CRESCENT CITY -- The sun rarely shines on the kingpins of California's prison gangs. To stop them from orchestrating mayhem on prison yards and neighborhoods across the state, prison officials condemned hundreds of reputed gang members to years of isolation in windowless cells.

For five years, the tough strategy worked, wardens insist. Quarantined crime bosses lost contact with their followers. No one could hear what they had to say. At least, not until July 1, when some of the most securely held prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison stopped eating and broke through their shuttered lines of communication with a mass hunger strike that spread into prisons across the state.

"Am I an innocent lamb? By no means, but I can tell you this: I never deserved to be locked up in a dungeon for seven years just because they allege I'm a gang member," said Ronnie Yandell, one of the leaders of the hunger strike that lasted three weeks and spread to 12 other prisons with promises of more strikes to come.

Now, as a court-ordered mandate forces California to reduce the number of low-level criminals in its overcrowded prisons, protests of inhumane conditions for the most hardened, violent criminals are forcing the state to rethink another problem: How can powerful and savvy prisoners be stopped from directing violence on the outside without their rights against cruel punishment being violated on the inside?

Life in 'The SHU'

Yandell and the other 1,110 men in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit -- known as "The SHU" -- spend at least 22 1/2 hours each day in their concrete, bathroom-size cells. Some inmates have a cellmate and some do not. Prisoners can have TVs but little human interaction. Their daily outing is a solitary 90-minute break in a barren exercise pen lined with 15-foot-high concrete walls and a limited view of the sky.

Hearing about the hunger strike through a network of family members and activists, more than 6,000 inmates across California joined in.

The prisons weighed each hunger striker daily, finding only about 11 percent of Pelican Bay's protesters lost weight during the 21-day strike. One lost 30 pounds. No one died, but after weeks of unwanted attention and a legislative hearing in late August, top prison officials now say they are reviewing how long and why they segregate and isolate some inmates in the state's harshest cellblocks.

"Everything we're doing with these men is lawful and constitutional," said Pelican Bay Warden Greg Lewis. "I really didn't see the need to negotiate anything. On the other hand, in the department, we need to evolve and change with the conditions that are going on."

Dogged with mistreatment complaints and lawsuits since its inception, Pelican Bay's conditions were found by a federal judge in 1995 to "hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable." But judges have also repeatedly upheld California's practice of confining inmates in isolated conditions, and in March commended Pelican Bay for improving conditions. Still, experts say, the prison realignment prompted by the court order to reduce prison populations offers an opportunity to reconsider the practice of isolating criminals.

"There's a growing consensus that these ultra-isolation prisons are a bad mistake," said criminologist Barry Krisberg, director of research at UC Berkeley's Earl Warren Institute. "The theory behind these prisons was we'll collect all the worst people in one place and that will make the rest of the prisons safer and easier to manage. But they weren't necessarily the most dangerous, violent criminals. " And the levels of violence in the other places didn't really go down."

'Living like dogs'

Prisoners promise another fast could begin next week inside the remote facility, just south of the Oregon border, if their demands for better conditions and an easier path out of isolation are not met. Prison officials said the strikes are a dangerous, costly and ineffective way for prisoners to voice their complaints. Yandell said it is the only way anyone will pay attention.

"We're tired of living like dogs," the former Contra Costa County resident wrote in a handwritten letter to this newspaper, one of several interviews conducted between the newspaper and self-defined leaders of the strike. "Not even terrorists at Guantánamo Bay are treated like this."

Convicted of killing two men in El Sobrante a decade ago during a drug deal, Yandell was placed in Pelican Bay's SHU -- the oldest and biggest of three similar units around the state -- after prison officials designated him a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-only gang.

The only way out of solitary confinement was to "debrief" -- to convincingly denounce his gang affiliation and ideology and name former collaborators. But many prisoners never find their way out of the SHU; the average time spent inside the state's isolation units is 6.8 years, and some prisoners have been there for decades.

In this fog-enshrouded region off the Pacific Coast, prisoners rarely get a glimpse of the sun, and their pallid faces show it. Not many family members can afford the long trip to visit them, and when they do, they must speak through phones. Prison workers carefully vet all written correspondence, confiscating some letters that break the rules. Meals arrive through a slot in steel doors.

"We've got these gang leaders here in Pelican Bay that are very influential," said Lt. Dave Barneburg, a gang investigator at the prison working to stop gang leaders from directing organized crime on the streets. "They don't do the assaults. They don't do the hits. They don't personally get their hands dirty, but they command legions of subordinate gang members."

Price of isolation

About a third of Pelican Bay's prison population lives in the SHU, and most of the rest live in what's called the "mainline," or general population prison. Mainline prisoners have the freedom to play soccer or basketball on a field, buy extra food from canteens, visit a chapel and occasionally mingle in a common area outside their cells. When the sun is out over Pelican Bay, they can bask in it.

Mainline prisoners also cost taxpayers less: $58,324 per inmate a year, compared with $70,641 for SHU inmates.

For years, prison officials tried to manage gangs, not suppress them, but even in the bleak confines of the SHU, gang leaders found ways to direct violence within the prison and in their hometown neighborhoods, Barneburg said.

That began to change in 2006, when the prison placed some rival gang leaders in the same short blocks and further restricted their communications. These leaders, Barneburg said, lost their secretaries and the people who once did their bidding. Prison officials don't have data to prove their strategy has worked in reducing violence, but say inmates who earned their way out of isolation tell them it works.

A way to get out

In a rare media tour of the prison last month, prison officials hand-picked two prisoners who could speak with the media. Both men were on their way out of the SHU for a less harsh facility after volunteering for a months-long debriefing process.

Incarcerated since he was 16 for a gang killing in West Sacramento and in solitary confinement for most of that time, 35-year-old Harold Rigsby said he finally picked Bible studies over the ideology of the Northern Structure, a gang associated with the powerful Nuestra Familia network.

He renounced his gang, revealed everything he knew about it and took no part in the July hunger strike, viewing the protest as a plea for "little things like sweats, and better food, and more packages."

"There's no arguing that this is a harsh place," Rigsby said. "When I was still an active gang member, I would've wholeheartedly agreed that this was an inhumane place. But at the same time, we all have to understand that the SHU is a necessary form of prison because of all the gangs."

In letters to this newspaper, hunger strike leaders painted a different picture of life in the prison and the motivations for their strike, complaining about poor medical care, coercive interrogation tactics and a gang classification system they say promotes racial divisions and is too subjective.

Pelican Bay has had hunger strikes before, but the magnitude of this protest surprised many, as did the ability of inmates -- people officials have characterized as the upper echelons of California's prison gang culture -- to reach across racial boundaries.

"Once we decided to do the hunger strike, we just passed word to our friends, and family, and attorneys, and civil rights organizations, which spread the word," Yandell wrote. "Whites, Mexicans and blacks were all together on the hunger strike."

PELICAN BAY history
December 1989: California Department of Corrections opens Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City at a cost of about $217 million. The prison includes California's first Security Housing Unit, designed to keep more than 1,000 dangerous criminals isolated from one another.
1993: A class-action lawsuit (Madrid v. Gomez) alleges mistreatment at the prison.
1995: U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson rules that conditions at Pelican Bay's Secure Housing Unit "hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable" and promote use of lethal force against inmates. Henderson appoints a special monitor to oversee court-ordered improvements.
2001: Hundreds of prisoners launch first major hunger strike at Pelican Bay protesting the gang "debriefing" process, which offers inmates a way out of solitary confinement if they become informants. The strike is suspended after state Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, calls for talks.
2005: Settlement of a 1994 lawsuit causes the state to change the way it classifies prison gang members but a court upholds the constitutionality of most practices, finding "no psychological effects of prolonged SHU confinement."
January 2011: A hunger strike inside Ohio State Penitentiary protests solitary confinement there. In the same month, the stabbing of guards at Pelican Bay causes a 45-day prisonwide lockdown that inmates will later call unfair "group punishment."
March: Judge Henderson formally ends the Madrid v. Gomez case with a three-page ruling that commends improved conditions at Pelican Bay but warns against lapses.
May: The U.S. Supreme Court rules California must reduce its overcrowded prisons by 33,000 inmates in two years.
July 1: Prisoners at Pelican Bay launch a 21-day hunger strike that spreads to 12 prisons and involves more than 6,000 inmates across the state. Near the end of the strike, prison officials transfer some strike leaders out of Pelican Bay but meet with others. The protest is against solitary confinement conditions and the "debriefing" process.
Aug. 23: Assembly holds hearing on SHU conditions. Prison officials say they are reviewing procedures and looking at models adopted by other states.
Aug. 29: The state sends a memo to wardens announcing a few improved conditions in the SHU, including exercise equipment and drawing paper.

Hunger strike demands
  • Eliminate group punishments and practice individual accountability if a prisoner breaks a rule.
  • Modify the gang classifications that send people to long-term isolation, and abolish the "debriefing" process by which inmates can only get out of isolation if they provide information on gang activity.
  • Comply with a 2006 report by a federal commission that recommended segregating prisoners as a "last resort."
  • Provide adequate food.
  • Expand educational, self-help and religious programs and offer more privileges, including a phone call per week and permission to wear sweatsuits.

    COST OF ISOLATION
    How much taxpayers paid per year for regular prisoners and those kept in isolation:
    $58,234: Per regular inmate
    $70,641: Per inmate
    in isolation