Solitary Lives

The snapshots are old and discolored, capturing the faces of men behind bars in California’s vast penal system and those destined to enter it. Some are wide-eyed. Others cast hard stares. One inmate, a bony heroin addict dressed in baggy prison denim, stares submissively into the camera.

Dating back as far as the 1980s, the photographs would be unremarkable except for this detail: They were the last pictures of the men seen by their families and even by the prisoners themselves.

For a quarter-century, California outlawed personal photographs for inmates held in isolation in special security housing units. Over the years, the restrictions affected thousands of inmates in four prisons: California State Prison, Corcoran; California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi; California State Prison, Sacramento; and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City.

While prison officials photographed the inmates for administrative purposes, those images were not passed on to families, making the men all but invisible to relatives living hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

For years, prison staff defended the ban, contending that personal photographs were circulated by prison gang leaders as calling cards, both to advise other members that they’re still in charge and to pass on orders.

But after taking a closer look at the ban during a 2011 inmate hunger strike, top Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials determined it was not justified. Scott Kernan, who retired as undersecretary of corrections in 2011, said the stories of calling cards were isolated examples and the photo ban and other restrictions targeted inmates who were not breaking any rules.

“I think we were wrong, and I think (that) to this day,” he said.  “How right is it to have an offender who is behaving … (and) to not be able to take a photo to send to his loved ones for 20 years?”

Kernan directed prison staff to ease the restrictions for inmates who were free of any disciplinary violations.

Now, with hundreds of families receiving photos from relatives locked at Pelican Bay, some for the first time in decades, there is growing pressure on the corrections department to lift other restrictions and limit the amount of time inmates are locked in the controversial security units.

At Pelican Bay, security housing units are clusters of concrete pods where inmates spend all their time in 8-by-10 cells with perforated steel doors or in small exercise pens, usually alone. There are no windows.

A class-action lawsuit claiming constitutional violations at Pelican Bay is pending before a federal judge in Oakland. And a group of inmates has called for a mass hunger strike, set to begin today in what could be a reprise of the 2011 protest that spread to 12 other prisons and drew international attention.

On the eve of the scheduled strike, corrections officials informed inmates in the security units that they were easing restrictions on items such as typewriters, legal books, food and clothing.

For some families, seeing an image of their incarcerated relative for the first time in years has sparked renewed hope and revived dormant family connections. For others, the photographs are a shocking reminder of the length of time some inmates have been held in isolation.

Marie Levin’s brother, Ronnie Dewberry, was subject to the photo ban after being sent to the security unit at Pelican Bay in 1990.

Authorities alleged Dewberry, 54, who was convicted of murder and sent to prison in 1981, was a member of a prison gang known as the Black Guerilla Family. He denies both charges.

Until recently, the last photo of Dewberry available to his relatives was taken at San Quentin State Prison in 1988. The faded Polaroid shows a young African American man dressed in prison sweats, a dark headband and bright white sneakers. Crouching against a perimeter fence, he stares past the camera, with a glint of pride.

“We have family – nieces and nephews – who only knew my brother as the young man in the photograph,” Levin said. “It’s a memory frozen in time.”

When she finally got a new photo of her brother last year, she saw an aging man with graying hair and distinctly lighter skin.

“I saw a grown man,” she said.  “And we didn’t grow older together. We grew older separated. And that hurts.”

Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said easing the restrictions on prisoner photographs raised no major security concerns, so long as inmates had to earn them.

“It’s not as if there’s been an epidemic of inmate photos on the street,” he said.

Inmate advocacy groups said the scope of the photo restrictions were unjustified. What California had been doing for decades was extraordinary, they said.

“I have never heard of any other prison system or individual prison in America imposing a long-term ban of this kind,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Different rules in security units

At most California prisons, inmate photographs are routine. The images usually are taken in visiting rooms, under close staff supervision to prevent gang signs and other covert communications. For families, the photos are vital keepsakes. For prisoners, they carry an urgent plea: “Don’t forget about me!”

But California’s security housing units are not ordinary lockups.

Men are sent to the units for serious infractions committed behind bars.  They are also placed in the units for indeterminate terms if they are linked to one of seven groups designated as prison gangs.

Over the years, prison staff has outlawed everything from phone calls to colored pencils to wall calendars. Pelican Bay even banned books written in Swahili, Celtic and Náhuatl on the grounds that the languages were being used as secret codes by gangs.

Families with loved ones in the security units said the sweeping restrictions strained already-precarious relations. Inmates were allowed to have 15 photographs of families and friends once they were screened by staff.

“That’s what they call a ghost,” said Madeline Sartoresi of Hesperia, Calif. Her son, Pietro, has been imprisoned at Pelican Bay since 2008 after authorities alleged he was an associate in the Mexican Mafia prison gang.  Pietro, 44, was sent to prison for attempted murder.

“It’s just a thin line between life and death. He’s alive, but you can’t touch him, you can’t hear him, you can’t see him,” she said.

The federal lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of civil rights groups alleges that the isolated conditions at Pelican Bay constitute cruel and unusual punishment and cause severe physical and psychological damage. The suit also asserts that a faulty review process has left at least 500 inmates stranded in the security units for more than a decade. Of that group, more than 70 inmates have been held in the units for 20 years, according to 2011 state data.

While inmates locked in the security units are allowed to meet approved visitors behind thick glass, the suit contends that some men receive no visits with family members or friends for years at a time, due in part to the prison’s remote location 13 miles from the Oregon border.

“Many prisoners have thus been without face-to-face contact with people other than prison staff for decades,” according to the lawsuit.

Corrections officials declined to comment on the suit, citing court-ordered settlement negotiations. In court filings, the state has rejected claims of constitutional violations at Pelican Bay and said a new pilot program will reduce the amount of time some inmates spend in the security units.

JeVaughn Baker, a spokesman for California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said the lawsuit was baseless and the changes advocated by the plaintiffs would lead to increased violence in prisons across the state. However, the union is not opposed to lifting the photo ban, he said.

Sense of identity limited

Going years without phone calls and photographs led many families to feel cut off from their husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles and sons locked in Pelican Bay. Some inmates complained to relatives of losing a sense of their own identity, even their own physical features. In addition to the photo ban, inmates at Pelican Bay do not have mirrors in their cells.

“My brother tells me that sometimes he forgets how he looks. He doesn’t remember how he looks,” said Sylvia Rogokos of Los Angeles. Her brother, Frank Reyna, 51, was sent to Pelican Bay in 1992.

“I have asked my husband, ‘Do you even know what you look like?’ And he says, ‘Kind of, sort of,’ ” said Irene Huerta, whose husband, Gabriel, 54, has been detained at Pelican Bay for 23 years.

Both men are serving life sentences for second-degree murder and were sent to Pelican Bay after authorities claimed they were active in the Mexican Mafia.

For inmates who eventually leave prison, Dr. Terry Kupers, a clinical psychiatrist, said the lack of recent photographs and years of limited or no contact with friends and family means that “they basically don’t exist in the community.”

Those sentiments were echoed in hundreds of letters, documents and photographs submitted by Pelican Bay inmates for this story.

“At home, your family has updated photos of everyone but you. It can appear that you must have died,” Gabriel Huerta wrote in a six-page letter late last year.

“The whole system here seems to be geared at breaking down and destroying our family connections,” he wrote.

Still, the ban was permeable. Over the years, inmates found ways to get their images out. Some prisoners drew self-portraits with pencils and refills from pens (the only writing implements allowed in the units for many years). Others found ways to get photographed by visiting attorneys or during medical checks and other rare visits outside the prison.

In 2001, a photographer from The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif., was visiting Pelican Bay on a media tour when guards let him into a section of the prison where Gabriel Huerta was held.

John Burgess photographed Huerta through the tiny holes in the steel door of his cell. The image captures Huerta, looking elfin in a white T-shirt and shorts, with all his worldly possessions neatly stacked on cement bunk beds – novels, dictionaries, paper cups and brown bags filled with commissary products. His pallor is gray-white.

In a letter, Huerta said prison staff confiscated a copy of the photograph that was sent to him. “They said it was contraband,” he wrote.

Kerri Connolly, Anna Vignet and Adithya Sambamurthy contributed to this story, which was reported in collaboration with KQED Public Radio. It was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.