In a classroom at a state prison in Corcoran, deep in California’s Central Valley, 14 inmates have gathered around me in a semi-circle. The men seem relaxed and animated but many of the faces are washed out, the result of years in security housing units, controversial lockups that are the focus of a widespread inmate hunger strike that began on July 8.
One of the men is Sergio, a 53-year-old inmate originally from Southern California (inmates interviewed for this story asked that their full names not be disclosed out of concern of possible retaliation by other prisoners). He spent a total of 21 years held in isolation, mainly at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City.
“Have you ever seen that cartoon where the little mouse comes out of a hole and just like is all disoriented? That’s how we feel right now,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure out how to associate with people. It’s all kind of strange but it’s going to take a little while to get used to.”
Another inmate I meet here is George. He spent a total of 17 years in special security units, mostly at Pelican Bay.
“Being in a cell by yourself with all that time, if you’re not doing anything, yeah, your mind is going to start playing games on you,” he says. “You need to occupy your time. You need to feel good about yourself because if you don’t, it’s like falling off an airplane without a parachute.”
The men here are part of a new Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation program that is moving inmates no longer considered a security threat out of stark isolation units and into regular prisons. Most of these inmates were originally convicted of violent crimes. But they were placed in the lockup units on allegations that they were affiliated with violent prisons gangs. Back in the general prison population, they enjoy a host of privileges that are denied to inmates in the security units.
Outside the classroom, I walk with the inmates in the yard across a scruffy lawn, under a scorching late-morning sun. For the first time in years, these men can exercise, unshackled and in the open air, with other inmates.
It’s freedom,” proclaims a prisoner named David. “Even though we’re on a mainline, you still smell freedom.”
Another inmate, Daniel, chimes in: “If you put a dog in a cage, that is all it knows. But once you open that cage and let him out in the back yard, he will not see that little cage cause that cage does not exist."
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Back in the prison classroom, the men reflect on some of their other new freedoms, like phone calls. Armando tell me that calling home for the first time in years can lead to confusion.
“Some of us call the house, and the family says, 'Who is this?' They can’t believe it’s you and they think you’re playing a trick on them. Some people won’t even accept the call because they think you’re kidding,” he says.
What stands out above all else for the inmates coming out of isolation is human touch. In the security units at Pelican Bay, most inmates are held alone and have minimal contact with others. All visits are conducted behind thick plexiglass. But here at Corcoran, inmates can meet with family face to face. Daniel recalls a recent meeting with his family in the visitors’ room.
“Memorable. Amazing. Tender. All the emotions that you thought were not there resurface when you see them,” he says.
I ask Daniel how long it had been since he held hands with his mother.
“Over what, say 14 years,” he says. “And my sisters, like 20.”
Under the department’s new program, these men will be closely monitored for a year, then moved to another prison. Any men who are involved in gang-related activity (as defined by new department guidelines) will be sent back to the security units. The job of supervising these inmates falls to veteran corrections captain Bert Odle.
“A lot of these guys, when they came into prison they were children,” he says. “When they were part of the gang, they ran rampant. They were children with immature minds. Now they’ve matured. They’re older guys. Instead of young gang members, they’re mature men.”
“It would be great if we didn’t have to have security housing units at all,” says Kelly Harrington, associate director in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Harrington says the units are necessary to control violent prison gangs. But under the department’s new rules, he says inmates have an opportunity to earn their way out by avoiding gang-related behavior and participating in special programs.
“When you’re on a general population facility you get the access to those enhanced privileges,” he says. “Contact visits, actually going to school, going out to a yard program. That is the goal, and hopefully the men that are in the security housing units will see that as an incentive to go out.”
But the department’s changes are already facing challenges. Many inmates still held in isolation say they don’t trust the department and are refusing to take the steps needed to qualify for a transfer. And leaders of the hunger strike that began July 8 at Pelican Bay say the changes don’t go nearly far enough.
Alex, an inmate who spent a total of 17 years in isolation before being transferred to the prison at Corcoran, says the promised education and work opportunities are few and far between.
“It may be better (here) than the Bay (Pelican Bay prison), but we’re still being warehoused,” he says, “because we have nothing to do. I think they need to put us into some kind of work vocations. Get us work. Keep us occupied.”
So far, the corrections officials say more than 200 men have either been transferred or approved for transfer, and there have been no reports of disciplinary problems. But the effort is now on hold, as the department grapples with the hunger strike, which has spread to 24 facilities statewide.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting.