From Southern California, public radio for your eyes.

A look inside a Security Housing Unit

Corcoran State Prison rises suddenly from the flat floor of California's Central Valley.

Towering floodlights and curves of razor wire peek first over the cornfields as you approach. Once closer, you can see the low-slung cell blocks huddled together inside a double ring of razor wire fence with an electrified barrier sandwiched between.

The Security Housing Units – or SHUs – are on the opposite side of the prison complex from the entrance. Eight two-story buildings radiate out in two semicircles from the center.

There are five SHU facilities in California. This is the first time journalists have been allowed inside the units at Corcoran State Prison.

This is where the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation houses inmates it deems too dangerous to guards or the general population. Prison gangs are an intractable problem, and the prison administration points mostly to four gangs, largely segregated by race, that make things dangerous inside prisons.

Of the 4,386 inmates at Corcoran, there are 1,258 inmates in the SHU and only 558 in the general population.

There is a range of things that can get you thrown into the SHU – prison gang affiliations, attacks on prison staff, violent mental health issues. But there's only one process to get out.

Prison officials have instituted a "step-down" process for inmates, but only a tiny fraction of inmates have made any steps toward the general population.

Shane Bauer, who was captured by the Iranians on their border with Iraq and thrown in solitary confinement in Tehran, wrote an in-depth article on the reasons that California inmates get thrown into SHUs for decades and the near impossibility of getting out.

The cells are small - a little over 11 by 7 feet - and inmates stay in them for most of the day.

At Corcoran, they are moved once a day to exercise cages outside for between three and four hours. Here, they can talk with other prisoners. Most of them pace in circles inside the cages, do pull-ups, take showers and do laundry.

These conditions have led to a series of mass hunger strikes among inmates housed in the SHUs, protesting the length and conditions of their confinement.

KPCC Crime Reporter Rina Palta and I walked by the cell of every prisoner in a wing of the SHU and two clusters of exercise cages to ask each prisoner if they wanted to talk about their confinement.

Most declined, but a few wanted to talk about the conditions. They say the lack of free movement is the thing that bothers them the most, compounded by the lack of knowledge when (or if) they will ever get out of the SHU.

If you want to hear more about the SHUs and how they were designed, there's a great episode of 99 Percent Invisible and Life of the Law that talks about the ethics of prison building in America.

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