Former SHU now example of positive programming
The changes at Pelican Bay State Prison’s (PBSP) Facility D since 2014 have provided more opportunities for the incarcerated. How? Through added educational classes at all levels, expanded spaces for education and learning, self-help programming, and rehabilitation advances that’s leading to more people paroling with a real chance for a better future.
Today, incarcerated people in Facility D, the former Security Housing Unit (SHU), no longer need to request an officer’s assistance to plug in electrical appliances through a small security hole in their cell wall. Now, they simply do it themselves because the prison installed electrical inside every cell. These efforts contribute to the population’s education through tablets and laptops. Cells designed to house two people are now single occupancy. Inside is a locker, letting them secure personal property since the doors are now left open during the day.
Recreational activities are available on the newly-built large outdoor exercise yard. Recreational offerings include basketball hoops, exercise equipment, outdoor religious grounds, and a small field and track.
The long corridors of grey have been painted with a long, ever growing under-the-sea mural.
“The talent is something that needs to be seen to be appreciated,” said Captain Jessica Berg who oversees Facility D.
Gardens, collaboration create second chances
There are now two small outdoor gardens. There’s also the Prison Paw Partnership program with the prison collaborating with the Del Norte County dog shelter and local ASPCA.
Unadoptable dogs from the shelter are given a second chance. At Pelican Bay, they are trained by incarcerated men in basic obedience. Once the canine graduates the program they are returned with the hope of being more desirable for a forever home. Facility D has graduated its first four canines, all of which were adopted.
The incarcerated have even put together a band from donated musical equipment, including electric drums, saxophones, and guitars. Concerts have been conducted for the incarcerated population during the holiday season.
The Facility D New Beginnings Worm Farm and Garden, still in its infancy, is located outside Unit 2. The program enables the incarcerated to learn worm farming, a sustainable and effective way to create nutrient-dense compost for gardening.
The goal: recycle, re-purpose, rehabilitate. The program is run by incarcerated volunteers who take complete ownership, bringing it to life.
Job assignments were created to give the incarcerated a chance to learn a usable skill when they return to society. Painters, electricians, plumbers, and carpenters have roles in the new Facility D setting. They are painting the walls, wiring the classrooms, constructing the gardens and providing water.
Changing attitudes for staff and incarcerated
The mindset of those who work and live inside PBSP has also changed over time.
“There is a shift in the communication between staff and (the incarcerated),” said Captain Berg. “Staff of all classifications stop in the hallways to speak with the mural crew, discussing new ideas, techniques, or just admiring the artwork. They may discuss how they used to have worm farms as a kid or propose ideas on how to make the gardens thrive in a concrete environment.”
PBSP Warden Jim Robertson said Proposition 57, or the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, was also a key to positive change at PBSP.
“This changed sentencing rules and credit-earning status,” said Robertson. “This led to a large-scale reduction in the incarcerated population and provided many more opportunities for them to program positively and earn reductions on their sentences.”
Pelican Bay Facility D re-purposes rooms for rehabilitation
Several rooms have been changed to accommodate programming spaces. Education classrooms have recently been built in what was known as the old SHU property room.
The Education Department has also seen a shift in the climate and culture of Facility D. Before transforming the SHU, incarcerated students were provided education services under a cell-study model. This offered limited interaction between teachers and students along with fewer resources. Students were only allowed to leave their housing units when assessments were scheduled. To complete the tests, they were escorted to the visiting holding cells.
“I have seen a dramatic increase in educational opportunities for the incarcerated population at PBSP,” said Joe Cummings, Supervisor of Correctional Education.
“The expanded programming has encouraged creativity and vision in areas that were often considered impossible to serve. With the increased availability of technology in education and the expansion of vocational programs, the incarcerated population is being given the knowledge and tools for success when they parole, helping to ensure they will be productive members of society,” said Cummings.
Technology offers learning opportunities
Today students can access multiple book resources, calculators, paper supplies, and technology devices such as an e-Reader tablet. By distributing laptops in 2022, PBSP is developing an innovative plan, giving laptop access to all incarcerated Facility D students. This will also rollout to other general population units.
Students are now assigned to education programs best fitting their needs. Adult Basic Education through General Educational Development (GED) students receive weekly individualized instruction. In this setting the teacher checks their knowledge, providing support and intervention as needed.
With the implementation of electronic GED testing, custody staff have collaborated with the Education Department, helping coordinate the tests. These efforts allow students to attain a high school equivalency diploma, significantly improving their chances of employment upon release.
The incarcerated at PBSP are taking advantage of the educational opportunities.
From 2015-2021, 291 people have earned their high school diplomas or GEDs. College enrollment has skyrocketed as well and in 2016, 270 people were taking college courses working toward an associate of arts (AA) or a bachelor’s degree (BA or BS). In 2021, that number was 388.
Culture shift reflects changing prison environment
As this change in culture has occurred, so has the change in the environment. Custody staff who used to work in the SHU have become more positive in their interactions with the incarcerated students in Facility D regarding their rehabilitation and more people are showing motivation in completing their goals and programs that would benefit them as positive members of society.
“The incarcerated population love the new way of Pelican Bay, and the Level II unit at Facility D is rapidly becoming the place to be, because people there are earning their way out,” said Warden Jim Robertson.
By Joe Orlando, CDCR Public Information Officer
Read more rehabilitation stories.