Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation". 2016-01-31. Archived from the original on 2019-06-01. Retrieved 2016-07-10.
  5. ^ "SHU Syndrome | Solitary Watch".
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2018-09-23. Retrieved 2018-09-23.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^
  8. ^ Haney, Craig. "Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and 'Supermax' Confinement", Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 49 No. 1, at 124–156 (January 2003)
  9. ^ "Pelican Bay on Hunger Strike". 2002-11-04. Archived from the original on 2012-03-15. Retrieved 2016-07-10.
  10. ^ Sam Quinones (2011-07-03). "Prison hunger strike: State says fewer than two dozen supermax inmates are participating in hunger strike". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2016-07-10.
  11. ^ Feldscher, Kyle. "Policy". Washington Examiner. Retrieved 2016-07-10.[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ Carroll, Rory (2013-07-09). "California inmates launch biggest hunger strike in state's history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-10-15.
  13. ^ "Plaintiffs' second amended complaint" (PDF). Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  14. ^ "California to end notorious decades-long isolation, unlimited segregation of most gang leaders". U.S. News. 2015-09-01.
  15. ^ "California prison officials say two inmates suspected in Pinell stabbing death". LA Times. 2015-08-13. Retrieved 2016-07-10.
  16. ^ "CDCR Public Inmate Locator Disclaimer".
  17. ^ "Reputed Mexican Mafia Leader Dies in Prison at 64 - latimes". 2013-10-23. Retrieved 2016-07-10.
  18. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2020-12-04. Retrieved 2014-01-31.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ "Inside Pelican Bay Prison: A Tale of Two Inmates: The California Report | The California Report". 2011-08-23. Retrieved 2016-07-10.
  20. ^ Montgomery, Michael (19 September 2013). "How Imprisoned Mexican Mafia Leader Exerts Secret Control Over L.A. Street Gangs". KQED. Northern California Public Broadcasting. KQED. Retrieved 15 October 2019.
  21. ^ "Deputy's Killer Gets Death / 274 years for related convictions also added to sentence". 14 June 1997. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  22. ^ "Stranger Than Fiction". King Mag. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  23. ^ "Suge Knight: A Timeline of His Legal Troubles". Billboard. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  24. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 21, 2014. Retrieved January 2, 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  25. ^ "Ex-Power Ranger Ricardo Medina is sentenced to six years for killing his roommate - BBC Newsbeat". BBC News. 31 March 2017. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  26. ^ "Still Life: The Jailhouse Jackson Pollock". Der Spiegel. 24 August 2007.

External links[edit]