Pelican Bay Prison’s massive white blocks cannot be disguised by the slender pines that surround it. It has no sign; it doesn’t need one. Any passerby understands that the State of California is locking up evildoers in this remote corner. Everyone nudges the accelerator pedal and moves on.
Dave Salmon, the sole social worker for 2500 inmates, explained that the high security facility was built in the 1980’s as a response to gang infiltration of the prison system. It was located here, remote from cities and gang influence, and designed to minimize prisoner interaction. Most of the facility is divided into secure housing units (SHU). Prisoners spend 22 hours a day in solitude and have 90 minutes of exercise.
“The prisoners filed a lawsuit that the organization of Pelican Bay itself constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.” A settlement was reached the week before I spoke with Dave. As a result, some things at Pelican Bay will change. “Now, men are assigned to Pelican Bay based on gang affiliation. That’s no longer a justifiable reason. Prisoners can only be in long term solitary based on behavior.” There will also be increased exercise and social time.
In theory, men are transferred from SHU to a recovery hub for three to five years before release, to provide more interaction and better opportunities to get a GED or job training. Despite these efforts to prepare men to reenter the world; almost two-thirds of California inmates return to prison within three years of discharge.
Prior to discharge, inmates meet twice with Dave. About three weeks before release, Dave determines what public benefits the former prisoner may receive. They meet again, a few days before freedom, to confirm benefits and issue a state ID. “Released prisoners receive $200 and an ID and have to report to the parole office in the county of their last legal residence within 48 hours. About 2/3 of the men have a place to go. The rest are mentally ill or have no family where they have to do parole.” There’s a mechanism for transferring parole to another county, but it’s complicated, particularly for men who are already struggling to navigate the system. “A mentally ill prisoner was paroled to Oakland after twenty years in prison. His family was in Fresno. He spent most of his $200 just getting to Oakland. How was he supposed to function there?”
I asked Dave why he does this work. “If you want to see the most broken people in our society, start in the mental health ward of a prison. Somebody needed to be in my position. I thought I could make a difference.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“Things are really changing in California. Parole is working better. We’re using the carrot more than the stick. We’re putting more money into prevention. It’s better to shape lives before guys go to prison. Last fall California passed Proposition 47; the third strike conviction can be a misdemeanor instead of a felony if it’s not violent. That will help thin our prison population.”