Hard time or inhumane punishment? Inside the Corcoran prison SHU – Security Housing Units (Photos)

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Charles Thomas Jr. hasn’t been in a space much larger than a prison cell in a long time. At least not without chains on and a correctional officer at his side. Asked the last time he ran – or moved at a brisk pace – Thomas says, "Probably '96."

In 1996, Thomas was on a regular prison yard, where inmates do things like play handball or run around a track. But since then, he has been in a Security Housing Unit (SHU), the most high security, restricted cells in California's prison system. His yard time happens in a wire cage in the prison yard.

"It's torture. It wears you down mentally," Thomas says.

Thomas, like the other 644 inmates in the 4B SHU at the California State Prison-Corcoran, is here because he's been tied to a prison gang. In an adjacent building, another SHU houses inmates who've committed crimes while in prison, like attacks on correctional officers. Those in the SHU for specific crimes face a maximum SHU term of 60 months. Those tied to gangs can be kept in the SHU indefinitely.

Corcoran Warden Connie Gipson opened the SHU to a media tour on Oct. 1 in an effort to show the public a realistic picture of the units.

"This isn't a dungeon buried underground," Gipson says.

The controversial practice of solitary confinement is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which calls the practice "cruel and unusual punishment." The California legislature is also scheduled to hold hearings on Wednesday.

Prison officials disagree with the criticism. They also note it is not solitary confinement because inmates get to interact with other SHU prisoners.

Gipson says it is a necessary part of managing a prison – a place to put inmates who cause a danger to other inmates.

“Just like if you have a barrel of apples and you have one apple going spoiled. You gotta remove it out or everybody spoils," Gipson says. "In this case, you can’t have inmates who are being disruptive — that’s their whole agenda — to continue to be disruptive in an open forum where other inmates aren’t afforded the opportunity to program."

If there was no SHU, things would be worse for all inmates, Gipson says.

Gangs behind prison walls have become an intractable problem. Officials keep a large case of shanks – knives sharpened out of things like rope and toothbrushes – they've found in cells around the prison. Gangs distribute drugs and contraband like cell phones behind bars. When inmates get on the wrong side of a prison gang, they can be targeted.

Such inmates who request or are seen as needing protection from prison gangs can end up on another specialized yard, called a Sensitive Needs Yard. Over the past couple of decades, the SNY population has skyrocketed. In Corcoran, the SNY is bigger than the general population. And prison officials have noticed new gangs cropping up on the SNY yards.

"It's kind of a mirror of what happens on the street," says investigative services Officer B. Vickjord. "If you get rid of one gang, those members just faction out and create new gangs."

Vickjord says SHUs have helped, but they only go so far. In prison, there are ways around everything. For example, SHU inmates are kept away from other inmates and barred from contact visits with outsiders to prevent the transmission of messages and contraband, like narcotics or cell phones.

Vickjord says he and other officers have learned that while SHU inmates are out exercising in their cages, inmates working in the prison's kitchen – about 60 yards away on the other side of a tall, cement wall – have been wrapping up messages and cell phones in bags and hurling them into the SHU cages.

Still, he says, they have helped.

Back on the SHU yard, Edward Frias is doing pull-ups. A solidly muscular guy, Frias says he lost 20 pounds during a hunger strike over the summer protesting SHU conditions. He says after eight years in the SHU, he’s had enough.

"To be in solitude that long, and away from your family and be confined," Frias says. "Look where I'm at. I go from one cage to another. I feel like a dog."

Frias says the extra restrictions and added layers of confinement have changed him. 

"It made me a little bit harder," Frias says. "I'm not as optimistic about things as I used to be. But I still have my hope, I have my faith."

Frias says he doesn't buy the safety argument – or at least, it's not enough to justify his predicament.

"I might think something, somebody else might think something else," Frias says. "But in a hole, we are going through a stressful situation and it does drive people crazy.”

Officials have promised reforms and are already implementing changes. They’re looking at the records and behavior logs of every SHU inmate to see if he can be moved to general population.

Frias expects to have a hearing soon. So far, about 70 accused gang members from Corcoran’s SHU have been released to the general population under the new review process. About 645 remain. 

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