DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is the toughest unit in the toughest prison in California and one of the toughest in the country. The security housing unit at Pelican Bay prison is home to convicts who, along with their largely violent crimes, are suspected of being part of California's ruthless prison gangs, gangs that hurt and kill in prison and control all kinds of illegal activity inside.
Conditions in the SHU, as it's called, are harsh. A hunger strike now is in its third week and its calling for reforms and limits on how long prisoners can be kept in isolation, and the state is making changes. Corrections officials are working to move some prisoners out of the SHU. Michael Montgomery of member station KQED, along with the Center for Investigative Reporting, met some of the prisoners who just emerged from years of isolation.
MICHAEL MONTGOMERY, BYLINE: In a classroom at a state prison in Corcoran, deep in California's Central Valley, 14 inmates are sitting around me in a semi-circle. The men seem relaxed, but many of the faces are washed out, the results of years in windowless lockup units.
SERGIO: Have you seen the cartoon where the little mouse comes out of a hole and he just, like, be all disoriented? That's how we feel right now, you know.
MONTGOMERY: That's Sergio. Like all the men here, he asked that I only use his first name out of concern that other inmates might retaliate for speaking to a reporter. Sergio is 53 and is originally from Southern California. He spent a total of 21 years isolated in a special security unit, mainly at Pelican Bay State Prison, which is at the center of the inmate hunger strike.
SERGIO: I'm still trying to figure out how to associate with people. It's all kind of strange, you know. It's gonna take a little while to get used to.
GEORGE: Being in the cell by yourself with all that time, if you're not doing nothing, yeah, your mind can start playing games on you.
MONTGOMERY: George spent a total of 17 years in isolation, also mostly at Pelican Bay.
GEORGE: You need to occupy your time. You need to do something creative. You need to feel good about yourself, because if you don't, it's like falling off an airplane without a parachute.
MONTGOMERY: The men here are part of a new program in California that is moving inmates out of isolation and into regular prisons. That is, if they're no longer considered a security threat. Most of the men were originally convicted of violent crimes, but they were held in isolation based on allegations that they were active in dangerous prison gangs.
Here, for the first time in years, the men can exercise, unshackled and in the open air with other inmates.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I smell freedom. Even though we're on a main line, we still smell freedom.
MONTGOMERY: And even though there's concrete walls...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It doesn't matter, 'cause these concrete walls are further apart. In the Bay, there's only 20 foot walls is all you see, so you're in a large box. Here you don't see the wall, so that's freedom.
MONTGOMERY: Two of the men, David and Daniel, walk with me in the yard across a scruffy lawn under a scorching late morning sun.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you put a dog in a cage, that's all it knows. But once you open that cage and let him out in the backyard, he will not see that little cage 'cause that cage does not exist.
MONTGOMERY: There are dozens of so-called supermax prisons around the country, but what distinguishes California is the extraordinary length of time some inmates are locked inside what are officially called security housing units.
KELLY HARRINGTON: You know, it'd be great if we didn't have to have security housing units at all.
MONTGOMERY: That's Kelly Harrington, an associate director in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He says the units are necessary to control violent prison gangs, but he also says new rules will shorten the minimum number of years men spend in isolation and allow them to earn their way out through good behavior.
HARRINGTON: And when you're on a general population facility, you get the access to those enhanced privileges - contact visits, actually going to school, going out to a yard program. So that is the goal, and hopefully the men that are in the security housing units will see that as an incentive to go out.
MONTGOMERY: Across California, families of men held in the security units and advocates have staged protests in support of the hunger strike. At a recent rally near Corcoran, hundreds of people marched in scorching heat to the gates of the massive concrete prison. They carry pickets and banners saying long term solitary confinement amounts to torture.
Their message to the Department of Corrections, that changes being made don't go far enough.
CAROL STRICKMAN: They're going very slowly and many people have been told they're going to move but they haven't been moved. The actually number of people that have been moved, I think, is fairly small.
MONTGOMERY: Carol Strickman is a staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, an advocacy group. She says that while 200 inmates have been approved for transfer, 4,000 others remain in the security units. What's more, Strickman says the Department's new rules leave key elements of the old policy in place.
STRICKMAN: People can still serve lengthy terms, including life, in solitary confinement.
MONTGOMERY: Back in the prison classroom, the inmates, who until just a few weeks earlier were in isolation, reflect on some of their new freedoms, like phone calls home. An inmate named Armando says this can lead to confusion. Like the other prisoners we interviewed for this story, he asked that we not use his full name out of safety concerns.
ARMANDO: Some of us call the house and the family says, who is this? They can't believe it's you and they think you're playing a trick on them. Some people won't even accept the call 'cause they think you're kidding.
MONTGOMERY: But what stands out above all is human touch. California requires inmates in the security units to be in cuffs or belly chains whenever they're outside their cell or exercise areas. And they can only meet visitors from behind thick glass. Here is different. Daniel recalls leaving isolation and meeting his family without a glass partition.
DANIEL: Memorable, amazing, tender. All the emotions that you thought were not there resurface.
MONTGOMERY: How long had it been since you held hands with your mom?
DANIEL: Over, say, 14 years. And my sisters, like, 20.
MONTGOMERY: Still, even though they're out of Pelican Bay, the men face other challenges. Many California prisons are in perpetual security lockdowns and the promised education and work opportunities are few and far between, says Alex, an inmate who spent a total of 17 years in isolation before being transferred here.
ALEX: It may be better than the Bay, but we're still being warehoused, 'cause we have nothing to do. I think they need to put us - put in some types of vocations, work. Get us work. Keep us occupied.
MONTGOMERY: State corrections officials say they are ready to transfer more inmates out of isolation if they qualify. But for now, that effort is on hold as hundreds of prisoners continue a hunger strike. For NPR News, I'm Michael Montgomery.
GREENE: And that story was produced as part of a collaboration between member station KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.