Pelican Bay State Prison once again opened its gates to the media Thursday following the largest of three hunger strikes in two years led by inmates held in its Security Housing Unit.
The strikes - the latest in July peaked at more than 30,000 inmates statewide and lasted 60 days - have all boiled down to the same demands: ending long-term placement in the SHUs, individual accountability for prisoners, abolishment of a program that allows inmates to share gang information in exchange for release from the SHU, more educational programs and more food.
The tour, which came about a week before a legislative hearing regarding the SHUs, included about a dozen print, radio and television media representatives and included presentations about how gangs operate within the gates. Some inmate interviews were allowed.
This time, Pelican Bay took media into its "Short Corridor" where the shot-callers and other members of California's prison gangs reside - many for more than a decade.
The tour went to the D-3 pod - the leaders of the hunger strikes are housed in D-1, 2 and 4 pods.
The two hunger strike leaders the Triplicate interviewed before the start of the July protest are housed in the 1 and 2 pods. One of the leaders - Antonio Guillen - appeared emaciated when he declined a Triplicate interview after the hunger strike ended.
Short Corridor inmate Darryl A. Baca, 52, a convicted killer, was standing in his cell when reporters approached him. He didn't look as bad as Guillen. He said he had participated in the hunger strike for 10 days.
He has no roommate. Books are neatly stacked on both of the bunks in his "house." He's a tall Hispanic man with a graying mustache. He was wearing a beanie and white shorts. Tattoos covered his bare torso. In big letters across his stomach, the word "Artesia" is spelled.
Artesia is a city in southeast Los Angeles. Artesia-13 is a known clique for the Mexican Mafia. Baca has been validated as a Mexican Mafia member - although he denies gang affiliation. According to him, he's been in Pelican Bay's SHU since 1990. He was sent to prison in 1981.
He blames other people for his indefinite placement in the SHU, attributing it to people who have told on him or gave gang investigators false information.
Or that investigators confiscated a card, or a picture or an address that they maliciously twisted into meaning he was part of a gang. Similar sentiments have been expressed by other SHU inmates, prison advocates, attorneys and politicians who are calling for reforms.
Baca, upon further questioning, eventually stated he's "probably" been found guilty by the prison administration of all of the violations that could be used to keep a man in the SHU.
He says he's open to the new step-down pilot program that gives a prisoner an opportunity to get out of the SHU by no longer participating in gang activity. It's a program that can last indefinitely for an inmate who continues illicit activities can mean an instant departure from the SHU as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation performs reviews of those prisoners.
Since Sept. 30, there have been 528 reviews of inmates indefinitely placed in the SHU - 343 qualified to be placed into general population facilities, where they will be monitored for a year. Those inmates will continue to be considered "validated," so any gang behavior could send them back into the SHU to repeat the five steps of the program. However, an infraction doesn't always guarantee a return to step 1.
150 other inmates have been placed into various phases of the step-down program that includes more privileges, such as phone calls and more canteen items.
The experimental program will have to be adopted by the CDCR by next year if it is to remain.
"It's very new," said Baca, expressing a certain level of doubt about the program's fairness. "I'm absolutely willing to try it."
On the other side of the SHU, inmates housed in the pod for those who have divulged information about gangs are preoccupied with other thoughts.
James Elrod and Javier Zubiate, inmates who were interviewed by the Triplicate before the latest hunger strike, are nearing the end of their SHU assignments.
Earlier this year, they were still in the beginning phase of the debriefing process - the program in which inmates divulge information about their respective gangs and activities of other inmates.
They were still digesting what was happening after being in the SHU for several years.
The two cellmates were all smiles Thursday during the tour. They will likely leave the SHU in December and go to a transitional housing unit.
Elrod will get to see his father for the first time in more than a decade.
They're looking forward to the additional programs and doing the best they can to prove they can be productive members of society again. They both understand they have a mountain to climb, but have said it feels good knowing they are making steps in the right direction.
The media tour also led reporters to the SHU yard, where Lt. Christopher Acosta showed off the latest additions, a pull-up bar and two hand balls granted as privileges following the 2011 hunger strikes.
Last Thursday also marked the first word processors being passed out to SHU inmates who purchased them through the canteen, officials said.
The tour ended after reporters were taken to a general population yard and through the education facilities of the prison.
Soon, just like in 2011, there will be a legislative hearing about the conditions of the SHUs and the effect of long-term placement. This time, on Wednesday, it will include the public safety committees from the Assembly and Senate.
The Assembly had held the previous two hearings, which did not bring about policy changes or proposals.
Sen. Loni Hancock, previously told the Triplicate there should be legislative change on the way.
An attorney representing Pelican Bay inmates, who is questioning the constitutionality of the SHU and demanding the release of those inmates housed more than 10 years, is skeptical.
"It is my opinion that the real purpose of these hearings was already served because the hearings caused men at Pelican Bay, who may have died, to suspend the hunger strike," said prison rights attorney Charles Carbone in an e-mail. "Other than that, the hearings are not especially helpful when there are no legislative proposals coming out. There has to be leadership from legislators who are willing to lead California out of its policy of high-tech, costly dungeons."
While Carbone spins the SHUs as dungeon-like, the tour was meant to shed a different light on conditions at Pelican Bay.
"It's all just about demystifying the SHU and letting the public, through reporters, see what really goes on in there and who is really in there," said CDCR Spokesperson Terry Thornton in an interview with the Triplicate on Monday. "We don't have anything to hide."
Reach Anthony Skeens at firstname.lastname@example.org.