Cracking Down

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

The teams reported back by 3:00 that afternoon. "The message to me from my staff was that they were very taken aback by the tone of the inmate population. The inmates were very serious. They heard that some inmates were afraid for their safety and had wanted to go to work. But the stronger message that concerned me was that a list of demands would be forthcoming and that if we didn't respond to this list the staff might or would eventually be assaulted."

A half-hour later, 156 inmates were on 24-hour lockdown status until further notice. Meanwhile, support for the strikers was still growing. By the evening of the next day, Skon got word that half the inmates in the prison's Special Housing Unit--who are allowed few benefits anyway, spending most of the day in their cells--had refused to eat their evening meal in a show of solidarity. "I received word that they refused to come out for their meal," says Skon, "and at that point I authorized lockup status for them as well."

That brought the number of inmates on lockdown to 175, almost half the prison's total population.

Skon reads the papers. And he's no doubt heard the stories. There's a growing uneasiness in prison blocks across the country, and many corrections experts are wondering how and when the lid may come off. Three years ago, 230 inmates took over the yard at a South Dakota prison: Two guards were hospitalized, fires were set and windows broken, as inmates demanded greater religious freedom and better health care. And at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, 400 inmates took eight guards hostage in 1993--one was killed, as were nine prisoners--while demanding the dismissal of the warden, better jobs for black inmates, and contact with the media. Inmates at five federal penitentiaries rioted last year to protest Congress's refusal to repeal laws that sentence crack offenders much more harshly than powder cocaine users.

Minnesota has seen its share of rebellion over the last few years as well, though generally of a more low-key variety: Hundreds of Stillwater Prison inmates boycotted the dining hall in 1993 after officials implemented an extremely restrictive movement policy that limited time outside cells. Last year, when St. Cloud Prison administrators announced that they were going to transform a recreation hall into a dormitory to lessen overcrowding, 62 inmates barricaded themselves into the room, smashing security cameras and blocking entrances with pool tables and vending machines. Guards stormed the room and subdued the inmates with mace.

It bears noting that by the standards of maximum- and "super-maximum" security prisons nationwide, the policies at Oak Park Heights and other Minnesota prisons are still relatively liberal. The entire federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, for example, has been on perpetual lockdown since a riot in 1983. A state prison in Oregon punishes inmates by stripping them of all clothing and personal possessions; they earn the items back piece-by-piece with good behavior. The striking thing about corrections policy today is that there are hardly any practical checks on the lengths to which officials can go. And there is less and less pretense to any rehabilitative function of prisons. The whole point, it seems, is to simply warehouse people out of public view for as long as possible.

"We're locking up more people for longer periods and taking away the things that made life bearable in prison," says Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU's National Prisons Project. "We're taking away any reason to behave in prison. It starts in Alabama with the return of chain gangs and goes on from there. In Mississippi they are putting prisoners in stripes. They are taking away recreational facilities and weight training, and cutting down visits. In Maryland, you are no longer allowed out to visit a terminally ill relative. There is no logical justification. They're doing things just to make prisoners unhappy so they can then go and say to the public, 'This is what we're doing to deter crime: making life harder for prisoners.'"

Corrections staffers have frequently criticized the new philosophy as well, because amenities make the population easier to manage. A recent New York Times article reported that it's not just guards who feel that way: According to a survey from Sam Houston State University in Texas, the majority of 641 wardens questioned reported opposition to the changes they were being forced to make.

At OPH over the last several years, officials have eliminated evening college classes and implemented a $5 per-class charge. (A federal law eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners a year ago.) They've cut back on library hours, and are in the process of implementing a 25-cent per-phone call charge. Starting in July, inmates will have to pay $3.00 for each medical visit.

The fees may not sound like much, but the starting wage for inmate labor is 40 cents an hour, and for most prison workers the pay caps out around $1 an hour. Up to 80 percent of those wages is diverted to court-ordered restitution, victims' support funds, child support, and room-and-board charges. The upshot is that the $3 cost of a medical visit for an average inmate might be roughly equal to a $50 charge for someone making $6 an hour.

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