I just received this very special drawing from a family member of a man in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison “Security Housing Unit.” It’s of part of the prison that I have been trying to understand for a long time: the “pod.” I’ve pored over the few published photographs that exist, and watching and re-watched the limited amount of documentary footage of these places. I’ve even made models and drawings on this space myself, trying to figure out what its configuration does to the lives of people who are locked in it.
Most drawings of the supermax SHU (pronounced like “shoe”) are of the cells, appropriately I suppose, since that is where the men are locked in for 22 ½ hours or more per day. From what I can tell, the SHU cells are actually a lot like many other high- or maximum-security prisons: poured concrete walls, floors, and ceiling; about 7 ½ x 12 feet in size; poured concrete bunks, “desk,” and “stool;” and a stainless steel combination toilet and sink unit. (You can see a picture of a Pelican Bay SHU cell, and sign ADPSR’s petition to end the design of spaces for solitary confinement, here.)
But it’s actually the “pod,” or enlarged hallway, that sets the SHU apart from other prisons. Prisoners leave their cells once each day for “outdoor yard” time and, sometimes, a shower. But they don’t leave the pod ever – at all – except for extraordinary events that occur rarely to never: visitors, parole reviews, disciplinary hearings, etc.. Everything else is brought into the pod: nurses and psychologists speak through the perforated metal mesh of the cell doors (drawn as cross-hatched in this drawing). Food and mail are pushed through the slot in the door. (The solid-looking doors between the mesh cell doors are access panels for the plumbing chases, placed so that repair work can be done without having to go into the cell. If workers are present, all the cells are locked down until work is complete – just one circumstance out of many that causes people to lose their one and a half hours of out-of-cell time.) Some prisoners say that years of conducting conversations through the perforated metal doors has left them with permanent eyestrain and headaches.
In more typical maximum security prisons the “pod” is a larger “dayroom” and is a social space. Prisoners are locked in their cells at night, and spend the day in a larger common area with (often rudimentary) furniture, meals, and some choice of activities with others. In the SHU, pod is never occupied by more than one prisoner. In the daily routine, remote-controlled motors (housed in the heavy linear metal enclosure that you can see over the doors) allow movement from a cell through the pod and into the “yard” through the door at the back, or into the shower, so that there is no interaction. If a prisoner is slated to leave the pod, a team of two to five guards will enter the pod, although the prisoner is generally shackled through the food slot of the cell door before it is opened.
Of course, it could be worse. Other supermax prisons use solid doors, and make up for the lack of daylight with small windows to the outdoors. (Pelican Bay cells get some borrowed light from the skylight over the pod through the door front, which the designers considered sufficient enough to leave out the windows, at a substantial cost savings. Some prisoners say the daylight is too dim to read by.) By some accounts, prisoners can speak to the other seven men in their pod through the perforated metal doors – although after years of confinement with the same small group conversation can run out. But “it could be worse” is, fortunately, not the standard uses for measuring whether conditions are cruel, inhuman, degrading, or torturous enough to be a human rights violation. As Amnesty International put it: The cumulative effects of such conditions, particularly when imposed for prolonged or indefinite periods, and the severe environmental deprivation in Pelican Bay SHU, in particular, amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law.