I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California's Pelican Bay State Prison —but I'm not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person's stability and another's insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the "dog run" at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn't write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?
"There was a window," I say. I don't quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. "Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—" Without those windows, I wouldn't have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.
Here, there are no windows.
Acosta, Pelican Bay's public information officer, is giving me a tour of the Security Housing Unit. Inmates deemed a threat to the security of any of California's 33 prisons are shipped to one of the state's five SHUs (pronounced "shoes"), which hold nearly 4,000 people in long-term isolation. In the Pelican Bay SHU, 94 percent of prisoners are celled alone; overcrowding has forced the prison to double up the rest. Statewide, about 32 percent of SHU cells—hardly large enough for one person—are crammed with two inmates.
The cell I am standing in is one of eight in a "pod," a large concrete room with cells along one side and only one exit, which leads to the guards' control room. A guard watches over us, rifle in hand, through a set of bars in the wall. He can easily shoot into any one of six pods around him. He communicates with prisoners through speakers and opens their steel grated cell doors via remote. That is how they are let out to the dog run, where they exercise for an hour a day, alone. They don't leave the cell to eat. If they ever leave the pod, they have to strip naked, pass their hands through a food slot to be handcuffed, then wait for the door to open and be bellycuffed.
I've been corresponding with at least 20 inmates in SHUs around California as part of an investigation into why and how people end up here. While at Pelican Bay, I'm not allowed to see or speak to any of them. Since 1996, California law has given prison authorities full control of which inmates journalists can interview . The only one I'm permitted to speak to is the same person the New York Times was allowed to interview  months before. He is getting out of the SHU because he informed on other prisoners. In fact, this SHU pod—the only one I am allowed to see—is populated entirely by prison informants. I ask repeatedly why I'm not allowed to visit another pod or speak to other SHU inmates. Eventually, Acosta snaps: "You're just not."
IF I COULD, I would meet with Dietrich Pennington, a 59-year-old Army veteran from Oakland who has served 20 years of a life sentence for robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder. Pennington has lived alone in one of these cells for more than four years. During that time, he hasn't spoken to his family. He has never met any of his seven grandchildren. In the SHU, he's seen "some of the strongest men I know fall apart."
But the fact that Pennington is in solitary is not what is remarkable about his story. More than 80,000 people were in solitary confinement in the United States in 2005, the last time the federal government released such data. In California alone, at least 11,730 people are housed in some form of isolation. What is unique about Pennington—if being one of thousands can be considered unique—is that he doesn't know when, or if, he will get out of the SHU. Like at least 3,808 others in California, he is serving an indeterminate sentence.
Compared to most SHU inmates, Pennington is a newbie. Prisoners spend an average of 7.5 years in the Pelican Bay SHU, the only one for which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has statistics. More than half of the 1,126 prisoners here have been in isolation for at least five years. Eighty-nine have been there for at least 20 years. One has been in solitary for 42 years .
Like many of the others, Pennington has never been charged with any serious prison offenses, like fighting or selling drugs. In 20 years of incarceration, his only strikes have been two rule violations: delaying roll call and refusing to be housed in a dorm-style cell with at least seven other prisoners. While in prison, he became a certified welder, receiving a special commendation for his work on building a rollover crash simulator for the California Highway Patrol. He used to regularly attend religious services and self-help groups, including parenting classes, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous, all of which are forbidden in the SHU.
Pennington's lawyer, Charles Carbone , says his "impeccable prison record" should have him on track for parole. But there is no chance of that—four years ago Pennington was "validated" by prison staff as an associate of a prison gang (one formed on the inside, as opposed to a street gang). That's the reason he and thousands of others are in the SHU with no exit date.
Pennington is not accused of giving or carrying out orders on behalf of any gang. In fact, there is no evidence that he's ever communicated with a member of a gang in his entire life. "I've never been, never want to be a part of no gang," he wrote me. (He is currently trying to challenge his validation in court.)
To validate an inmate as a gang member, the state requires at least three pieces of evidence, which must be "indicative of actual membership" or association with a prison gang in the last six years . At least one item must show a "direct link," like a note or other communication, to a validated gang member or associate. Once the prison's gang investigator has gathered this evidence, it is reviewed in an administrative hearing and then sent to CDCR headquarters in Sacramento.
In Pennington's file , the "direct link " is his possession  of an article published in the San Francisco Bay View , an African American newspaper with a circulation of around 15,000. The paper is approved for distribution in California prisons, and Pennington's right to receive it is protected under state law . In the op-ed style article  he had in his cell, titled "Guards confiscate 'revolutionary' materials at Pelican Bay," a validated member of the Black Guerilla Family  prison gang complains about the seizure of literature and pictures from his cell and accuses the prison of pursuing "racist policy." In Pennington's validation documents, the gang investigator contends that, by naming the confiscated materials, the author "communicates to associates of the BGF…as to which material needs to be studied." No one alleges that Pennington ever attempted to contact the author. It is enough that he possessed the article.
The second piece of evidence was a cup Pennington had in his cell  bearing a picture of a dragon , an image CDCR considers an "identifying symbol " of the Black Guerilla Family. The third was a notebook he kept , which the gang investigator alleges "shows his beliefs in the ideals of the BGF ." Its pages are filled with references to black history—Nat Turner , the Scottsboro 9 , the number of blacks executed between 1930 and 1969, and quotes from figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X. There are also passages in which Pennington ruminates at length on what he calls "the oppression and violence inflicted upon us here in maximum security," referencing a Time exposé.
Pennington never mentions gangs or unlawful activity in his writing. But in his validation documents, the gang investigator points out that the notebook contains quotes by Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson , two former Black Panthers who are revered by members of the BGF and politicized African American prisoners generally. The single Jackson quote Pennington wrote down  reads, "The text books on criminology like to advance the idea that the prisoners are mentally defective. There is only the merest suggestion that the system itself is at fault."
California officials frequently cite possession of black literature, left-wing materials , and writing about prisoner rights as evidence of gang affiliation . In the dozens of cases I reviewed, gang investigators have used the term "[BGF] training material" to refer to publications by California Prison Focus , a group that advocates the abolition of the SHUs; Jackson's once best-selling Soledad Brother ; a pamphlet said to reference "Revolutionary Black Nationalism , The Black Internationalist Party, Marx, and Lenin"; and a pamphlet titled "The Black People's Prison Survival Guide ." This last one advises inmates to read books, keep a dictionary handy, practice yoga, avoid watching too much television, and stay away from "leaders of gangs."
The list goes on. Other materials considered evidence of gang involvement have included writings by Mumia Abu-Jamal ; The Black Panther Party: Reconsidered , a collection of academic essays by University of Cincinnati professor Charles Jones ; pictures of Assata Shakur , Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Nat Turner; and virtually anything using the term "New Afrikan ." At least one validation besides Pennington's referenced handwritten pages of "Afro centric ideology."
As warden of San Quentin Prison  in the 1980s, Daniel Vasquez  oversaw what was then the country's largest SHU. He's now a corrections consultant and has testified on behalf of inmates seeking to reverse their validations. As we sat in his suburban Bay Area home, he told me it is "very common" for African American prisoners who display leadership qualities or radical political views to end up in the SHU. Similarly, he recalls, "we were told that when an African American inmate identified as being Muslim, we were supposed to watch them carefully and get their names."
Vasquez testified in federal court in the case of a former inmate, Ernesto Lira , who was gang validated in part based on a drawing  that included an image of the huelga bird, the symbol of the United Farm Workers. While the image has been co-opted by the Nuestra Familia prison gang, Vasquez testified that it is "a popular symbol widely used in Hispanic culture  and by California farmworkers." Lira's validation was one of a handful to ever be reversed in federal court—though not until after he was released on parole, having spent eight years in the SHU. And though the court ruled that the huelga bird is of "obscure and ambiguous meaning," it continues to be used as validation evidence.
Gang evidence comes in countless forms. Possession of Machiavelli's The Prince, Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power, or Sun Tzu's The Art of War has been invoked as evidence. One inmate's validation includes a Christmas card with stars drawn on it —alleged gang symbols—among Hershey's Kisses and a candy cane. Another included a poetry booklet the inmate had coauthored with a validated BGF member. One poem reflected on what it was like to feel human touch after 14 years and another warned against spreading HIV. The only reference to violence was the line, "this senseless dying gotta end."
"Direct links" that appear in inmates' case files are often things they have no control over, like having their names found in the cells of validated gang members or associates or having a validated gang affiliate send them a letter, even if they never received it or knew of its existence. Appearing in a group picture with one validated gang associate counts as a direct link, even if that person wasn't validated at the time.
In the course of my investigation, I obtained CDCR's confidential validation manual. It teaches investigators that use of the words tío or hermano, Spanish for uncle and brother, can indicate gang activity, as can señor. Validation files on Latino inmates have included drawings of the ancient Aztec jaguar knight and Aztec war shields, and anything in the indigenous Nahuatl language, spoken by an estimated 1.4 million people in central Mexico.
Some SHU inmates, aside from the "bona fide gang members," are those "the guards don't like," says Carbone, Pennington's lawyer. "They get annihilated with gang validations in order to get them off the main lines…The rules are so flimsy that if the department wants somebody validated, he will get validated."
California is just one of many states where inmates can be thrown into solitary confinement on sketchy grounds—though just how many is hard to know. A survey conducted by Mother Jones found that most states had some kind of gang validation process, but implementation varied widely, and a number of states would not disclose their policies at all. Seventeen states said they don't house inmates in "single-celled segregation" indeterminately. (No state officially uses the term "solitary.")
It's unclear how many states keep inmates in solitary as long as California does. Texas has 4,748 validated affiliates of "security threat groups" in indefinite solitary—more than California's prison gang affiliates—and some have been there for more than 20 years. Louisiana has held two Black Panthers in solitary for 40 years . Minnesota is near the opposite end of the spectrum, holding inmates in segregation for an average term of 29 days. At least 12 states review an inmate's segregation status every 30 days or less; Massachusetts does it weekly.
Keeping all these inmates segregated is an expensive proposition for taxpayers. Pelican Bay spends at least 20 percent more to keep an inmate in isolation—an extra $12,317 per inmate per year , or $14 million annually.
AT PELICAN BAY, decisions about who gets put in the hole indefinitely come down to one man: Institutional Gang Investigator David Barneburg. A stocky man with a shaved head and a seven-point star on the breast of his khaki uniform, Barneburg comes from a lineage of loggers who found themselves out of work when the timber industry busted. When Pelican Bay opened its doors amidst the majestic redwoods in 1989, his father signed up.
Pelican Bay was a new kind of prison—one of the nation's first full-fledged supermaxes, built with the explicit purpose of housing inmates in long-term isolation. After Pelican Bay, supermaxes popped up across the country, in part to deal with rising violence in increasingly crowded prisons. Today, there are roughly 60 nationwide.
Barneburg started here in 1997, and after 15 years on the job, he comes off as a man under duress. He makes a point of assuring me that he and his gang investigations team of 10 are not "knuckle-dragging thugs." He tells me he has to regularly take the stand in court to defend gang validations. To date, prisoners have sued him at least 30 times, though I could find no record of any having succeeded. "I don't want to go as far as saying gang investigators are persecuted, but…"
He is giving me a PowerPoint presentation detailing the structures and operations of the seven prison gangs targeted by the department of corrections. The Nazi Low Riders. The Aryan Brotherhood. The Texas Syndicate. The Black Guerilla Family. The Mexican Mafia. The Nuestra Familia. The Northern Structure. "It's about power," he says. "It's about control. It's about extortion. It's about money. It's about dope. It's about murder." Membership in a gang is not illegal in the United States—it's a right protected by the First Amendment—but Barneburg says segregating gang members is the only way to keep prisons from being overrun by racial strife, stabbings, and killings.
When I ask him how well that's worked, he stutters and says diffidently, "I think there's been less violence."
He's wrong. The rate of violent incidents in California prisons is nearly 20 percent higher than when Pelican Bay opened in 1989. As I walk with Lieutenant Acosta alongside the general population yard—a grassy, if bleak, fenced-in area where, unlike in the SHU, prisoners are allowed to interact—he unwittingly contradicts Barneburg's claim too, saying that violence in Pelican Bay has seen dramatic spikes over the years. In the 1990s, he says, "you didn't see the big fights, all the riots. It was like one, two guys fighting, maybe three guys." But since then, prison gang violence has escalated dramatically, with riots involving upwards of 200 people.
Prison violence fluctuates for myriad reasons, among them overcrowding, gang politics, and prison conditions. It's impossible to say for certain what role SHUs play; what is clear is that in states that have reduced solitary confinement—Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi—violence has not increased. (Illinois plans to close its notorious Tamms supermax soon.) Since Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman released 75 percent of inmates from solitary in the mid-2000s, violence has dropped 50 percent .
Read the rest of the article including the footnotes.