I don’t regret having to get five flights in order to get to Northern California and back in 48 hours in order to spend five hours in the only State Super Max prison in California. It’s a trip which is most certainly etched on my mind and seared into my soul almost indefinitely.
I am used to the cages now having been to other US prisons. I am used to the tattoos, the guns, and the misery which oozes from these places. What haunts me over and over again is the human being’s ability to detach and not see.
The reason for my visit was to see 12 men from the prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) graduate from Dr Stephanie Covington’s intervention, ‘Moving Beyond Violence’. If this work is ever to travel over from the women’s estate in the UK to the men’s estate, then it is important that I see things for myself, get a feel for the impact it’s having on the men and staff alike, and to hear first-hand what it means to them all. If these courses can be run effectively in the SHU of Pelican Bay with these inmates then it bodes well for what we will be able to achieve for men in the UK.
We were shown into the room where graduation was to be held. It was dreary (the usual Starbucks coffee and doughnuts still appeared from somewhere however!). The men were escorted in one by one in electric blue gowns and blue caps. Their wrists were handcuffed together and attached to a chain which runs around their belly. They weren’t shackled around their ankles like I have seen in the past. None of the 12 men were white. They were all pale in complexion, most with ostentatious tattoos and were either black or Mexican. The Warden (Governor) gave out the certificates and each man stepped forward to receive it whilst navigating their cuffs and their belly chain skilfully.
Stephanie and I both stood and spoke and that was that. It was an awkward and subdued celebration. The large staff presence made it odd as they all stood at the back, didn’t take a seat and made the whole thing feel strange. No one from the staff side spoke. We then took a group photo of the men and then a line of military dressed officers filed in and led them out one by one holding their arms. It seemed unnecessary and somewhat degrading on a day when their achievements were apparently being recognised.
We were told that they would then be de-gowned and that the four of us, Stephanie, myself and the two researchers could go and hold a focus group with the men in the visits area which sounded nice. I was looking forward to chatting with the men in a less formal situation where we could really get under the skin of things and see what they really thought of this intense six week course.
The four of us followed the officers out of the room and I filled up my coffee cup and followed along behind looking forward to the next session.
We walked into another unit, passed ANOTHER tray of doughnuts and then ‘boom’ we appeared to be on a very narrow corridor, mesh doors on our left and right. Men were behind the mesh, metal doors, peering at us. I tried to hide my awkwardness and gripped my plastic cup a little tighter. I managed to stammer a few ‘hellos’ and give a few nods but I couldn’t really see them and they were quite close so it was hard to know how to position oneself.
Focus groups inside the cells
I looked at one man and just smiled and blurted out ‘well, this is awkward!’. He laughed and I then realised that these were our men from Graduation! This was our focus group. Reality hit. We were going to have to do our focus group with the men in their cells/cages, in a row, next to each other. We could hear them but we couldn’t really see them and they certainly couldn’t see each other. If one man was talking from one end then the man at the other end couldn’t really hear what was being said. It was madness. Stephanie was visibly shocked but just leapt straight in and got the focus group underway.
It was great to hear the men speak so highly of the course. Touching to hear them saying that they are getting to know themselves for the first time ever, and learning how to manage their emotions and violent outbursts. One man talked about how he is looking forward to helping others which was really moving bearing in mind these are meant to be THE most dangerous men in America.
They were buoyed up, enthusiastic, keen to carry on bettering themselves, hungry to learn more on this path of self-discovery. When asked if they thought that this course had made them less likely to be violent, a resounding ‘Yes’ came back through the mesh.
‘We have the tools now you see’
‘We can do those mindfulness exercises that we were taught. I used to laugh at that stuff’
‘We know where the anger comes from, we understand more so we can better control it’
They were so keen that this course was available to men on the general population wing. Adamant that EVERY prisoner should be doing this work. We then said our farewells and left the caged men behind.
The grand tour
Our next phase of the trip was the grand tour. Up and down identical, sterile, soulless corridors, in and out of different SHUs. Past condom machines, in and out of windowless cells, past the gunners at every turn who watched our every move. Something that I hadn’t seen before was the metal mesh above the corridors and above the doorways where the gunners patrolled ready to shoot from above. That was fairly sinister.
One SHU had been opened up as there was a need for more space for the less dangerous men. These men wandered around amongst us. Very occasionally I would see a white man. I oddly didn’t feel threatened or weird. I felt more at risk in an adult male prison that I had been in the UK the week before in fact.
We walked onto another area of the prison. As we chatted in a course room a loud alarm sounded and we were shouted at by a guard to get out. We looked across to the other buildings and across the yard. All the inmates in their light blue shirts were lying in starfish formation on the ground with their hands on their heads. The gunner was leaning out of his tower poised keeping close aim on the men. I stood in the hot sun blinking, trying to compute what was going on. Two ladies with first aid back packs whizzed past and then a stretcher followed. A little while later a black man in a wheel chair emerged holding his face in his hands. It wasn’t clear exactly what had happened on the unit but it had caused quite a scene across the prison. The gunner relaxed and the inmates got back onto their feet and life carried on. This is apparently a daily occurrence.
By this point we were all flagging and keen to wrap things up. Its emotionally draining being in those places. The bad energy can’t help but weigh down on you. Our last Pelican Bay experience was chatting with a rather curious officer. We were picking our bags up and he launched in, asking:
‘The systems broken right?’
‘What are we doing?’
‘How do we fix it?’
He was a rather amazing man in many ways. You spend most of these visits being slightly drawn into pretending that it’s all really normal and praising staff for being brave enough to allow inmates to be moved with only one officer instead of two (!) so it was refreshing at the end to hear someone tell it as it was. Unfortunately, we were all quite tired by this point so trying to engage in a political chat about prisons and how to encourage better leadership and educate US society wasn’t really possible at that point. I will remember him however.
We were escorted to the gate, we weren’t searched on the way in or out which surprised me. For a super max the security, apart from the guns of course was very relaxed.
I left feeling underwhelmed, positive about being on the right path with my trauma work and glad I had made the mad trip to experience something quite profound.
Founder of One Small Thing
Edwina Grosvenor is a philanthropist and the founder of One Small Thing