Doing Time

April 17, 2001 11:00 pm
A prisoner, serving a life sentence for numerous felonies, looks out at some visitors from an exercise yard at Pelican Bay State Prison. Rules imposed following a riot last year are starting to be relaxed, but only for inmates willing to go along with the prisons program, officials say. (The Daily Triplicate /Stephen Merrill Corley).
A prisoner, serving a life sentence for numerous felonies, looks out at some visitors from an exercise yard at Pelican Bay State Prison. Rules imposed following a riot last year are starting to be relaxed, but only for inmates willing to go along with the prisons program, officials say. (The Daily Triplicate /Stephen Merrill Corley).

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

After a year of a virtual lockdown, Pelican Bay State Prison is showing signs of a returning to nearly normal operations.

With a general population capacity of over 1,500 inmates, just over 200 inmates are back to regular prison programming after pledging not to cause any problems.

We were interviewed and we agreed to stay out of trouble, said inmate James Parker, 34, while standing in the B yard, the flash point for the February 2000 riot. We agreed not to get involved in any violent disturbances. Parker is serving a life sentence for several felony convictions.

The riot of Feb. 23, 2000, the capstone of several prior violent incidents, involved more than 200 inmates, resulted in at least 16 injuries and one death. A lockdown was implemented after the riot and prison officials vowed an end to the violence.

Lt. Ben Grundy, a public information officer who has been with the prison since it opened in 1989, said things are different today than they were a year ago.

The new administration has taken a stand, Grundy said. There are essentially two types of prisoners: those who want to be part of the program and those who do not. Those who dont will have their movements restricted.

The prison today

Aside from the rules instituted following the riot, prison officials continue to change procedures, both to maintain control and to protect the health of inmates.

In the B block yard, some inmates who are back in the program expressed concerns over a new rule that will no longer allow tobacco to be sold in the canteen.

Inmates are not allowed to smoke in their cells though many had been doing it anyway. This prompted the new rule, according to Grundy.

They can still buy cigarettes in the A block, so why cant we? said one inmate who did not want to be identified. I dont understand why we cant smoke in our own cells anyway.

They arent getting anything over there that you arent getting here, Grundy told them. And it is illegal to be smoking indoors.

The problem of smoking in the cells was exacerbated by smoldering tubes of paper inmates used to light their cigarettes, Grundy said. They would keep the tubes burning 24 hours a day. You can imagine how that was affecting staff and non-smoking inmates. Grundy added that smoking is being phased out at the prison and the new rule was the first step.

High security

The most obvious recurring theme throughout the prison is control and security, which is evident when high-profile administrators show their picture identification cards at a myriad of checkpoints.

Surveillance cameras are mounted everywhere inside and outside of the buildings. Some are hidden and the locations are kept secret from inmates and visitors.

Of the 11 guard towers that surround the complex, only three are now staffed since the installation of an electrified fence that can be heard humming between the rows of stainless steel razor wire.

The facility is divided into several sections to accommodate the different needs and requirements of the inmates.

The largest section houses the general population, although the Security Housing Unit (SHU) is nearly as large with a maximum capacity of 1,267 inmates.

Isolating the dangerous

The SHU is designed to isolate the most violent and dangerous felons from the rest of the population. According to Chief Deputy Warden Teresa Schwartz, special circumstances must be met before an inmate is moved to the SHU. He must have either attacked a guard or another inmate.

The porous cell doors in the SHU now have clear plexiglass coverings to protect correctional officers. Schwartz said in the past, inmates with a grudge have attacked guards with razor-tipped projectiles from the cells.

One correctional officer received a serious injury to her eye from one of these, Schwartz said. These are people (inmates) already serving life sentences and they really dont care at this point.

Extensive therapy

There are two units that house and treat inmates with mental illnesses. One was created in response to the Madrid vs. Terhune lawsuit that required dangerous inmates with major mental illnesses not be housed in the SHU. They are still isolated but are offered extensive therapy and one-on-one treatment, according to Schwartz.

A second and smaller psychiatric unit accommodates inmates with mental illnesses from the general prison population.

There are 1,472 employees at the prison, including the warden, one chief deputy warden, five assistant wardens, eight captains, 35 lieutenants, 70 sergeants and 800 correctional officers.

There are also several hundred employees in medical, dental, psychiatric, clothing and food services. There are three full-time positions to provide religious consultation.

New sweat lodge

Inmate Michael Reyes, 37, proudly pointed out the sweat lodge in the B yard used by Native Americans for their religious services. We just put it up this weekend and it took four of us to build it, he said.

Grundy points with pride to another prison structure.

Our water treatment facility has won awards several times for being the best treatment plant in the state, he said. The water going out is cleaner than the water it takes in from the river.

When the Los Angeles Times recently reported disparagingly that Crescent City is most widely known for being the home of Pelican Bay State Prison, Grundy would be the last person to take offense with the attribute.

We are the top of the food chain, as far as prisons go, he said.