Reality in Pelican Bay Prison

A few weeks ago I devoted this column to the comments and observations of my friend Dr. Earl Fuller about his experiences while volunteering at the women’s prison at Chowchilla. The interest in the column was high, and I wanted to share two responses with you were posted on the Daily Pilot’s website.

The first one was: “Finally, some of the horror stories that those of us who have loved ones in prison will be told. I have been sending my son’s story to newspapers for over 2 years, but not one of them has printed it. Maybe now someone will listen to the truth and the people will understand that things are still not right in California.” The second was “What would I feel if a dear one were in prison? I am worried daily because I know someone in prison and he is sick and not being given adequate medical treatment.”

Because Fuller also volunteered to provide medical care at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California, which houses the most dangerous male inmates, I asked him to give us his observations about the medical care these men received, and to compare it with that received at Chowchilla by the women. The following is a summary of what he told me.

The medical needs and wants of the male prisoners are really quite different than for the women, and I believe the difference is explained on a psychological basis. Women see medical care as a desirable and important adjunct to their life. Having regular visits and care by a physician confers both status and medicine, and both are considered to be a valuable commodity. The male prisoners have a different mindset because the need to see a doctor and take medicine is seen as a sign of weakness. Thus the male inmates try to limit or ignore illness until it can be ignored no longer.

The psychology also differs in another significant way. The male inmates all seemed to be convinced that they would be killed on the outside by the time they were 25 years old. So it didn’t really matter what you did or to whom you did it because you were soon going to be dead anyway. But when they were caught before they could be killed and they were sent away for 50 or 60 years to prison because of one or a series of horrible acts, they were stuck continuing to exist without really ever having learned how to live.

This resulted in most of the inmates existing almost in a vacuum. Their entire day involved being in their special violent offenders housing unit, with breakfast being brought in early, and then watching television until lunch. In the afternoon they were often handcuffed between two guards and taken down to the yard, and then put into a cage of 10-by-25 feet to run around outside for 90 minutes before they were returned to their cells. But this almost always means that when they are eventually paroled at age 45 or 50, they have no skills, no ambition and no abilities. As a result, they are poorly prepared to lead an independent existence, and often almost intentionally return to prison because that is the only place where they feel comfortable.

The prisoners whom I saw medically fell into several categories, which were those with battle injuries mostly from fighting that could not be ignored any longer, those with infections that were getting worse, and those who had contracted diseases. Mostly their sores, cuts and bruises healed quickly, as you would expect in these young people, and the infections were equally responsive, once the inmates allowed us to use medications.

The regularly established clinics ran reasonably well for those afflicted with chronic diseases like diabetes, lung diseases, hypertension and AIDS. But like with the women’s prisons, the need to keep everything fast and cheap was always present. The prisons medically could do a lot more for their inmates, but it takes money that does not seem to be available.

The process used to get them to us to be seen was interesting. First the inmate would back up to his cell door, whereupon a small barred window in his cell was opened and he would be handcuffed. Then he was walked between two guards in flak jackets to my clinic. If he had to wait, he was placed in a waiting box made out of metal and a metal screen, which was about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and also had a small built-in seat inside.

The inmate would be locked into the box until I could see him. He would then be re-handcuffed and brought to me, but I would have about four to six guards around me at all times. When I would ask to have the handcuffs removed so I could examine the patient, the guards wondered about my sanity. Generally, these inmates were not nice people, and some were overtly psychotic. Yet they still got sick and they still needed to be treated humanly, if only for our sake — if not for theirs.

Those are some of Fuller’s comments. What he did not address was the organized sexual abuse and violence that is often rampant in these facilities. But from my standpoint, all of his observations again strongly reinforce the need for us to provide positive mentors to all of our children — early and often — so that they do not get caught up in the hopeless “well, I’ll be dead anyway” lifestyle Fuller described.

So continue to make special efforts to support things like the YM and YWCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, Scouting organizations, and after-school sports and academic activities. As was stated a few years ago in this column, a “stitch in time” truly does help to keep our children from this fate.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)