Friday, August 05, 2005

The Mins and the Maxs

No, this is not a mathematically oriented post (although I am a fan of math). I went to a maximum security prison yesterday. Here are some highlights of the tour. (note: get a snack - this is long)
Let me say right off the bat that I think most out of the 20 people from the office who went on the tour were depressed after taking the tour. I was not one of them. I was often right behind the guard in an effort to be the first one to see everything, unabashedly stared at the inmates, looked for guns and blind spots everywhere and listened to everything. Mind you, I was not giddy with delight at the conditions, but my heart does not bleed for them. Here we go:
Apparently, back in the day, the prisoners used to have full reign of the entire compound. They would be rounded up at night, counted in the morning, then let out. I can't imagine why this EVER sounded like a good idea - and it will come as no surprise when I tell you that people were raped, beaten, killed, and the staff members were all afraid to go to work. Here's a tidbit about a famous videotape that was "released" with Richard Speck (killed 8 nurses) sitting there with a mountain of cocaine, men dressed as women and wads of money on a table. Speck made the brilliant observation that he was living better in prison than most people were outside "the wall."
Now, the prisoners are generally in their cell 23 hours a day. They get an hour to go to lunch which starts at 9:30 a.m. They generally get gym 1x a week and yard 1x a week. No showers after yard, but showers after gym. Otherwise - one shower a week. Unless you work - then you can shower every day. They have a soap factory and a furniture making facility, where you can earn money according to your productivity. These jobs are really high in demand, and the soap factory just hired 5 guys who were on the waiting list since 1999. We talked to one guy at the soap factory who was in for 80 years, looked 15, and yet acted like he was ex-military. He must've been late 20's at least, though b/c he'd already done 15 years. We visited the commissary where you can buy shoes, sweats, and personal items like soda, ramen, soap, cigarettes. Things are generally at a discount, but not by too much.
We saw the lunch rooms (3 of them) where everyone eats in shifts. Meals are prepared by the inmates. (Side note: I have a client doing this and now wants to be transferred to a prison with a culinary arts program). The lunch rooms are in a "Round house" with a guard center at the top looking down into each. If things get out of hand, there is one warning shot, and everyone knows that if they don't stop fighting - the next one is on them. This happens about every two weeks despite the rule that you cannot pick your seat and can only get up to get water.
We saw the gym (HOT! no air conditioning in most places), the yard, the law library, the school, the hospital, and segregation.
Most people were scared by segregation. To be sure - it was intimidating. The guards warned us that whenever tours come through "they act a fool." Sure enough. We stepped inside and hear one giant yell "tour." EVERYONE started yelling. There's a little walkway, then you enter the Round House. Imagine the Senate scenes in the new Star Wars - they surround you, and yet they are faceless. I think there are 6 levels, and all in a circle. You walk into this pit, and I felt like I was the Christian about to be eaten by a lion. I was amazed at the intensity. Everyone was whistling, pounding on their cell doors, yelling their cell number so you'd be able to pick them out of the roaring chaos. Lots of lewd comments to the women on the tour and lots of yelling about how the guards are poisoning them. It was SO LOUD. Despite the content of the comments, I wasn't freaked out by this room. It was a fascinating to me - especially because everyone was acting like angry gorilla's, pounding and yelling, and then I look over and see this guy wiping down his cell. I know you have to do something major to get put in seg, so to see someone who (presumably) had a disregard for the rules at one point so concerned with the cleanliness of his cell.
The part that did freak me out was the hospital - particularly the mental health section. Everyone was locked up, and plenty of them were naked (after being deemed a risk to themselves or others) and although a few of them were loud, what freaked me out was the look in their eyes. There was no doubt something was wrong with them. There's no way I can describe this to you. I will tell you, though, that a few of them put on a show - complete with maniacal laughing. Whether intentional to freak us out - I don't know. It worked in my case.
Other tidbits of the tour - everyone gave you their unsolicited opinion. We asked how many people were on anti-psychotic meds. One nurse (not the one we were talking to) answered "too many." A few years ago, apparently there were only 73, now there are over 300. I'm not a doctor - I don't even play one on tv - but I disagreed with her "too many." I see clients all the time who need some type of mental health treatment (perhaps not anti-psychotic meds) and don't get it. I think we need to do more for mental health before it gets to the prison level.....(soap-box coming on...must not get side-tracked).
The guards seemed straight with us. They told us that the majority (almost all) of the contraband that prisoners get, come from staff members on the take. It usually starts with something simple like mailing an envelope for $500. Even I was tempted to offer my services for that. Then, you smuggle in drugs or weapons. Eventually, the guy turns you in and you are done for. According to the guards, some female guards, after being pursued by staff members, cross the lines to go with the inmates. One guard said "they have great game." That's how they get women to write them, talk to them, visit them. (The warden told us that men somehow always stay supported in prison no matter what crime they've committed, but women offenders are left alone once in prison.) It's not uncommon for males to get numbers and contacts out of tour visitors. People get married too - no conjugal visits though. According to one guard, the wife will come and visit, get the inmate all worked up, then the inmate will go back and have sex with his cellie (cellmate) and she'll go back and have sex with whomever she's with. Nice.
Sex between inmates is a given. Everyone is someone's "girlfriend." The guards try not to put a "predator" with a "vulnerable" if they know about it. They will put two predators together and "let them go at it." They will generally not put a guy new to the system with a guy that's been in the system a while - for the same reason. I guess you want to slowly introduce the new guy to involuntary homosexual activities. Showers are 15 guys locked in, the guards leave, whatever happens, happens. If it's clear someone has been violated, they can at least narrow it down to 14 suspects. The soap factory guy (remember him?) was a pretty boy - one that I'm sure had a hard time at first. In fact - his boss (a female) seemed to be looking him over too.
No one seemed particularly concerned about safety. The guards frequently had their backs to unshackled prisoners, prisoners were within arms length of us at many points, again, they were unshackled.
There are a couple of codes - inmates don't like child molesters, rapists, or those who disrespect female staff. Hmm...good to have standards.
I'll leave you with the highlights - as we were leaving seg, one inmate yelled, "all you bitches are ugly, except for the one in the brown shirt and long skirt." I was not wearing the brown shirt and the long skirt.
Also, my favorite part of the tour was "Billy" the pet groundhog they had trained like a dog. I especially liked it when they complained that they even had Billy locked up and pled for his release. I couldn't help but wonder if they had tried to train Billy to burrow a big enough hole under the fence.


ipgirl said...

wow, this sounds like quite the tour! I think I would be pretty disturbed afterwards, you're tougher than me...
I've been telling a few people about your experience and they're shocked at the way life is like in a max security prison, though in a way, what else could you expect?

Buccaneer Betty said...

It was disturbing, no doubt. As I was telling Road Runner, though - prison conditions is not my fight. I'd rather focus my efforts in making sure innocent people don't end up there. Of course, having said that, I saw a job posting to work on prison reform initiatives down in the state legislature. I was tempted.