Unacceptable Conditions Continue for State Workers at Pelican Bay State Prison


Built in Crescent City in 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is the one of the few supermax facilities in the state. As of April 2020, Pelican Bay has been at 109% capacity, housing high-priority prisoners from across California. Due to both of these factors—and several more—during the COVID-19 pandemic, PBSP has become a hotbed of fear and intimidation directed towards the medical staff represented by SEIU Local 1000.

The medical side of PBSP is managed by CEO Bill Woods. Over two decades, Woods has held multiple positions, initially beginning his career there as a nurse. However, under his leadership as CEO, the conditions for a truly dangerous situation have been laid, some of which have led to the multiple lawsuits filed against him. Workers at PBSP have been fighting against the toxic work culture, which has been propagated through fear and intimidation, making miserable day-to-day conditions a routine fact of life for the nursing staff at PBSP.

Fortunately, the nurses are fighting back. Led by Laura Slavec, a SEIU Local 1000 steward and DBUR, the PBSP Organizing team includes LVNs, RNs and LTs who refuse to accept these circumstances anymore. By mobilizing the staff who are at immediate risk for COVID-19 exposure every single day on the job, they have sent a clear message to management: years of mismanagement, understaffing, and most recently failure to respond to COVID-19 has made PBSP an unsafe place to work and a threat to public health.

The incredible dysfunction at Pelican Bay has a clear metric: nurse vacancy rate. By creating a hostile work environment and culture of fear, medical management has been able to reduce medical personnel to staffing levels below 75%, which is believed to be used by management as a cost saving tool. So, even as the prison has been running at over capacity throughout the pandemic, the number of nurses available has been steadily falling.

Even before the pandemic, the number of available staff was significantly lower than the state average, with a vacancy rate hovering at 15-20 percent. Due to the dangerous and unsafe working conditions, many RNs and LVNs are out on workers’ compensation, exacerbating the situation and leaving the nurses who remain unable to provide the best care for their patients.

At best, the conditions at Pelican Bay are far from acceptable. COVID-19 orders from the State have been ignored, and the belief persists that medical management was not prepared to handle a state emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. Simple CDC guidelines, such as wearing a mask, were ignored by upper Pelican Bay CCHCS management for several months. Meanwhile, management forces the rank-and-file nurses to work multiple shifts because SRN IIs (Supervising Register Nurses) do not know how to do the work of the RNs and LVNs. To make matters worse, management’s policy of keeping inmates in prolonged lockdown for several months with no canteen, yard privileges, or personal mail has increased the likelihood of violence. So, with their health and safety on the line, the nurses are demanding change.

A nurse led Organizing Committee has been meeting every week to plan out actions, JLMCs, and responses to management. Nurses have also asked management to take action to relieve pressure by having SRN IIs perform duties as floor and charge nurses, and to maintain a lower nursing vacancy rate. This will ensure that the nurses who are able to work are performing their duties while also preserving safety procedures and creating a workplace where nurses can provide the best care for their patients. Finally, this would force Pelican Bay to comply with COVID-19 orders, including addressing management’s failure to train staff on PPE such as proper donning, doffing, and disposal, addressing the lack of clean gowns, bonnets, and N95 masks with proper fitting, and most egregiously, management’s falsification of N95 mask fit tests.

SEIU Local 1000 has been supporting the organizing team at Pelican Bay, agitating and building confidence among nurses to take action, gathering stories from past workers at PBSP explaining why they left, and leading JLMCs to solve issues at the local level. Meanwhile, as management tries to pick off members and get them to stop taking action, and issues frivolous write ups for nurses who challenge the toxic work culture, the Pelican Bay Organizing team stands united against these threats to their health, the inmates, and the health of the Crescent City community.