Holding on to Humanity

A social worker’s visit with youth offenders at Pelican Bay State Prison.

By Wendy Smith

The road to Pelican Bay State Prison led through majestic redwoods a stone’s throw from the stirring beauty of Pacific Ocean coastal waters. The concrete blocks of the prison rose up before us, concertina wire curled above electrified fences that surround the general population buildings with their tiny windows. The gathered windowless mass of the SHU (Security Housing Unit), where we would be meeting with prisoners in solitary confinement, seemed a different, even more ominous world. As we approached the sprawling fortress, I could feel my heart sinking. I wondered how we would be received by the men inside.

The worst of the worst, that’s what they say about Pelican Bay State Prison, the “supermax” that lies at the northern border of California. Home to those who commit some of the most violent crimes, it has the state’s biggest Security Housing Unit, designed to keep prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.

Men in solitary at Pelican Bay spend over 22 hours each and every day in their windowless 8 X 10 foot cells, and 90 minutes alone in a cement yard, called a “dog run” by some, with a chin-up bar, two small handballs and a partial view of the sky.

Whatever crime got a man into prison, it is alleged prison gang membership that usually puts him in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, either because of gang-related activity while in prison, or because someone points a finger at him in an effort to achieve his own exit. Some of the men in the SHU have been in prison since they were teenagers; that’s where they’ve grown up.

A number of the men locked away in Pelican Bay’s SHU are among the roughly 6,500 individuals incarcerated in California prisons for crimes they committed while under the age of eighteen. Though juveniles, these minors were tried as adults and sentenced to life or long sentences.

The Supreme Court, citing previous cases (Roper v. Simmons, 2005, and Graham v. Florida, 2010,) recognized in 2012’s Miller vs. Alabama that children lack maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, and greater vulnerability to outside pressure and negative influences, and must therefore be seen as “constitutionally different from adults” for sentencing purposes.

In September 2013, the California legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed, Senate Bill 260 which allowed youth offenders a new type of parole hearing. The law, which took effect in January 2014, is intended to provide a meaningful opportunity (a significant chance) to obtain release through a Youth Offender Parole Hearing, in which great weight is given to youth factors in the review of suitability for parole. Depending on the sentence, the first youth offender parole hearing occurs at the 15th, 20th or 25th year of incarceration.

Entering the Prison

In March, I traveled to Pelican Bay with a group of lawyers, advocates, and law students to introduce 250 inmates eligible for SB 260 Youth Offender Parole Hearings to the basics of the law itself, and to the parole process and what it could potentially mean for them and require of them. Our group of 11 was led by Elizabeth Calvin, a lawyer and senior advocate with Human Rights Watch, and included lawyers and students from the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law Post Conviction Clinic and Loyola Law School’s Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic. With us also were the founder of a re-entry program who serves on the Board of State and Community Corrections, a documentary film maker, a lawyer who was himself an ex-offender, a chaplain, a lobbyist and a Soros Fellow. Our message would be one of hope.

Juvenile offenders tried as adults in California frequently serve sentences that are three, four or more times their age at the time of their crimes. For these individuals, incarcerated since they were teens and looking essentially at a lifetime behind bars, the new law means the possibility of a future in which there is a real chance of being released one day.

It wasn’t only the inmates who hoped this law might bring positive changes. The prison administration had their own hopes that knowledge of the rights conferred by this law could motivate inmates to improve their behavior and to focus on rehabilitation efforts.

Before we joined the men, we met with the warden, Clark Ducarte, and his staff, who impressed us with their willingness to take the extraordinary security measures required to allow the large meetings we had requested. The assembling of so many prisoners with a dozen civilians moving among them may have been unprecedented at Pelican Bay, and we could feel the staff’s uncertainty about whether the meetings would proceed productively and uneventfully.

We spent the first of our two days, as we had in visits to other state prisons, with groups of men living in ‘general population’ yards. In these buildings, as distinguished from solitary confinement yards, inmates share cells and have contact with one another. Sixty-five men who might be anywhere from their late teens to fifty or sixty (or who might have been younger, but wore the look of older men) sat in each of two large visiting rooms as we moved back and forth between them, presenting material on SB260 Youth Offender Parole, the parole hearing process, and re-entry; describing how to more closely examine and understand your life story; and offering a meditation experience.

We followed the morning presentations with smaller groups of 15-20 to be able to talk in more detail and to answer questions. My groups, called ‘insight groups,’ centered on developing insight into one’s crime and the factors that may have played a part in that criminal behavior. Understanding yourself and your past, we explained, can help a person change his behavior and his life.

As at other prisons where we had conducted workshops, mutual preconceptions fell away in moments of meeting and speaking, person to person.

One of my roles was to lead a meditation. Standing in the front of the room, looking out at 65 men, many heavily tattooed, shifting in their seats, I wondered whether it made any sense at all to invite them into a meditative experience. When I asked them to relax their bodies and close their eyes, would they be willing? Or would suspicion, skepticism, and an unrelenting need for vigilance prevail and the men be unable to join me in stepping away from their immediate surroundings? I was profoundly moved to see and hear most of the men in the room place both feet on the floor, relax into their chairs, close their eyes, and begin to take deep breaths.

What followed was less a meditation than the creation of a space in which I could speak to them about acceptance of all parts of their experience and humanness, knowing that their eventual release depends upon their capacity to understand their early lives and all that brought them to the moment of the crime that led to prison. The sound of my voice was likely more important than anything I said; I focused on the tone and rhythm of my speech, knowing that these are received directly in the emotion-regulating regions of the brain, offering a human connection and potentially soothing experience that has little to do with words.

Earlier that morning, when the men entered the room, African Americans sat primarily with African Americans, Hispanic or Latino men sat together; most of the few Caucasians also sat together. It wasn’t clear whether they were free to sit where they liked, or had to remain in the order of the lines in which they arrived from their cells. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation segregates inmates on the basis of ethnicity in some prisons, and the order of their lines may have reflected an arrangement not of their own making.

When we met in small groups, and they chose their own seats, some groups took on a more varied look. The hugely disproportionate representation of people of color in the prison population was inescapable, as it had been at other prisons. Whites were the smallest group by far, and at Pelican Bay, Hispanics were the most numerous. The physical experience of the racial reality bore down in a way not dissimilar to the heavy isolative mass of the buildings themselves: both took up soul-flattening residence for the duration of the visit, and afterwards.

During the small groups, we learned that some men had not been to the visiting room to receive a visitor for a long time; some had never been there. Some had exchanged no conversation with anyone but another prisoner or a guard in months or years. During the groups, described in the evaluations by many as the best part of the workshops, some men spoke and asked questions readily; others did not speak at all.

In the insight groups, some struggled with the distinction between excuses and explanations of crime, wondering if there was one. We spoke of examining and reflecting on the people and events in their early lives, and the environments in which they grew up as steps along the road that led to the crime and to where they are now.

Several men recognized aloud that they did not know how to begin this work. They wondered if there could be someone to ask the questions that could help them see into their own lives, to see the boy who was and the man who might yet be. Hope had entered the room, bringing with it fear and worry about how to make a turn from habitual ways of feeling and being, and especially, how to conceive of such a turn without help.

“The Pelican Bay Handshake”

On the second day, we entered the solitary confinement building.

It’s easy for an inmate to get into the SHU—suspected gang affiliation, a violent or otherwise prohibited act in prison—but much harder to get out. A 17 year-old enters prison and learns that his survival there may depend on the protection gang membership confers; receiving that protection may rest on affiliating with a gang, or committing a violent act; either one can lead to an indeterminate period of solitary confinement.

The windowless blocks of the SHU weighed down upon us; the heaviness was physical and mental, like the smashed, emptied-out feeling that comes when someone you love has died. Here there was no congregate visiting area, only long halls, lined on both sides with individual cells. One side of each cell faced into a space where visitors could sit opposite and speak on phones through glass. The other side faced into a hall narrow enough so that when more than two people stood abreast, someone had to turn slightly, as when guards moved men in or out. Along the hall were the doors through which prisoners enter and leave cells that are the size of an average closet, just enough room to stand, or sit on the stool affixed to the floor.

We stood (or at times, sat) in the hall, each of us speaking to men in four cells (two on either side of hall) for fifteen minutes and then moving to the next group of four. We rotated in this way a total of 34 times over the course of one long day, so that each of us in turn met the more than 130 SB 260-eligible youth offenders living in solitary confinement. We weighed the advantages of each of us spending more time with fewer men, and concluded that it would be more heartening for them to see and meet the dozen of us who had come.

Each man arrived in the solitary confinement visiting area in handcuffs, with a guard on either side. The inmate was locked in the cell while still in handcuffs, then turned his back to the cell door, extending his shackled hands through a small, waist-high protruding metal window. The window was unlocked by the guard, the cuffs unlocked and removed, and the window locked again. If the man inside needed to use the bathroom, the reverse procedure was implemented to reinstate the handcuffs before guards unlocked the cell door and accompanied the inmate to the bathroom.

We spoke to the men through metal doors perforated by hundreds of penny-sized round openings, just big enough for the tip of a finger to fit through. These small openings permitted the “Pelican Bay Handshake,” in which inmate and visitor can touch fingertips when placed on the same hole.

The openings were visually dizzying, revealing parts of the person on the other side while obscuring others. Moments of eye contact and connection floated weirdly amid optical illusions from concentrated staring at the hundreds of holes. Our visual representations of one another were broken and distorted. Often we could see only one eye of the other person, and they of us, but it didn’t matter–human connection was powerfully present as we moved from cell to cell. Some men hadn’t physically touched another person in years.

Our time with each foursome was brief. We had decided to use the men’s first names as much as possible, as a counter to the dehumanizing effects of years of daily use of numbers or last names only as identifiers. We spoke their names and gave them ours.

When we debriefed later, we learned that each of us struggled with how to make the most of each meeting, whether to give information, to give the men a chance to tell us about something on their minds, to communicate our concern and compassion, to somehow instill hope for the future. Without having decided to do so, I found myself announcing to each group that I was not a lawyer, but a “mental health” person.

They may have already learned from the lawyers among us and from the video on SB 260 that we hoped they had been able to see, that youth offender parole hearings rest in great part on whether inmates have developed an understanding of themselves, at the time of their commitment offense, and in the present. I wanted to give them a start on that road, however minimal, so I spoke, probably much too quickly, about reasons and circumstances that may have played a part in the crimes that changed their lives.

I told them that their crime was not the total of the person they were, and asked them to try to remember the very first illegal act they ever committed. In a moment or two, they all did. Most told me they were eight, nine, 10, or 11 at the time. A few were five or six, and a few were teenagers. All were old enough to remember a self that existed before that first act. I asked them to remember the boys they were before the crime.

We talked about how to begin to remember and piece together what happened after that, trying to dig deep to include the many steps along the road to the moment of a crime, and the decisions they made at the time and since. We acknowledged together the difficulty and shame of thinking and talking about their crimes.

In the SHU, as in the general population the day before, many men told me that they wished there were someone they could speak with on a regular basis to be able to do this work—they could not imagine how they would be able to do it. Some believed their inability to put things into words would make it impossible, now and at any parole hearing in the future.

Our conversations were brief and constantly interrupted by movement – our own as we rotated among the groups, and those of the guards and inmates, as bathroom trips and meal and water deliveries were made, as men were taken back to their cells and new groups of men were brought in.

Somehow, amid the locking and unlocking of cells and cuffs, and the congestion in narrow halls crowded with our group and guards, conversations continued. It became clear that for many of these men, we were the first people other than prison personnel or other inmates that they had spoken with in years. Some were nevertheless able to engage with little apparent difficulty, asking questions, enjoying the opportunity to interact with us.

For others, speech came slowly or not at all, and for some, even eye contact was too much to manage. These men spend all their time alone, in their cells or in the exercise area. The solitude of their confinement is absolute. Many had been there for five or ten years. Some had been there 20 years or more.

One man had spent the previous four months “debriefing,” telling what he knew about the gang life he had decided to renounce. Debriefing is the primary avenue by which inmates can obtain transfer out of solitary confinement. It is dangerous, as gang members often retaliate when someone leaves.

Those who debrief must be isolated from other inmates and their locations kept secret. For this reason, each of us met individually with this man in a separate visiting corridor. It was a relief to have the relative quiet of this space and a full twenty minutes in which my focus could be undivided.

He had been incarcerated at 17, already the father of two very young children. Now he is 41 and a grandfather. We spoke little about his crimes—he lived the gang life both before and during his imprisonment—but rather about the rocky course of his marriage over many years and how his wife helped him to get sober and to find the religious faith that strengthened his will to leave the gang life.

His eyes filled as he described his hopes for the future and his pain over how he had lived his life. Only lately had he begun to understand the impact of events of his early life: the loss of his baby brother, his mother’s wild grief that led her to cruelly abuse him, habitually pouring scalding water over his hands and body.

We wept together. There was much more he needed to say, but already the next advocate was waiting to meet and speak with him, and another group of inmates waited around the corner for me. It was awful to leave him with only the hope that he had found comfort in the humanity of those few shared moments.

Bending the Arc toward Hope

What it means for human beings to spend days, months, and years alone is unfathomable. Individuals who spend years in solitary confinement are known to suffer from severe depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and other serious psychiatric conditions and disorders.

The withholding of human contact and communication that all people need gives rise to a level of frustration, hopelessness, and consequent internal accommodations that surely confound the very possibility of rehabilitation and successful return to society.

That so many of the juvenile offenders in the SHU at Pelican Bay, in prison since adolescence, met us with openness, willingness to engage, and capacity to hope, speaks to a resilience that is powerful. Three days after our visit, we received a letter from one of the men that read, in part:

“Many years of jail, years of prison, not even the SHU or worst punishments could change me or break me. Punishment, torture, that don’t change people! It only makes us worse because in order to survive it, we have to become tougher, harder. Today I learned something, compassion! That works! You guys don’t know us, but treated us as humans and showed affection, caring towards us and made us feel human. And that worked. You guys had all our attention. You guys moved us. You guys touched a special part in our hearts and made us feel something we ain’t felt in many years…These people try to change us by punishment and torture, only to make us worse. And the solution is as simple as compassion and understanding that we’re human…that we too, feel, and have a longing, wanting to talk to people, to open up to people, to be accepted as people…you make us open up. Humble us. Make us want to change.”

Advances in neurobiological science over the last ten years have demonstrated conclusively that adolescent brain development is still very much underway into the mid-twenties. The adolescent brain is different anatomically and neurochemically from the adult brain, with heightened sensitivity to rewards, increased reactivity to stress, and regulatory functions that are not yet fully developed. These differences lead to greater impulsivity, risk taking and sensation seeking, all of which compromise the more reasoned decision-making we expect from adults.

California’s SB 260, granting youth offenders parole hearings that give great weight to youthful factors, is a translation of this recognition into on-the-ground practice that provides people who have served substantial portions of their sentences an opportunity to demonstrate that they have developed into adults who are capable of a successful re-entry into the community.

People serving time in security housing units face overwhelming obstacles on the road to being found suitable for parole. Almost all of their time is spent locked in their cells, alone. There are minimal freedoms from which to learn how to manage freedoms. There are few, if any, programs for self-development that would assist them to increase self-understanding, recover from addiction, educate themselves, experience positive role models from whom to learn alternative ways of being. If they spend months or years in solitary confinement, the progressive negative effects of isolation (acute and post-traumatic stress disorders, severe anxiety, depression, suicidality, aggression, psychosis) decrease the likelihood that they can find their way to a healthy developmental path out of prison.

Despite these challenges, some people, even those serving their sentences in maximum security prisons, find a way forward. In California, and in some other states, we have moved legislatively to encourage and allow for rehabilitation in place of punishment alone for those who committed crimes in their youth.

We now know that human development is experience-dependent, and cannot fully occur in isolation. Rehabilitation in an environment devoid of human communication and interaction, characterized by complete isolation, is a hollow concept. Rehabilitation and increased capacity to function in the outside world cannot develop when the building blocks (programs, education, counselors, role models) are absent.

The inmate quoted above tells us how this one opportunity to communicate and connect with others brought hope and stirred motivation. Remarkably, the overwhelming majority of the men we met at Pelican Bay responded with openness and receptivity to our presence and to our message.

Hope and desire can propel human beings to make efforts they themselves might have thought impossible. Many of these people have years to serve in front of them; those years can be spent strengthening their capacities to live successfully in the community, or nursing frustration and anger. How much better for us all if their arc is toward hope.

If stays in solitary, considered by many to be torture and known to cause profound mental health symptoms, are reduced, both in number and in length of time, the likelihood that offenders can prepare successfully to re-enter society is greatly increased. If, instead, greater resources and attention are focused on helping them do the necessary work to reflect on their crimes and their lives, the future we all share will reap the benefits.

Wendy Smith is Associate Dean of Curriculum Planning and Assessment & Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. She can be reached at wsmith@usc.edu.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1128 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, one of the men you met with was my friend who is in the SHU at PBSP. He spoke of this meeting to me and was excited and in awe that staff let it happen. He was appreciative of it.

  2. Thank you for your excellent, moving and very timely article. We will disseminate it among our social work and other colleagues.

    Our Social Workers Against Prolonged Solitary Confinement Task Force has been meeting by conference call since October, 2014. Our next call is on Wednesday, June 17, 1pm EST.

    Our goals are to educate, advocate and develop links with other professionals in health/mental health to abolish prolonged solitary confinement.

    We are engaged with the National Association of Social Workers and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care re: ethical and policy concerns, about which I can give you more information.
    .
    Members will present a workshop at the National Organization for Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) Conference on August 21 in Arlington, N. VA and at the all-day conference specifically for social workers and allied professionals on Solitary Confinement on Sat. October 31 in NYC.

    I am a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), NOFSW and NASW-VA.

    Please encourage social workers and others to join our task force and share your and their involvement re:SC with our task force.

    Moya Atkinson, convener of the Task Force

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