[Ppnews] The “Life Negating Emptiness” of the Pelican Bay SHU

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Sep 25 21:26:09 EDT 2011

Voices from Solitary: The “Life Negating Emptiness” of the Pelican Bay SHU

September 25, 2011

by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

In 2008 Hector Gallegos won second prize in the 
essay category in 
American Center’s Prison Writing Contest with his 
powerful account of life in the Security Housing 
Unit (SHU) of California’s Pelican Bay State 
Prison. What follows is a long excerpt from his 
essay, entitled “Species of a Lesser God”; the 
full piece can be read on 
<http://www.pen.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/2491>PEN’s website.

Indelibly etched in the canyons of memory I can 
remember being herded onto the Grey Gooses as 
these prison transportation buses are commonly 
referred to throughout the California Penal 
System. The solemn procession of prisoners wore a 
somber ghostly mask; one by one waist-chained, 
handcuffed and shackled we stepped into the belly 
of the Grey Goose. I cannot quite describe with 
any degree of accuracy, the feeling that settled 
over me prior to boarding, but there was an 
ominous silence which hung thickly in the air 
like a heavy dark cloud forecasting a wickedly 
vicious storm. It projected the coming of a 
tempest that would progressively descend upon my 
life like a savage moving monsoon. Indeed, a 
psychological-emotional storm we would all come 
to knew in the life negating emptiness that 
awaited our arrival in the Security Housing Units 
(SHU) of Pelican Bay State Prison

The heat inside the bus was as stifling as the 
tension which lingered in the surrounding 
atmosphere. As the bus roared angrily  down 
Highway 101 the trance inducing drone of the big 
diesel engine lulled me into reflections of my 
life. Memories that had soared past me like the 
scenery flying by outside the barred, tinted 
windows of the anonymous Grey Groose and as 
swiftly as the life I had led thus far.

The restless dismal chimes of shackles and chains 
broke me away from the melancholy spell I had 
fallen under, and there followed the sudden 
realization that the world of oceans, mountains 
and landscapes would all soon be but a memory of 
another lifetime. Looking around me I found not 
to be alone in this realization, for the other 
prisoners there seemed to be entertaining similar 
thoughts, but no one dare speak of them.

What awaited us at the Pelican Bay SHU with its 
eerily silent corridors was a purgatory of sorts, 
a vacuum of uncertainty, sealed off from every 
thing and every one. A place where one is 
virtually entombed in a concrete vault with 
scarred and pitted walls depicting the  idleness, 
boredom and, in some cases, the lunacy of a 
previous occupant. It’s a world of its own where, 
for most, refuge can only be found through a dreamless state of slumber.

There is a look in the SHU prisoner’s eyes that 
is haunting. A foreboding look from eyes that 
have themselves stared into the eyes of madness 
and human cruelty. Eyes that have looked far into 
the abyss of emptiness. Eyes belonging to a species of a lesser God.

This is where my writings began. Borne of a 
burning need to find meaning during one of the 
darkest periods in my life. That this took place 
within the confines of the most depraved, 
isolated and suffocating prison units in 
California, did much to determine my present view 
of the world, perception of self and that of the 
human condition as a whole. It was a period in 
time which would ultimately lead me through the 
loneliest corridors of my soul, across the 
coldest expanses of relived personal tragedy and 
finally back to the fulcrum in which this paradox is precariously balanced.

It is within this balance between the suffering 
of existence and the reality of living where I 
found a powerful hidden truth that gave way to a 
deeper meaning to life. I say this with a deep 
rooted conviction because I have come face to 
face with what has been said are among man’s 
greatest fears; the fear of death, fear of the 
dark and fear of being alone. Before I continue, 
however, I wish to briefly define what is meant 
by this writer in having faced the fears 
mentioned above, so that the intended meaning is 
not lost on the reader. It further provides a 
basis from where the imagination is better able 
to perceive the underlying message which yearns 
so strongly and with such passion to express 
itself. It’s an account that not only wants, but needs to be told.

In any case, when I speak of having faced the 
fear of death, I do not mean DEATH as in the 
clinical sense of the word, but rather of two 
aspects of the one thing; both of which are 
essential to the phenomenon of death. One being 
symbolic of death as in the “then and there” 
physical presence, and the other of a 
physic-psychological color. The prisoner who has 
given it some thought, in particular the ones 
confined in extremely isolated conditions such as 
those found in the Security Housing Units (SHUs) 
of Pelican Bay State Prison, soon finds himself 
faced with a terribly frightening reality. That, 
with the exception of a few loving family 
members, or maybe a dear friend, he no longer 
exists to the outside world. The only thing that 
remains of him out there are memories, and the 
love for him vigilantly kept in the sanctity of 
the hearts and minds of his family. As such, in a 
world beyond prison walls, one is nothing more 
than a ghost of his former self. The point is 
nailed home when one realizes how much of his 
life has passed him by while he sits in the same 
cell, year after year. He longs for what is 
passing him by, knowing he can never be a part of 
it. It is as if he has died and observes this 
from a reality, which indeed perhaps only the dead would understand.

Another aspect of the symbolism of death 
experienced by a prisoner is when he discerns, by 
the mere fact of his incarceration he has killed 
the “Him” that should have been, the lover he 
wishes to be, the father he cannot be, the son he 
failed to be and the person he never grew into. 
He has, in essence, killed, at least for the 
duration of his confinement, that greater part of 
himself. In this sense and for the time being he 
may well be dead, for he cannot live up to the 
expectations of what he should have been. The 
prisoner lives on the dark side of the moon. He 
is tormented by two worlds, the one he lives in 
and the one he left behind; caught in sticky 
quagmire somewhere between heaven and Hell.

In regard to the physic-psychological aspect of 
death. What is meant here is the collective 
summation of the effects isolation has on a 
person subjected to a prolonged period of sensory 
deprivation. Here a prisoner is no longer able to 
experience what is inherent in human life­the 
touch of another human being! I speak of a place 
where one is stripped of not only his freedom but 
of his association with other human beings and of 
his personal sense of purpose and awareness. 
Where common compassion, pity and human decency 
are virtually unheard of. And when man is 
deprived of the qualities which make him human, 
for a lengthy amount of time, he is gradually and 
unwittingly transformed into a creature of sorts 
and will respond in kind. Then there are those 
who will give way to perhaps the saddest, 
cruelest death a man can suffer; “death of the 
mind and will to resist”. An individual’s sense 
of self worth is quietly and maliciously gnawed 
away at by monotony and emptiness. Death by 
attrition slow, sure, and maddeningly relentless.

I can describe what I just have with such clarity 
because I gave witness to it in the catacombs of 
Pelican Bay. And like any experience that cannot 
be wholly understood by mere observation; “I 
lived it!” I, like the countless others whose 
misfortune it was, and continues to be in the 
SHU, know how cold and terrifying it is to be in 
the suffocating grip of oblivion. An oblivion I 
came to terms with only because I was bullied 
into it by a brutal reality. But what’s 
unsettling about this acceptance is the 
realization that within this oblivion my thoughts 
alone confined my existence. For in the face of 
such emptiness I had nothing by which to measure 
it. Questions such as, “Why do I continue to 
forge on?” would pound away at me. “For what 
purpose?” And most of all, “Who or what have I 
become?” It was then when I was cast under the 
unbearable light of conscious being. I was forced 
into it. The isolation in the SHU demanded that I 
ponder my situation, otherwise I would have 
surely drowned in its paralyzing numbness, living 
out a slow death. Even as I write this account, I 
wonder if my writings are not merely the ravings 
of a mad man, perhaps I am already submerged in the numbness.

To question one’s own sanity and existence is a 
disquieting discourse, because when the questions 
are posed, initially there are no viable answers. 
One shouts out these questions in the seemingly 
empty canyons of thought, only to be reciprocated 
with haunting echoes of the same questions. To 
realize this is to recognize the pressing need 
for meaning in one’s life. Here in prison one 
must travel through the crucibles of 
self-examination and through all of its fires to 
arrive at the answers. In doing this one must 
first learn to confront his fears, whether they 
be death, darkness or loneliness, before he is 
able to move on in search of his own life’s 
meaning. It is here in this gulag of concrete, 
steel and misery where I came to learn the subtle 
difference between existing and living. This self 
discovery came by way of learning what it feels 
like spending countless hours in the icy grip of 
loneliness. Through this experience I am able to 
understand why so many people are so utterly 
afraid of being alone­a piece of knowledge attached to the price of bitterness.

My personal experience is not just a poignant 
account of human misery in solitary confinement, 
but also of a collective experience of what 
prison life entails. I believe it gives the 
reader a penetrating insight into the human 
condition as a whole. It’s through my personal 
writings that I seek to reach out. Not only for 
myself but for those others whom are still 
struggling to find a rational context for it all

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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