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Prologue: Pelican Bay

A hint of dawn seeps through a redwood forest east of town. Regina and her friends pull
themselves from bed to prepare for the day’s mission. They pat on makeup and pick out
clothes that manage to exude a hint of sex appeal, despite a dress code that could make
porn stars look like nuns. As the five women shut their motel doors, the village of
Crescent City, still blanketed in the mist of Bear Mountain, hardly stirs. Showers have
threatened all night, but the clouds thankfully don’t break into a hairstyle-wrecking
Crescent City is the rainiest spot in California. Just shy of the Oregon border, the
village hugs a fogbound, rock-lined harbor—a setting that befits the home of the state’s
highest-security prison, built to house men so skilled in swift and precise acts of violence
they must be separated from all human touch.
The nearby Pelican Bay State Prison is the headquarters of Nuestra Familia.
Except on the rare days they use the law library or a visitor treks to this remote fortress,
the gang’s leaders stay in one-man cells for twenty-three hours a day. The remaining hour
is allotted for solitary exercise in a cement yard the size of a shipping container. With
almost no human interaction and eventless hours running into one another, some men in
the prison’s Security Housing Unit go insane—a severe psychotic condition doctors call
SHU Syndrome.
Others use their time to run one of the most violent criminal organizations in

Regina and the other women make it past a metal detector, pat-down, and
wanding that ensure no one carries contraband or wears an underwire bra. They wait in a
bright and sterile visiting area for the men to be called up from the SHU.
One by one, the men file in. None of the five can see the others as he is led, hands
shackled behind his back, into his own cage of a room, where he is separated from his
guest by thick glass and from fellow inmates by a wall of steel. Once locked inside his
box, each man leans forward, slipping his hands through a slit in the door behind him
until the handcuffs are released. The ankle chains, however, remain in place. Whenever
visitors come, the most eager men only massage their wrists before they pick up phones.
The more fastidious ones take the time to wipe the mouthpieces with their sleeves.
This day the visiting area happens to hold five leaders of the Nuestra Familia
organization. Pelican Bay exists to make sure men such as these cannot communicate
with each other though they are housed a few feet apart. When the men shuffle along in
chains, correctional officers watch to ensure no words are exchanged, no notes passed,
and no phrases delivered in American Sign Language, in which the men are near-fluent.
In the visiting area, every word spoken is recorded and gestures are captured on
videotape. But the guards can’t catch everything.
Regina and her companions lean affectionately toward the glass, cradling phones
on their shoulders. The men smile and lean in too, their broad torsos positioned to
partially block the cameras behind their backs. All but one of the women pulls a small
piece of paper from her bra and presses it against the window. Lisa is the sole visitor
unaware of the plan—her husband, Paqui, is not in good standing with the organization.
The other men’s nods are barely perceptible. The men and women chat on—about
kids, cousins, mothers, small-town gossip, whether their magazine subscriptions have run
out. The visiting time flies by, and the ladies promise to return the next day.
That evening their torn-up notes swirl down motel toilets.


The group’s night on the town consists of dinner at a pizza parlor and, for Regina, a dip in
the motel’s Jacuzzi. She was nervous carrying her note past the guards, and the warm
swirling waters do her good.
On Sunday, the girlfriends return to the prison under Crescent City’s eternal cloud
cover. The men had easily come to agreement the previous afternoon with a mumbled
comment or a subtle dip of the head as the guards led them from their visits.
The girls settle in, and an inmate bends to scratch an ankle. His fingers tug at a
rolled paper scrap and he scoots in close. He flattens his answer to the previous day’s
question against the glass. The other men— all except Paqui—do the same.
When he is sure his visitor has read it, each inmate’s palm swallows his note.


Later, a packet will be mailed from the prison to Webster, Pierce and Associates, a San
Francisco law firm. The top three sheets in the envelope will consist of an inmate’s
carefully hand-lettered habeas corpus petition. The document will say the inmate wants to
join a class action over the deplorable conditions at Pelican Bay. Once delivered, the
pages that took painstaking hours to craft will be destroyed, the petition never read by
any lawyer.
Webster, Pierce and Associates is a Familia front, a fictional partnership with a
San Francisco street address and imprinted letterhead but no attorneys or staff. The firm’s
sole purpose is to serve as a red line—a covert way to send messages from prison because
legal mail is confidential and cannot be read by the prison’s guards or code breakers. In
this instance, the smuggled missive will lay down new rules to be obeyed by tens of
thousands of Norteño gang members across California. It will be a call to unite all the
gangs’ warring neighborhood factions into a giant underground army the likes of which
this state has never witnessed.
Right now, though, all that matters to the crew in Salinas is that the five females
in Crescent City bring home an answer regarding the fates of the traitors in their midst.
Were the traitors’ executions approved?
After another day’s drive through North Coast forests and fog, Regina and her
friends reach the warm and welcoming farm country of Salinas, where the regiment
receives an order that is simple but explicit: green light.

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