An inmate at Pelican Bay State prison in California recounts being shackled, beaten with nightsticks and Tasered because he neglected to hand over a pack of coffee. The humiliation, he writes in an essay for The Beat Within prison writers’ workshop, was nearly as awful as the pain.
As I stared up at the ceiling of my cell, my body still aching from the brutal beating I received the day before, unable to move more than the few inches or even scratch the unrelenting itch t at the tip of my nose, due to being chained to a concrete slab, completely naked in five-point restraints, my mind drifted off to the events that led up to this particular brand of humiliation.
It was a Tuesday morning and breakfast was close by. I could hear the squeaking wheels from the food cart echoing outside the pod door. I had been up since 4 am, a normal routine ever since arriving to the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in Pelican Bay, and as I drank my lukewarm coffee out of a milk carton, I watched a few minutes of the morning news.
North Korea was at it again and George W. Bush was sounding more and more like John Wayne. Once the coffee had kicked in, I jumped right into my daily workout routine of 500 ten-count burpees straight, trying desperately to leave as many negative thoughts and emotions as I possibly could in that puddle of sweat on my cell floor—while at the same time preparing myself for the everyday possibility of the wrong cell door being popped open, intentional or accidental, and the term “survival of the fittest” becoming way too real.
Imagine how it feels to know at some point your cell door was going to be popped open and you would be forced to fight another prisoner sometimes two, usually with weapons, in a gladiator style fight for your life, while the guards sit in gun booths, watching and wagering money on which prisoner would win.
Having to live each and every day on the edge of chaos and insanity, forcing you to work out as if your life depended on it.
Because at some point it definitely will.
Once I finished exercising, I took a bird bath using a milk carton as a shower head, then cleaned my cell and prepared myself for breakfast, as I watched more of the morning news.
Then the pod door opened and the food cart rolled. The guard yelled, “Show time! Bright lights on!” as he carried the trays to each cell, passing them through the slot on each cell door. Once the last tray is passed out, you officially have five minutes to eat before the guards are back to collect the trays, whether you’re finished eating or not.
On each tray there’s a single serving pack of coffee that must be turned in with your tray, whether you decide to drink the coffee or not. The reason for this, according to prison officials, is because the packs are lined with aluminum in order to keep the coffee fresh.
For security reasons prisoners are not allowed to keep the packs in their cells. In fact, they aren’t allowed to have anything in its original packaging. Everything has to be placed in paper bags and paper cups. All of this is done in the name of institutional security, but unfortunately, I forgot to turn in the coffee pack with my tray.
It was an honest mistake on my part, but apparently the guard didn’t think so.
Rather than just asking me for the coffee pack, he chose instead to threaten me, calling me names and telling me how he was going to make me wish that I wasn’t alive if I didn’t hand over the coffee pack.
He was taking things far beyond the normal everyday humiliation that comes with just being in the SHU, talking to me in such a way that I could no longer swallow my pride. How many times can you swallow your pride before you run out of pride to swallow?
I told the guard that if he really felt that way, then why not just open the door and come and get it himself. But, of course, he didn’t. They never do, choosing instead to summon the Extraction Squad and have me “cell extracted,” or better yet, forcibly removed from my cell.
About 20 minutes later, I heard the Extraction Squad approaching, marching into the pod in paramilitary style formation, each of them wearing crash helmets, face and body shields, and carrying night sticks, Tasers and 37 mm block guns. Without saying a word, they popped open the tray slot on my cell door and shot me on the top of my forehead at point blank range with the block gun, while at the same time shooting me with the Taser gun.
Prongs were embedded in my chest with volts of electricity so intense that my body locked up, to the point that not even my mouth could move causing me to black out, and when I regained consciousness I was hog tied. I was handcuffed behind my back, legs shackled together, and a chain running from my hands to my feet, forcing my hands and feet to meet and separating my shoulder in the process.
It was causing pain so excruciating that I blacked out once again, regaining consciousness as I was being dragged down a flight of stairs, head bouncing up and down off each step like a basketball being dribbled.
As they dragged me through a corridor before ramming my head into a door frame and knocking me out cold and then being Tasered awake by 50.000 volts of prongs. I was then wheeled naked to what’s known as VCU (The Violence Control Unit), which is like a prison within a prison within a prison, before finally being moved to the infamous “Butt Naked Cells,” a kind of torture chamber used for prisoners who dared to think they had any rights that Pelican Bay was bound to respect.
It was here that I was chained naked to a bed in what’s known as five-point restraints: both hands, both feet, and a chain across my neck. There wasn’t much else in the cell. No mattress, no bedding, no clothing.
Nothing whatsoever to shield me from the humiliation that comes with being chained up this way.
I was stripped of all my clothing and my dignity, all over a single serving pack of coffee.
As I lay there, staring up at the ceiling, trying desperately to take my mind off the growing need to use the bathroom, there was a toilet right next to me, but I was unable to move more than a few inches due to the restraints.
So, it might as well have been in another country. As I began to come to terms with the fact that it was only a matter of time before I would be forced to use the bathroom on myself, these feelings of shame and humiliation began to sweep over me.
It was then that I realized just how painful one’s pride can be.
“Jesse J” is an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison in California, the state’s only “supermax” penal institution, located in Del Norte County. The Crime Report is grateful to the San Francisco-based prison writers’ and artists’ workshop operated by The Beat Within for permission to publish his essay. Readers’ comments are welcome.