In Focus: Pelican Bay's underground economy

March 30, 2007 11:00 pm
Pelican Bay State Prison Lt. Ken Thomas holds a canister of inmatemanufactured alcohol or "pruno." Alcohol, drugs and tobacco form alucrative business for inmates at the maximum security prison outsideof Crescent City. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
Pelican Bay State Prison Lt. Ken Thomas holds a canister of inmatemanufactured alcohol or "pruno." Alcohol, drugs and tobacco form alucrative business for inmates at the maximum security prison outsideof Crescent City. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Nicholas Grube

Triplicate staff writer

Inside one of California's most secure prisons, an underground economy exists where drugs, alcohol and tobacco are the invisible hands behind power and violence.

At Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum security facility designed to hold California's most disruptive and dangerous criminals, 80 percent of the inmates are serving a life sentence. Occasionally these inmates will approach prison staff and request to be placed into protective custody because they owe drug debts to other inmates. They fear that since they cannot pay their debts, they will be the target of a violent prison hit.

"The vast majority of violence on this facility is related to drug trafficking, gang activity and disrespect," Pelican Bay's Public Information Officer Lt. Ken Thomas said. "We have had multiple accounts of inmates being assaulted over the years as the result of unpaid drug debts."

Just like on the streets, Thomas said, drug trafficking is a very lucrative business for gang members in the prison, and whoever controls the drug flow, controls the prison.

"For inmates, money is power," Thomas said. "Differing gangs will struggle for drug trafficking control on the facility."

This is a common problem, he said, not only at Pelican Bay but at all California prisons. "We know that disruptive groups – street gang members – often times resort to violence in order to maintain control of drug trafficking on facilities throughout the state prison system," Thomas said.

But it's not only illegal drugs that lead to debt and violence on prison grounds. Inside Pelican Bay, alcohol and tobacco have become highly sought after goods as well.

"We have inmates that we catch with alcohol," Thomas said. "We have inmates that manufacture it to sell it to other inmates."

The alcohol, or "pruno," is made inside inmates' cells. Using yeast from bread, fruit and sugar, inmates create an alcoholic concoction through fermentation. Anytime they distribute the booze for trade, violence is an underlying consequence. But alcohol also has other inherent problems that may lead to violence.

"Inmates get drunk, they become disruptive and disrespectful, and that can lead to violence," Thomas said.

Perhaps the most shocking item on Pelican Bay's black market is tobacco, which was banned from the prison in July 2005 to improve working conditions. But the demand for cigarettes and rolling tobacco has ignited a new sector of Pelican Bay's illegal economy.

Pelican Bay Correctional Officer Donald Beard serves with the prison's investigative services unit – Pelican Bay's police force. He says a single cigarette can fetch up to $5 and a 6-ounce tin of Bugler rolling tobacco goes for $250, which is more than twice the cost of a television that inmates can buy at Pelican Bay's canteen.

"Even tobacco is leading to violence out here," Beard, a 21-year veteran in the prison system, said. "It's actually becoming a hotter commodity than narcotics."

And it gives correctional officers one more item to keep out of a prison that already has a large influx of contraband.

"It's people on the outside helping these guys out," Beard said. Visitors sometimes bring narcotics and tobacco to inmates in the general population by hiding contraband in anal and vaginal cavities, but for inmates in the Security Housing Unit, or S.H.U. (pronounced "shoe"), contraband is more difficult to smuggle in because they are in solitary confinement.

"The Security Housing Unit makes it harder to make weapons and get drugs into the system," Pelican Bay Litigation Coordinator William Barlow said.

Unlike the general population inmates, S.H.U. inmates are not allowed visitor contact and are isolated from the remainder of the prison population. Inmates must communicate with visitors via phone behind a plate glass window, so contraband cannot be passed.

Even though stopping inmates from bringing contraband into the S.H.U. is difficult, everything that comes into the prison has the possibility of being contraband, Barlow said

"Anything that comes into a prison has the potential of being used against us," he said, even phone calls and letters that disseminate covert or gang-related information. "After all, this is a maximum security prison with a big security housing unit. These are people who have shown that they don't program well under a less restrictive environment."

For narcotics to enter the S.H.U., they must come through the mailroom. Inmate's family members or friends will put black tar heroin between two identical sheets of paper with the same type and masthead. They will iron the paper and the heroin until it becomes flat and appears to be a single piece of paper, thus disguising the heroin.

More recently, however, the legal mail system, such as attorney-client correspondence, is used to smuggle drugs into the prison because Pelican Bay staff only can open the envelopes in front of inmates and visually scan the contents.

"It's not legal mail, but it's coming in disguised as legal mail," Thomas said.

Legitimate mail from an attorney is sometimes hijacked and used to send narcotics and covert messages to inmates.

When staff in the mailroom find such mail, prison officials call the attorneys. Many times the attorneys have no idea about what is happening.

"They know all the ways to beat us," Thomas said of inmates getting contraband into the prison. "These guys, they're extremely creative."

But it's what the inmates make from materials already inside the prison that shows their true creativity – and menace.

Since August 2000, Pelican Bay staff has seized 1,690 manufactured weapons.

"These guys are making weapons with just about anything," Beard said. Each confiscated weapon varies in size, shape and sophistication.

"Inmates have pens from time to time," Thomas said. "It just depends on how sophisticated they want to get."

Knives can be made using a piece of metal cut out of a bed frame or a cell door, or by heating up a plastic garbage bag and rolling it until it hardens into a point.

Weapons can be crude, such as a rusty nail, or be efficient and lethal. Members of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, for example, tend to put "gut-grabbers" on the end of their knives. This is a little hook on a balde tip that makes a cut on the way in then on the way out.

These concocted weapons are used for various purposes – protection, to earn respect, to attack guards – but still, much of their use stems from the trade of narcotics and other contraband.

"Contraband leads to violence on facilities," Thomas said, and that's why Pelican Bay and other prisons try to keep it out. But everyday brings new challenges and an evolution in inmate ingenuity.

"Some days we win," Thomas said. "Some days they win."

Reach Nicholas Grube at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

When inmates get caught

When inmates are caught with contraband, there are varying levels of punishment they can be subjected to.

"Our disciplinary process isn't always to rehabilitate people," Pelican Bay Litigation Coordinator William Barlow said. "But it does allow us some control to separate these people from the general population and minimize the entrance of contraband into the facility."

Inmates, if caught with weapons or drugs in the general population, can be sent to the S.H.U. for a six-, 10- or 15-month sentence. And for inmates already housed in the S.H.U., Barlow said, "there's always one more layer of restrictions."

Visiting and canteen privileges can be stripped from inmates, along with any property they may have already bought at the canteen, such as a television.

"There's always things we can do," Barlow said. But given the type of inmate housed at Pelican Bay, "Yes, there's people with absolutely nothing to lose."

Pelican Bay by the Numbers

•3,489 – Total inmate population

•1126 – S.H.U. population

•951 – Number of correctional officers

•80 – Percentage of Pelican Bay inmates serving life in prison

•16 – Inmates charged with possession of narcotics or conspiracy to smuggle narcotics into Pelican Bay in 2006

•531 – Number of reportable incidents at Pelican Bay in 2006 that involved police reports

SOURCE: Pelican Bay State Prison