Cracking Down

Rising repression means escalating tensions at Oak Park Heights, the state's only maximum-security prison.

At 7:00 on the morning of March 4, the 104 inmates of complexes two and three at Oak Park Heights maximum-security prison rolled out of their cement bunks and headed toward the naked walls and polished floors of their respective dining areas. At 7:30 the customary announcement came over the PA system: time to head to work in the prison's industrial shops. All 104 men got out of their chairs and, in almost complete silence, walked back to their cells instead.

Talk of strikes and riots and hunger strikes has come and gone at the prison over the years. The fact that inmates followed through this time is a testament to how grim the situation at the prison has become. "I didn't really think these guys were serious," says Anthony Hale, an inmate who joined in the strike. "I've been here for eight years and I've heard through the years about guys doing this and that. Nothing had ever been done. But when on Monday they announced industry, didn't nobody go toward the door. This was the first time I saw everybody in industry do anything in harmony."

OPH Warden Erik Skon, who has two years under his belt at the institution and 22 years in corrections altogether, showed up at work that morning just as the strike became official. The evening before he'd received a phone call at home, warning him that something was brewing. He had followed up immediately by locking down the prison's unit four. "It was going to get locked up anyway," he says. "But my thought was that other inmates hearing a unit was on lockdown might make a difference. And of course it didn't."

Skon already knew what the inmates were upset about. It was by and large a response to crackdowns regarding prisoner privileges and standard operating procedures at the prison over a course of years. Inmates were opposed to the new limited-contact visiting policy, the shorter library hours, the elimination of certain cable channels--in particular, any where nude bodies could be spied--and the low wages they receive for assembling three-ring binders, paper folders, and hearing-aid pouches for the state and private companies. They requested a more responsive grievance procedure, better food handling, cleaner air, and more liberal policies on the clothing and books allowed into the prison.

Minnesota isn't the only state where inmates are feeling the sting of a new attitude toward prisons and prisoners. The public and politicians--driven by visions of inmates sitting back in their recliners, smoking cigars as they digest their sumptuous meals--have decided that things like television and exercise are luxuries to be eliminated. The reality is that there are more people behind bars than ever in the United States; in Minnesota, there are more than twice as many inmates in state prisons than in 1985. In what has already become a tense and overcrowded penal system, matters like TV, access to weight rooms, and smoking privileges take on a weight that's difficult for people on the outside to comprehend. That's when you get riots and work stoppages.

OPH inmate David Cox, who thinks of himself as an old-timer after having spent close to 20 years in various prisons for bank robbery and escape, explains it this way: "People become frustrated in a seemingly powerless situation. They can't see the big picture as the administration can. All they see is their little helpless situation. It's like being an animal in a cage. And every time the keeper walks by, he pokes a stick in at them. Eventually they snap back."

OPH is Minnesota's only official maximum security prison and by far its most restrictive. It serves as a system-wide doghouse of sorts, warehousing those who get in fights at other institutions or branded by their "negative attitudes." When it opened in 1982, OPH was hailed as an architectural marvel, built with a "pod" design of seven individual living units that house 52 inmates each and a medical unit housing 42, sort of like prisons within a prison. It's built almost entirely underground, giving the place a hermetically sealed feel. Precautions are taken to the level of art; there are endless metal doors, intercoms, security "bubbles," cameras. All inmate phone calls are monitored. "Here is the trash," says Skon as we wait for an elevator. He points to holes in the white plastic bags, looks at me for a second and explains that each one is rammed with a metal rod to check for clever stowaways. He repeats one of the most touted factoids about OPH: There has never been an escape.

The reputation as a strict and smoothly running institution is guarded jealously. "Just an editorial here," says Skon in his office, surrounded by colorful photos of the mountains and rivers he's visited. "We have received national and international attention for the manner in which we conduct our programming at a maximum-security level. We've had 30 countries tour this place since it opened. We had four groups from Great Britain come this year alone."

But having more than 100 men opting to stay in their cells instead of following instructions is not exactly orderly. "It was not and has not been violent up to this point in time," says Skon, "but it is the strongest organized effort by inmates that I've experienced in my 22 years." Within hours of the strike, he'd put together teams of staffers who went around and interviewed each inmate who had participated.

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