By Lt. Jessica Berg, AA/PIO 
Pelican Bay State Prison

Over the past few months, Pelican Bay State Prison staff members have been working hard to change an empty Security Housing Unit (SHU) into an open, general population unit for lower custody inmates.

Since 1989, the SHU at Pelican Bay comprised Facilities C and D and at times housed more than 1,200 gang-validated inmates. But as a result of the settlement agreement in the Ashker v. Brown lawsuit related to conditions of confinement in the SHU at Pelican Bay and other reforms, CDCR has implemented changes that focus on fixed segregated housing terms for behavior-based violations.

These changes lessened CDCR’s reliance on long-term segregated housing for managing gang-validated inmates and reduced the need for 992 SHU beds at Pelican Bay State Prison and California State Prison-Corcoran.

The 480 SHU cells in Facility D have been vacant since August 2016. The fiscal year 2017-2018 California State Budget included resources to convert those vacant SHU cells to house Level II general population inmates.

“The conversion meant making structural changes in Facility D to create a setting suitable for lower-custody inmates consistent with other Level II housing units throughout the state,” Pelican Bay State Prison Warden Clark Ducart said.

The unit now has tables and televisions in dayrooms. The cell doors that once restricted inmates from moving about freely are left open and inmates secure their personal property within lockers inside their cells.

Each unit within Facility D has a microwave oven, hot and cold water dispensers and telephones. Outdoor exercise yards have been constructed. Offices have been cleared out to create space for inmates to participate in rehabilitative activities, academic education, religious programs and substance-use disorder programs.

The California Prison Industry Authority, in partnership with CDCR and The Last Mile, will expand the Code.7370 computer-coding program to Facility D. The program will mirror the successful program that began at San Quentin State Prison in 2014. Code.7370’s curriculum uses technology to securely simulate a live coding environment without internet access.

The converted Level II GP facility was activated July 10, 2017, and inmates began arriving shortly after.

A few days after their arrival, Kenneth Alfred and Marcus Benavidez sat down to discuss their thoughts on the conversion. Both have served SHU terms in the past, but have since put themselves on the path to success by participating in rehabilitative and vocational programs. Both were housed at Correctional Training Facility in Soledad before transferring to Pelican Bay.

“I’m hoping for the best,” said Alfred, adding that he had been comfortable at CTF and it is difficult to adjust to a new place. But he acknowledged Warden Ducart’s vision for PBSP and said he looks forward to seeing the new programs begin. “Pelican Bay is really trying and working with us. That’s one incentive, and they’ve also given us the TV and are proactive in our requests, but it’s just going to take some time.”

As more inmates arrive and programs begin, those who live and work at Pelican Bay will stay in communication about what’s working, what’s not working, and what the new Facility D will become. Benavidez recently began a stint as Men’s Advisory Council representative; his role will be to liaison between staff and incarcerated men to address concerns and plan for the future.

“It’s a process,” he said. “If you don’t have the patience, then I don’t suggest you come, because it’s not going to be easy. But if you want a change of pace, something new, something different, a job? Swing on by.”