Pelican Bay:UNLOCKED–The voices of incarcerated students behind the prison podcast changing the culture of Pelican Bay State Prison
In an abandoned chow hall that now doubles as a storage closet and classroom space on B-yard of Pelican Bay State Prison, Tracy Paul sits quietly in front of a microphone next to Kunlyna Tauch. Paul is wearing black square rimmed glasses with a beard to match and both are fitted in the loose hanging signature California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) issued blue scrubs over a clean white shirt and navy denim pants. Opposite of them sits fellow inmate Semaj A. Martin sporting headphones connected to an Acer laptop with the audio program Audacity filling the screen.
Tauch begins interviewing Paul for the prison’s newly created audio journalism class that produces the podcast Pelican Bay: UNLOCKED. Both hail from Long Beach, were involved with gangs at an early age and are incarcerated for murders they committed as teenagers. Paul, who is serving a 116 to life sentence, explains into the microphone the context behind his journey towards prison starting with being raised by his mother while his father did stints in prison himself. He describes to Tauch how he got into gang banging and why this podcast will hopefully change the perception of Pelican Bay and the humans inside.
“It wasn’t a lack of a father figure because at the end of the day my father didn’t really know how to be a father,” Paul said. “I think if we were going to talk about the lack of fathers it’s a generational thing. My father didn’t even know his father and he was just trying to provide for his family.”
Tauch’s story is similar, in regards to gang involvement, and was serving time in juvenile detention centers at the age of 12. Tauch is first generation Cambodian American and remembers feeling like a social outcast as a child. When he grew up, he said his neighborhood was rife with races at war with each other and was visibly poverty stricken.
Tauch wants the podcast to show outside society that people in prison are redeemable. He said those in Pelican Bay are participating in programming and working towards rehabilitation and a brighter future. Tauch himself is involved with theatre classes, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition’s Hope and Redemption classes, Gogi classes, business classes, Buddhist meditation (he’s the buddhist chaplain on B-yard), and he is even slated to earn his Associates Degree for Transfer in June.
“What people have to try to comprehend is that Pelican Bay was built to punish and that sort of mentality breeds a culture, both for C.O.s [correction officers] and prisoners, especially on B-yard,” Tauch said. “Fast forward to now, Sacramento is pushing for more programs and more rehabilitation. Pelican Bay is struggling to keep up with demand. The culture of this prison is not what it used to be.”Tauch is right. Community Resource Manager for the prison, Robert Losacco, remembers when he started working at Pelican Bay ten years ago there were only seven programs and everyone from inmates to guards refused participation. He said today that has changed and there’s almost 149 programs available.
“In 2014 Pelican Bay was exactly as you thought it would have been: we got yard once every other day and virtually no programs,” Tauch said. “The yard went down almost every day and as if the weather matched the chaos it rained all the time. It was horrible.”
Pelican Bay is notoriously known as California’s first and only supermax prison in the state. It is geographically isolated from any dense population and sits in the middle of a clear cut of redwoods next to the southwest Oregon border. It was ranked in the top ten worst prisons in America by Mother Jones Magazine in 2013. It is famous for the utilization of solitary housing units, or SHU, and the media’s overzealous and misleading use of “worst of the worst” in describing the prisoners it was built to house.
Keramet Reiter has been researching solitary confinement for the last decade and explains in her 2016 book 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement that when Pelican Bay opened its gates in 1989, solitary confinement “became standard practice for thousands of inmates” and “extreme punishment became routine.” People were spending decades in solitary confinement even though 100 years prior “the US Supreme Court noted that the practice had been abandoned as barbaric.”
She found that by 1995 “roughly 1,000 prisoners were doubled-bunked in the SHU [Security Housing Unit–solitary]” although they were put there because they were a threat to other inmates in general population. She also discovered that despite the narrative of Pelican Bay housing the “worst of the worst” criminals inside the SHU, hundreds of prisoners were being released directly from the SHU every year. If these inmates were so dangerous as to put inside solitary confinement, why is it then so many were released straight to the streets?This environment at the prison eventually led to the nationwide hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013. Pelican Bay prisoners coordinated 30,000 inmates across the country to participate in making visible to those outside the prison walls the conditions of solitary confinement which inmates were enduring. Reiter states this “inspired international condemnation” and that “prison officials agreed, for the first time, to review systematically who was in isolation and why, to limit terms of isolation to five years, and to mitigate the debilitating effects of confinement through programs like education and therapy.”
The hunger strikes ended with a lawsuit won by the incarcerated individuals and advocates that forced the prison to destroy one of two of their SHUs. When the incarcerated individuals that were housed in the now dismantled SHU were released, they initiated the Agreement to End Hostilities between races. Once they were out on the yard, they started the P.E.A.C.E group, Prisoners Embracing Anti-Hostility Cultural Evolution, substituting violence with conflict resolution and direct communication between different races.
This opened the doors for the prison to begin providing a host of programs including the audio journalism class offered through the William James Association. The WJA is contracted by Arts in Corrections, which is a partnership between the CDCR and the California Arts Council to bring art classes inside prisons. Today, they are in all 35 state prisons and the WJA has a heavy presence inside Pelican Bay. They offer theatre, guitar playing, creative writing, visual art, and as of April 2019 a class on how to produce a podcast taught by Paul Critz.
Critz operates Crescent City’s community radio station KFUG. He has been involved with radio broadcasting since high school and is a local staple around the small beachside town.
“It was refreshing to come in and see the abilities of the guys to tell a story with the passion and expertise as well,” Critz said of first walking into the classroom. “They are all very thoughtful guys. They are very conscious of where they are, who they are and they live to articulate those thoughts.”On the other side of B-yard is Critz’s other audio journalism class in A-yard. They have a different format and style than the other students. Where Tauch and the rest of B-yard participate in more formal one on one interviews, A-yard holds discussions in a panel-like setting. The gym their class is held carries a certain echo the microphone picks up that can only be created in prison. A signature sound that reminds listeners where the students are recording. The volume coming from the panel of students sharing their prison experiences can at times reach high levels but it’s a healthy discord and everyone gets a chance to express themselves.
“We learn a lot on how to edit and format a podcast,” student Daniel Noriega said of having Critz as a teacher. “I never even knew what a podcast was and so just learning how to conduct these interviews and having Paul guide us on this path has been very instrumental. We appreciate his time and his effort.”
Noriega spent seven of his 18 years in prison in the SHU. Recent programming actually gave him a year early kick so he could participate in programs and he was the first one to sign up for Critz’s class. His goal for the podcast is to squash the stigmatism Pelican Bay has on the prisoners and the positive benefits the programs are having on the prison.“The SHU was here for a long time and the prison wasn’t the worst but when people are sent to the SHU people want to label everyone like that,” Noriega said. “To be able to be a voice for some of us in here that are locked up and to reach out to the communities and let them know we are programming and bettering ourselves is why I do this.”
Not everyone agrees these men should be rehabilitating themselves. The only negative comment submitted on the podcast’s website states, “Too bad the family of the victims of these murderers don’t get to hear from their loved ones however these losers get to speak out. They do NOT deserve anything but what they’ve earned. Time in prison!”
The other 22 comments made were expressions of gratitude and eager anticipation towards the podcast as well as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters publishing sentiments of hearing their loved ones doing something positive with their lives. The single negative comment was quickly responded to by four comments advocating for the students in the podcast and making it a point to reiterate the “R” in CDCR stands for rehabilitation.
The class begins with check-ins followed by how to organize story-telling through the passage of time. Critz is conscientious of not putting his own stamp on the podcast. He simply guides the students but in a way only a seasoned storyteller can. Other than the setting of barbed wire fencing, gunner towers and both C.O. and inmate garb, Critz’s class mirrors the dynamics of a journalist newsroom on a college campus.
“This is almost an oral history and a real contribution to the historical record of our culture,” Critz said of the importance of this podcast. “There’s a feeling of historical respect and to capture that and to document it and chronicle it in any small way, shape, or form is probably the biggest thing that makes this the most important media project I’ve been involved with.”
The focus for the next few podcast episodes will be what the students call The Awakening. This is the transformation of the prison after the Agreement to End Hostilities between races occurred from the hunger strikes. Barry Woods, who has been incarcerated for 30 years, had numerous stints in solitary confinement and experienced the environment of Pelican Bay in the early 90s. He even taught himself to read and write while serving an early sentence in the SHU.
“Pelican Bay isn’t even the same place,” Woods said. “There was so much division. You had every faction separated and there was no line crossing. It was the wild west.”Woods, who was raised in Sacramento, has a short, salt and pepper flaked buzz, a nearly full white beard and a deep voice reminiscent of Barry White. He is the oldest of the students at 54 years of age and has the most distinguished laugh. Some of the other students say they look up to his natural ability to talk into the microphone.
He remembers when he first got to Pelican Bay there was no interracial interaction. Something as little as playing card games or basketball with another race was unheard of and he said any little thing could set off a riot. Tensions between inmates and guards were just as high. Before the hunger strikes and the formation of the P.E.A.C.E group, Woods said “there was no unity among prisoners and everyone distrusted each other.”
Today, Woods said the opportunity for programming is having a drastic change in the prison and with inmates actively engaging with one another void of hostilities–it is enabling individual and community healing.
“For me [the podcast] is to use my voice in order to stop this transition of youth coming to prison,” Woods said. “A lot of the things that were happening in the prison you don’t have to worry about as far as all the tension. It also relieves that tension between us and staff. It creates a better living condition for us to better focus on these rehabilitative programs.”
The majority of the students in A-yard have been incarcerated long enough to experience the changes Woods is talking about. The combined total of time they spent in the SHU equates to decades. They also come from a diverse background of different races and gangs, exemplifying that the Agreement to End Hostilities between races is taking effect.
Woods said the podcast gives a format for various factions of prisoners so they can sit down together peacefully and use dialogue in a constructive manner. He gives credit to San Quinton’s Ear Hustle for opening up the opportunity for their podcast and exposing the inside of prison life to the world. He believes if people can see the redemption shown by co-host Earlonne Woods and the rest of the Ear Hustle team then hopefully people can view Pelican Bay prisoners the same.
“We can get all these different views amongst ourselves and hear our thoughts with each other without ever coming to hostilities and respectfully tell our stories,” Woods said. “The old mindset [of the C.O.s] and the old mindset of the prisoners is dying out of separation and punishment.”
Back on B-yard audio journalism student Marcel Buggs sits down with Antwone Johnson. There is snow covering the surrounding hill tops and a light rain is falling outside the abandoned chow hall. The room is silent because this is a particularly special interview for Buggs. Johnson is the younger brother of the victims of Buggs’ crime. Both were members of rival gangs from Richmond but are now friends working towards healing. They want to use their voices to denounce the gang lifestyle and by using their example hopefully change the way at risk youth look to gang culture.
“Being in the situation we are in and to be able to put our heads together and help each other grow shows a lot about our character,” Johnson said about working together with Buggs. “We broke the cycle. We changed. Although we are in prison for past mistakes, we are trying to make up for them every day.”
When Buggs, who has served eight of his 40 year to life sentence for a gang involved shooting, learned Johnson was a few cells down from him his heart sank. Buggs confronted Johnson about his crime and received a reaction he was least expecting. Johnson explained he was moving past all that gang mentality and working towards personal growth.
“Even though he was a youngster at that moment he was more mature than me, he was wiser than me, he was stronger than me,” Buggs said. “I was the weaker being at that moment and he opened my eyes and let me know that I got to do better. From that moment I sought to make his time with me the most comfortable and peaceful that I could.”
Johnson had never been to prison before, so Buggs took the opportunity to give him some essential items and show him the ropes of Pelican Bay.
They would walk the yard together talking about how to heal and Buggs would even help Johnson with his math problems for the G.E.D. Buggs said, “We’ve built a brotherhood separate of other people’s opinions.” The two say they are hoping to change the cycle of kids growing up in poverty stricken environments like theirs. After a Yoruba class a few weeks prior to their conversation, Johnson pulled Buggs aside and told him he forgave him for his crime against his brothers. The reason they were now sitting down in front of a microphone.
“That was a type of liberation that I had never experienced,” Buggs said. “Them letting me out into the free world right now wouldn’t be as impactful or as strong as that moment. I love him for that. He did something that our world and our community teaches us not to. We are taught to avenge and to retaliate and keep it going. He said at that moment it stops right here and I didn’t know what to do with that other than be grateful this opportunity came to me.”