Cracking Down

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

In 1994 officials at the prison made deep cuts in the personal property inmates could keep in their cells, ostensibly to make shakedowns more expedient. The number of shirts inmates could keep was cut in half; the number of books just 10. And after an NSP energy audit in early 1995, the prison opted to seal all the windows at OPH, including the long, thin slit openings in inmate cells, which until then had always been the lone source of fresh air.

In September 1995 the prison announced new restrictions in visitation policy. Inmates used to be able to sit next to their wives, girlfriends, mothers, and kids and hold hands or put their arms around them throughout a visit. Mouth-to-mouth kissing was allowed. Citing a couple of drug-smuggling incidents, the administration proclaimed that henceforth, visitors and prisoners would have to sit across from each other with no touching. They would only be allowed a quick peck on the cheek and a quick hug at the beginning and end of the session. If anyone had to go to the bathroom, that was the end of the visit. Regular visitation and the maintenance of family ties is recognized as a proven factor in lowering recidivism rates; since the policy change, visitation at OPH has declined almost 10 percent.

About a week before the strike, the administration decided to cancel HBO and Cinemax in inmate cells--premium channels paid for by prisoners through surcharges levied at the prison canteen--after a female guard complained of the content of some movies. "I wasn't comfortable with sponsoring that kind of viewing in a maximum-security institution," Skon says. "I was afraid that I would have to sit across this desk with another reporter saying, 'You've got a makeup in your population and you are showing violence toward women, and allowing it.'"

Though the strike was all but laughed off by the mainstream press ("Oak Park inmates kiss off work to protest new limits on lovin'," chuckled a Pioneer Press headline), one of the strike's organizers, Crawford Wilson, says cable TV was simply the last straw. "It wasn't the main issue. Visiting was the main issue. It's like I tried to explain to the warden, things should be based on the policy that you earn what you get and get what you earn. If you smuggle, then you suffer the consequences. But don't insinuate that my daughter or pastor are going to smuggle something."

"People are obsessed with a mean-spirited need for punishment," says Cox. "They want people to suffer. Incarceration is suffering. Every day is a carbon copy of the one before. Society seems to want to see the pain. They don't realize what the value of freedom is. I'm going through a routine lockdown process. People on the streets have no idea what that consists of--the humiliation of a strip search. Or of having someone go through your personal items and correspondence and say, 'You're over the limit.' Nobody wants to be in prison that I know of. What are we trying to accomplish by making things worse?"

OPH prisoners had been locked in their cells for a little over a week, bathing in their metal sinks without access to telephones or exercise equipment, when Skon's staff passed out a seven-page response to the inmate demand list and a variety of other issues raised during a round of Unit Representative Group meetings a few days earlier.

The gist of the memorandum, dated March 11, was that nothing was going to change, except that canteen prices would be reduced from a 20 percent markup to an 18 percent markup due to the loss of the cable channels. In response to the overall concern that living conditions had become too restrictive, OPH staffers wrote this: "Many of these changes have occurred in the last few years because of increasing public and legislative attention with regard to the cost of operating Minnesota prisons. An additional factor is the public perception that inmates in Minnesota prisons are treated far too well. It has become increasingly apparent that the public is losing patience with increasing crime and less and less interested in rehabilitation... If DOC officials are to maintain the management and control of the department's institutions, we must demonstrate that we are willing to acknowledge the concerns of the public."

Skon adds this: "Keep in mind that many of the issues they are concerned with--pay, visiting, and I think the premium cable stations was one--this wasn't Oak Park Heights going off on its own to invoke these new policies. A lot of time was spent on every one. From my perspective they have been well thought-out. And I don't make any apologies for these changes. I'm afraid our population is out of touch with how restrictive other states are becoming."

After the memo circulated, Skon's staff conducted another round of one-on-one interviews. "We said, 'What are your issues? Are you ready to go back to work? And if you could be placed in a unit with other people who wanted to return to work, would you then?' The first question was yes or no. If they said no, we asked, '[What] if you could feel a little more protected? Is it just peer group pressure holding you back?' As it turned out, when we got all done with the interviews, we had just 26 inmates who said, 'We are absolutely not ready to go back to work. We are going to hold strong. We are on strike.' That was the basic sentiment of those 26."

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