How can I make anyone understand what it’s like to cling desperately to the hope of someday being heard because that’s the only hope left? That’s one reason why the hunger strike going on across California’s prisons matters. It might just keep that hope alive for prisoners locked down in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing and Administrative Segregation Units (known as the SHU).
At the age of eighteen years, four months, and six days, I was cast into the SHU where I stayed for two and half years, alone, without a window, a television, or a radio. (Mail, when it came, was delayed for months at a time.)
My only real distractions were the terrifying and gut-wrenching sounds and smells of grown men reaching their breaking points: crying, screaming, banging; blood and feces being smeared on walls and bodies; Correctional Officers (C/Os) yelling, shooting pepper spray… and puking.
I found a small measure of comfort in books and in treasured conversations through the ventilation system, with older men whose faces I’d never see (conversing with anyone face-to-face was so rare as to be nonexistent). There was also the sound of my door being padlocked shut whenever there was a tsunami warning, meaning that if a tsunami did wash over us, the inmates’ only hope is that death comes quickly. Maybe that sound was the most dehumanizing of all, because to realize you matter so little to other human beings is not a feeling one gets used to, or ever forgets.
There were seven inmate suicides during my time in the SHU. None of them surprised me. As an eighteen-year-old with my entire life ahead of me, I understood why people wanted to die.
To combat the temptation to follow my neighbors into the afterlife, I exercised with extreme vigor, I wrote, I studied family photos, as well as images I found in old magazines, imagining myself in the places and situations depicted. These offered at least the illusion of escape from the bare cement walls that always seemed to be closing in on me. Such relief came at a cost — a progressive separation from my real life. I could get so lost in my fantasies (about home, barbecues, beaches, about committing violent crimes, about sex, building my dream house, about any number of things) that the slightest interruption — the sound of the food port being unlocked at dinnertime — could hurl me into fits of anger, depression, anxiety attacks. Living in the SHU was literally driving me mad.
On the bright side, there is a bakery in Pelican Bay. We’d often get fresh baked cookies in our lunches. They were delicious. Sometimes, though, C/Os [correction officers] would remove them from some of the lunches for their own enjoyment. They were that good, good enough to make someone squash an inmate’s only sense of relief, perhaps his only source of joy, with a dirty boot before passing in the tray. “You really have to try one…”
I spent two and a half years in the SHU, ostensibly as punishment for a fistfight with another inmate (I was charged with battery with no serious injury). I believe the real reason was that I had defied the Administration by refusing to participate in prison gang politics and to inform on other inmates who were active gang members. You could say I was lucky to get out in that short a time. More than 75 Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been held in isolation for more than twenty years, and more than five times that number have been there for more than a decade.
Ironically, when I was placed in the SHU they told me it was for my own protection, and to give the prison time to evaluate my housing needs. If that “evaluation” had taken any longer, I would have lost my mind.
Michael Cabral has served ten years on a 15-Life sentence for murder, beginning when he was still a juvenile. His first two and a half years were spent in the Pelican Bay SHU. He spent time in Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, and is currently at Corcoran State Prison. His writing has appeared often in The Beat Within , New America Media ’s weekly publication of writing and art by juvenile detainees.