Forum for understanding prisons newsletter
BRIDGE OF VOICES #13
Pages One Through four
contents post one:
2) solitary from one warden's point of view- (from 3 part National public radio series)
3) my life in prison by WSPF prisoner
4)Judge Rips Supermax as Gulag
This is not a regular edition of Bridges, as our editor is not available for this one. The professional touches are not here nor the fine editing. There also isn't the intertwining of themes we have become used to, nor the balance of the positive and gloomy: but this newsletter will go out and we will be back to fine editing in our next edition.
One of the sad truths that all activists encounter, is that those in power have very little incentive to strive for real change, that their power depends on their ability to maintain the status quo while pretending to want truly representative institutions. The push for change must come from the people whose lives are most affected by the injustice. Yet there is a profound lack of advocates for prisoners, of a voice for prisoners and their families, of the poor in general in this country. To help connect families, activists and prisoners and then to connect with similar groups around the country is the overall goal of FFUP- to support each other, to nurture the prisoner back to meaningful participation, and together help change the way this country is run. Our penpal program is one of the tools we offer and FFUP's offer of Post office box, advise and support does help overcome some fears about writing prisoners and the number of writers slowly grows.
Another connecting tool is our newly formed families and friends of prisoners letter writing network . We have been working with prisoners and their families long enough to realize that most families turn away from their incarcerated loved ones- partly because of the heartbreaking difficulty of keeping in touch. At all points helping the incarcerated is difficult if not impossible. We have also found that having a friend with whom to share the difficulties helps families keep in touch with their prisoner relatives and with this network we hope to provide broader support for families by making it easy for them to connect to others who care. Although families of prisoners will form the core of this network, everyone interest in helping is needed. We will have periodic letter writing opportunities where we join together and write the authorities on issues of specific inmates and general conditions. For more information, see box below.
To find out about FFUP's letter writing network contact firstname.lastname@example.org; FFUP 29631 Wild Rose Drive; Blue River, Wi 53518; or call 1-608-536-3993. To check out our penpals, go to http://friendsofprisoners.blogspot.com
To find out about our group and general prison issues, go to www.forumforunderstandingprisons.org. Help at all levels is appreciated and any comments or $donations are welcome.
part 2 of National Public Radio's 3 part series on solitary confinement.
Solitary from one warden's point of view
All Things Considered, July 27, 2006 · A growing number of prisoners are spending years in solitary confinement in prisons across the country. These prisoners eat, sleep and exist in their cells alone, with little, if any, physical contact with others.
Experts say there are more than 25,000 inmates serving their sentences this way. A handful of them have been in isolation for more than 20 years.
Almost every inmate in isolation will be released back into the public one day. But there are a few prison officials who are rethinking the idea of isolation -- and wondering if there might be a better way.
One of them is Don Cabana. He began his career in corrections the way most people did 30 years ago in the South: On the back of a horse, a shotgun in one hand and 100 prisoners below him, picking cotton.
The inmates were prisoners at a place called Parchman, a prison deep in the farmlands of Mississippi.
For almost a century, Parchman was notoriously violent "Nobody ever cared about it or cared what went on there," Cabana says. "And there's no question inmates were beaten and abused. I would go so far as to say some were probably even murdered."
By the time Don Cabana became warden in 1981, things had changed at Parchman. Much of the prisoner abuse had subsided, but there were new problems.
It was overcrowded, underfunded and full of bored, violent inmates -- the result of an explosion in gangs and drug crime. Assaults on staff were increasing. Instead of worrying about the guards killing the inmates, Cabana says he worried about the inmates killing his guards.
"I had three officers stabbed one morning by one inmate," he says, "and the only reason he stabbed them is because he was trying to elevate his status in the Aryan brotherhood. Damn near kills all three of them. You know, you take your staff being injured by these people very personally, because you feel like you have failed somehow. And a warden's worst nightmare is losing a staff person."
Locking Down a Lawless Prison Environment
Cabana looked at states including California, Arizona and Illinois and saw they were creating a new place to put bad inmates:1,000-bed, high-tech isolation units known as Supermax prisons. That meant 23 hours a day in a cell, one hour alone in an exercise pen. No television, no contact with the outside world, nothing but a concrete cell.
Making Meaner Inmates
Cabana says he didn't have any trouble getting money to build the Supermax prison and for a while after it was completed, the facility seemed to work well. Cabana says the threat of going to long-term isolation was making the rest of the inmates in general population behave.
But then, Cabana says some things started to trouble him. Inmate behavior got worse, in ways that seemed almost unbelievable. Inmates were smearing themselves with urine and feces and throwing it at the officers "Some inmates were crazy, and wouldn't know they were throwing urine at somebody, others were just mean and doing it out of pure spite," Cabana said. "But many of them did it out of utter frustration."
And there was another problem: the staff.
"A lot of the staff would just be flat-out abusive to the inmates. They would taunt them, ignore them," Cabana says.
Cabana says he would lie awake at night under the pressure of having to decide whom to send to isolation and whom to release. Then one day, as he walked the tier of his Supermax facility, Cabana says something occurred to him.
"Inmate hauls off and spits at you -- yeah, you want to slap the total crap out of them into the next cell," Cabana says. "Problem is, that takes you down to his level, and we're supposed to be better than that. And as a society, one of the best measures of how far a society has come is what their prisons are like. I think what we're doing in Supermax is, we're taking some bad folks, and we're making them even worse. We're making them even meaner."
Second Thoughts About Supermax
Don Cabana is no longer the warden of Parchman. He retired last year. But his feelings about Supermax haven't changed.
"The biggest single regret I had in my career was having built that unit," he says.
Cabana is not the only one with second thoughts. Brian Belleque, the warden of the Oregon State Pennitentiary in Salem, has them, too. "We realize that 95 to 98 percent of these inmates here are going to be your neighbor in the community," Belleque says. "They are going to get out."
In 1991, Oregon built something it calls the Intensive Management Unit, or the IMU. Inmates are locked in their cells all day long, for years. It's dark. There are no windows inside.
On a recent visit, many inmates were pacing back and forth in their cells, talking to themselves or hollering at inmates down the hall.
The IMU looks like a standard isolation unit. But these days, there are some big differences, including therapy for many of the prisoners. One prisoner named Gregory says that therapy has really helped him. "Some changes took," Gregory said recently while having a session with the psychiatrist. "I was just a mess. I was a straight mess. I was an animal, and I acted that way."
Oregon has also adopted a system that allows inmates like Gregory to earn their way out of isolation. The longest an inmate can stay in isolation is three years. And the decision of who is and isn't sent to isolation is no longer in the warden's hands. A three-person panel outside the prison system decides.
'You Need to Change the Inmate'
But changing the system wasn't an easy sell. It took years. Mitch Morrow, the deputy director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, says even now, there are state officials who cling to the idea of long-term isolation.
"It feels good today to lock them up, and for that given moment, you feel safer," Morrow says. "But if that's where you stop the conversation, then you are doing your state a serious injustice. Because you need to change the inmate. You need to provide the inmate the opportunity to change. And if you don't, if you just feel good about locking somebody up, it's a failed model."
Oregon no longer releases inmates directly from segregation to the streets. Now they send them first to classes, and then to prison jobs in the general population, so they can get used to being around people again.
That's not the case in other states. Last year in Texas, prison officials took 1,458 inmates out of their segregation cells, walked them to the prison gates and took the handcuffs off. There's almost no research about the effects of isolation on how well inmates cope on the outside.
That troubles Walter Dickey. Dickey used to run Wisconsin's prisons. Now he's been appointed by a court there to oversee the conditions at the state's Supermax facility. Dickey says many officials in his state don't see a downside to having a Supermax. He says the state built it because legislators thought they needed it, and most prison officials went along.
It's the numbers that bother Dickey. When he ran the state's prisons, he says there were, at most, a dozen inmates so dangerous that he took them out of general population. Today, the 500 beds at Wisconsin's Supermax are full -- and most inmates have been there since it opened seven years ago. (editor's note: there are about 350 beds filled as of 11 06)
Keeping Inmates Out of Long-Term Segregation
At a small California prison on the Nevada border called High Desert, a group of prison officials gather around a metal desk each week. These weekly meetings are part of a new program meant to keep inmates out of long-term segregation. High Desert Warden Tom Felker started the program six months ago. He said he was tired of sending hundreds of inmates to years of isolation."I, like a lot of people, looked at it as, 'There's probably a better way,'" Felker says.
Felker took his 40 worst inmates and housed them together. He's taken all their possessions: radios, books, televisions. He banned them from the yard. He told them that if they want these privileges back, they would have to earn them by following a specific, itemized list: attend therapy, school and weekly anger-management classes with a local college professor. The staff keeps detailed notes about their progress.
A Model for a Balanced Approach?
"Just straight rehabilitation in its own right -- that's not realistic. But just warehousing inmates? That's not going to work, either," Felker says. "You have to have a balanced approach."
In the past six months, the results so far have stunned even Felker. Almost every inmate has graduated from the program, and they've stayed out of trouble back in general population. Recently, Felker has been visited by staff from several other prisons in California asking how they can start a program like his.
Before Don Cabana retired from Mississippi's Parchman prison, he tried to reform much about the segregation unit. He wanted to send most of the inmates back to general population. But there are still 1,000 inmates in the unit today.
"Prisons have always had prisons within prisons," Cabana says. "I mean, every prison has its jailhouse for the guys you have to lock up. But the numbers of people we're incarcerating under Supermax conditions in this country -- it's just run away from us. That's not how it's supposed to be."
Like prison officials in Oregon, Wisconsin and California, Cabana says he found that building an isolation unit is a lot easier than taking one apart.
William Author Ward says:" It is wiser to lead than to push, to request rather than demand, to suggest rather than insist, to inspire rather than compel, to motivate rather than to manipulate. "
from Jerry Price #171022; Alger Max Prison; PO Box 600; Munising, Michigan 49862
My Life in Prison
by Shawn Alexander; WSPF; Po Box 9900; Boscobel, wi 53805
Shawn is now 21 and was 17 when he went to jail for burning down an abandoned barn. No one was hurt. His sentence was 71/2 years in, 13 out and a restitution of $123,000.
On 5-23 -2, an unfortunate decision was made on my behalf, that landed me in The Wisconsin Prison System, but first I was in the county jail. The food was meager, and quite nasty, staff were corrupt, living conditions were atrocious, and I was fighting all the time. Visits were only 15 minutes long on an early Sunday morning. Our constitutional rights were being violated daily. So as I sat my time in this foreign world, fighting my case, I realized early on that survival in prison would depend on myself, family and friends. On Valentines day of 2003 I was sentenced to 20 years; 7 in prison and 13 out on probation, a stiff sentence if you ask me. Only days later I started my prison term at Dodge Correctional Institution, where the degrading and sadistic ways started.
So as this "prison life started, tests, (mental, physical, education) etc were being conducted. Meeting people from all walks of life, I was thinking to myself, "ok, this should go smoothly" but I couldn't have been more wrong. I was so used to the life of freedom, and now a life of no freedom. I was sent to RYOCI on or about May 27th, 003. When I first arrived my thoughts were "clean, new" etc. But as my time went on I realized I was around a bunch of young ignorant people who didn't want to do good with their lives. Only 11 days after arriving, I was in segregation for something that usually would be recognized as a first amendment right. So the persecution began. I was placed in "main seg" which was filled with ignorance, loudness, and stupidity. No sleep, because you have 20 people banging on doors all times of the day.. This was for my first major ticket, and I received a 4 and 360 day segregation in Supermax-meaning One year in seg. But I thought it would be alot smoother upon arriving at Wisconsin secure program Facility. On 8-29-03 I arrived to "Hell in America."
During my approximately 9 months journey at WSPF, I realized that this place is not filled with people who belong here, this place has NO rehabilitational process. This place is designed to breed criminals and make them worse off. They love saying "Oh, we got programs" etc. So what? That does not mean they're properly designed programs. During this journey, I've seen bad treatment and a form of psychological warfare.
So as my prison journey continued at WSPF, I met someone who's still to this day is a good friend. he got me interested in law and most importantly my religion of Asartru. At this I've come to realize there ain't many solid, decent people in Wisconsin and I've come to know how to do prison time :
#1 only associate with a select few who are doing something with their lives.
#2 Choose to stand up against the wrong, unlawful treatment against us. My time had come to leave WSPF May 7,2004.
I didn't know where I was going, so I was therefore caught up in my thoughts of where I would land. When we arrived after a 4 hour bus drive, I asked where we were. And they told me "green Bay". Oh, I've heard a lot about G.B.C.I.- "Gladiator school" etc. and as I went through the start process, and ended up in the cell hall, I was shocked. It looked like the movies- 4 tiers tall, open faced gates, loud noise, and the air was filled with a weird unidentifiable smell .As time went on, I settled in my single person cell, hung out with a couple people, went to religious services, and just tried to get used to this new environment. One thing I have noticed throughout my time is the oppression of my religious ways. During this time at GBCI I became disliked by a couple ignorant people who think there're still in the hood, because I didn't let people walk over me.
I did 9 months without any trouble, and then I was set up by those individuals who didn't like me and they finally got me in seg. But as time went on in GBCI I was doing good, and the time came for me to defend myself on this ticket. But it is impossible, they rarely find people innocent. "Guilty" he said and "transfer back to WSPF" repeated for days in my head. I was wondering, Why was I going back to WSPF? They had no explanation. People have done more and worse. They were just itching to get me out.
On may 7th, 2003, I was transferred back to Hell In America. I had heard good has finally come out of this place- air conditioning, outside recreation, etc, but on arriving I see that the good was limited. Yes we had outside recreation- in a 12 X 12 cage. They say there's "air chillers " but I'm still trapped beneath my sweats as I lie down. It's become quite clear that WSPF has fetalized in a sense. On hot days we used to get ice, for summer we used to receive shorts to wear. But that is all gone. When wintertime rolls around and we go to outside recreation, we are basically forced to freeze. We get these shoes with no padding or insulation. It's like going outside while 10 degrees with a pair of socks on. I feel that they are trying to deter us from going outside. So as this new journey at WSPF started, I realized early on that if I would like to rehabilitate myself, I must do it on my own. Because it's quite obvious that WSPF does not want to rehabilitate people. For example: I caught a minute conduct report back in 2005 and received 180 days seg, 20 days loss of rec, 30 days cell confinement, 30 days loss of tv, 10 days extension of release. Clearly, all this place believes is in stiff punishments instead of help. Their disciplinary rules are designed to keep people in trouble.
Throughout the following months after 10-3-27-05, I never once received a conduct report until 9 months later, because myself and a friend were publishing articles exposing this place. Therefore, the gang coordinator and a sergeant conducted cell searches on the both of us, confiscating material that was being used for a lawsuit and wrote me a ticket. And a couple of weeks later I was moved to a secure,, restricted unit (alpha) with no privileges. I've yet to be found guilty of the conduct report as of date 8-12-06. I'm on administrative confinement -a non punitive status- and your not supposed to be on a punitive status unless found guilty. Therefore they're violating their own policy and due process rights. All because of choosing to expose this place.
Over here on alpha, I'm being deprived of all my rights- no books, only one ten minute phone call a month ( I had 3 fifteen minute calls a month) etc. Alpha unit has staff that purposely do little things to pick at people. - Not answering the intercom, handcuffs and shackles too tight, slamming the trap, talking rudely, flushing our toilets while we're sleeping etc. They drive unstable people into an even more unstable state. I've seen recently a man smear his feces all over his cell, and they pepper sprayed him and got him out of his cell. The janitor arrived to clean his cell, to which we were forced to lay in this bio-hazardous place and smell it for hours. People may argue that he did it for attention. I argue that these people have used psychological warfare on him and damaged his everyday life. People don't smear feces over their whole cell for attention.
Throughout my 51 month journey, I've come to learn that Wisconsin department of corrections does not wish to help us, rehabilitate us or wish us good.. Instead they know that if they did rehabilitate us, a lot of people would lose jobs because we'd all become productive members of society, the prisons would soon be extinct if they taught us to do good. But instead, they stick people in modern day "criminal breeding camps." Some of us may have come to prison as minor criminals, but will leave a knowleged criminal. People of today' society are probably thinking" Oh they can change regardless". Very true, but when you have an alcoholic and stick him in a room of alcoholics, he'll drink. Now if you take an individual who's a so called criminal and stick him in an environment where criminality is being taught instead of rehabilitation, temptation will most likely win.
A lot of people have no social skills. It's fortunate that I'm a sociable person because to be dropped back off in society, one must possess social skills as a key component to survival in society. I'm not trying to make things sound like prison needs to be a first class hotel. But what I am saying is that we need rehabilitative tools to help us re-enter society. This will only come with your help, by contacting the DOC in Madison. But I also suggest to all prisoners that wish to do good in society, to help yourself while behind that glistening razor wire. Take this time and use it wisely. Although I'm at this "supermax", I've got nothing but time. So as I lock this up, I hope it has opened up the eyes if many people. If you have any questions, comments, you can be reached at :
Shawn Alexander #439226;WSPF ( Wisconsin Secure Program Facility);Po Box 9900; Boscobel, Wi 53805
Judge rips Supermax as a 'gulag'
Court: Prison's treatment, punishment were cruel
By David Callender Nov 15, 2006
A federal appeals court has likened conditions in Wisconsin's Supermax prison to the most punitive "gulags" of the former Soviet Union. In a stinging 14-page decision, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned whether the treatment of inmates at the Boscobel prison violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Terence Evans described that treatment in the starkest terms."Stripped naked in a small prison cell with nothing except a toilet; forced to sleep on a concrete floor or slab; denied any human contact; fed nothing but 'nutri-loaf;' and given just a modicum of toilet papers - four squares - only a few times. Although this might sound like a stay at a Soviet gulag in the 1930s, it is, according to the claims in this case, Wisconsin in 2002," Evans wrote in the opening paragraph of his decision.
The court did not rule on the facts of the case, sending that portion back to be decided by a federal district court in Green Bay. But the judges said that if those facts are true, then the prison violated inmate Nathan Gillis' rights. At issue in the case is the prison's Behavioral Modification Program, which is aimed at getting problem inmates to obey prison rules The court did not rule on the facts of the case, sending that portion back to be decided by a federal district court in Green Bay. But the judges said that if those facts are true, then the prison violated inmate Nathan Gillis' rights.
In Gillis' case, prison officials said he did not sleep with his head where guards could see him, which they said was necessary to make sure he was safe. For violating that rule, Gillis was stripped of his clothes, bedding, and all personal property and fed "nutri-loaf," prison food ground up and formed into a loaf. Under the rules, Gillis could gradually earn back his clothes and other belongings if he obeyed the rules; if he did not obey the rules, he would remain indefinitely in his cell, naked, alone, and on a cold cement bed.
The court ruled that the conditions "had an adverse effect on Gillis' mental stability. "He heard voices telling him that 'these people were trying to kill him.' He suffered panic attacks, with palpitations, shortness of breath, and a feeling that he was going to die. He became suicidal. He inflicted wounds on his body and wrote the words 'help me' in blood on the walls of his cell," Evans wrote.
After guards saw Gillis' wounds, he was transferred to a mental health unit at the prison where he was placed on clinical observation "but the conditions of his confinement did not change," Evans wrote. Evans wrote that unlike other punishments, Gillis was stuck in the Behavioral Modification Program until he completed it - not just until he obeyed the rules.
The program "is different" from other punishments. "It is not simply a natural consequence 'automatically' growing out of a rule infraction. It is much more elaborate," Evans wrote. "An inmate who refuses to put on his trousers can correct the situation immediately by putting them on. In contrast, (prison officials) did not simply take Gillis' blanket away until he conformed with the rule. Once he received notice that he was to be put in the BMP, he had to complete the whole program. He couldn't make it stop."
Many of the conditions of severe deprivation and isolation described in Gillis' case are similar to those recounted in a 2001 class-action lawsuit filed by severely mentally ill inmates at Supermax. Under a settlement, the state agreed to remove all mentally ill inmates from the prison, but said the use of isolation and deprivation would continue for other inmates. Inmates are sent to Boscobel, now known under the settlement as the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, from other prisons if they are violent, disruptive or do not obey prison rules. Evans noted that it was unclear whether the BMP was still being used.
Gillis, he wrote, contends that the program is still in effect, while prison officials "with notable ambiguity, say that 'although the policy may still be in effect, the BMP program is no longer used'" at the prison. Gillis' lawyers Pam McGillivray and Ed Garvey argued that if the federal district court sides with their client, the appeals court decision could have national implications on states with similar Supermax programs.In a statement released today, Department of Corrections spokesman John Dipko said the department's attorneys are still reviewing the decision. He added, "It is important to note that the issue before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was whether there are material disputes of fact between the parties. The 7th Circuit found that material facts are in dispute, and remanded the case to the district court for a trial. We take issue with certain points made by the plaintiffs in the case and will be prepared to state our position in court."
On to Post two, Pages 5 thru 7