As a photojournalist I walk into and out of people’s lives on a daily basis and, in the course of doing so, witness the high points of life as well as the lowest. My intention is to share stories of great triumphs as well as the lowest moments of tragedy.
Several months ago I was given the opportunity, along with Times staff writer Paige St. John, to tour the Secure Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif.
Crescent City is one of the most beautiful places in Northern California. The rugged, rocky shoreline, shrouded with fog, renders classic postcard coastal views. Inland, a tree-lined road meanders past farms and fields and leads to a maximum-security prison. Pelican Bay State Prison is home to some of the most notorious convicted criminals in California.
Mark Boster with inmate Javier Zubiate in the Secure Housing Unit.
Without prejudice and without passing any judgement, I knew going into this project that my job was to show a small slice of their life and to tell a story that few are allowed to see.
Paige and I were given an official briefing by the warden, shown examples of the various prison-made knives and weapons and fitted for our Kevlar protective vests. After almost two hours of the required briefing we started our tour.
Crossing from an office area into the actual prison complex, a giant steel door slammed behind us and we were suddenly in an area with very tall electrified fences, topped with razor wire and towers manned by guards with rifles. That is the moment when the talk stops and you realize you are in a different world. This is the world of convicted murderers and many people who made some very poor choices.
A short time later we met and chatted with two men who were probably never going to see the outside world again.
Javier Zubiate, with his shaved head, sunglasses and numerous tattoos, gave us a glimpse of his life as a lieutenant of the Nuestra Familia gang. He was soft-spoken and well-mannered. I had to remind myself that he had been convicted in a 1995 murder and there is a good reason why he is now in isolation on the Secure Housing Unit.
Our second inmate interview was with Jeremy Beasley, 39, a member of the Nazi Low-Riders and then elevated to the Aryan Brotherhood. At Pelican Bay since 1998, Beasley is serving a life sentence for murder.
Both men agreed to debrief with prison officials and to provide evidence on other gang members in order to be released from the Secure Housing Unit. We later went to Zubiate’s cell on one pod and witnessed for ourselves how the inmates live there. The small concrete cell with concrete bunk racks, a toilet and a sink are home for him for the rest of his days.
After the tour was over I made the beautiful drive along the coast. I parked my car at a motel and walked along the wet sand and waited for the sunset.
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