The name sounds idyllic, doesn’t it — one imagines gentle or perhaps dramatic waves, with archaic-looking birds flying above the water, suddenly diving down to catch some fish. Not so. ‘Pelican Bay’ is the name of an institution that makes your skin crawl, once you know about its grim business. Situated in Crescent City/California near the Oregon border, Pelican Bay State Prison is one of over forty “supermax” or maximum security facilities in the US. It contains a ‘Security Housing Unit’, or SHU, where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement in small, gray, concrete cells under artificial light and constant surveillance for 22 1/2 hours a day. The other 1 1/2 hours the inmate spends alone in a small concrete yard.
Built for 2,280 prisoners, Pelican Bay currently holds some 3,450 inmates. As one guard puts it, “the intent is to monitor, to control, to isolate” — after all, the prisoners are classified as “level IV”, meaning they’re maximum- or high- security risk inmates. About 1,200 of these 3,450 are held in segregation at the SHU. They end up there because they committed violent crimes against guards, and/or because they belong to prison gangs; however, some human rights organizations are highly critical of this official version.
There’s absolutely no color inside the small, windowless cell of a SHU. No sunlight, moon, or stars, no human contact, no education, no communal activities. Not surprisingly, many inmates go nuts and find themselves in the psychiatric SHU which, if anything, sounds worse than the regular institution. And then there is Donny Johnson.
He has been held at Pelican Bay’s SHU for the last 18 years. “Not to allow human contact, social contact, is torture and is proven to be psychologically detrimental and can, and does, drive human beings mad” he writes in a short book, Donny ~ Life of a Lifer 1950 – 2001. If he managed to keep his sanity it is because he started painting a number of years ago, fabricating a brush out of strands of his hair, tin foil, and parts of a ballpoint pen. Paint is made from M&M’s dissolved in water. The prison authorities don’t allow Donny to purchase regular art supplies — they don’t want the prisoners to enjoy themselves.
A gallery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, displayed 25 of Donny’s paintings during several weeks in July 2006. 20 of them sold for $500 each, with the proceeds to be donated to a nonprofit organization helping the children of prisoners. However, prison authorities declared Johnson’s endeavors to be “unauthorized business dealings” and issued a “serious rules violation report”. According to an article in the New York Times from August 2006, the chief deputy warden at Pelican Bay said the violation could extend Mr. Johnson’s sentence or restrict his privileges.
I couldn’t find any more recent information about this issue. Would I compare Donny’s art to the work of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning? Certainly not. Would his paintings sell without the notoriety created by his life’s circumstances? Probably not. However, much of what is sold at art auctions for much, much more than $500 relies heavily on publicity stunts. That somebody should be denied the right to paint, and to make his work available to the public, is so — Christian.