Cracking Down

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

Many maximum-security prisons in other states operate in lockdown status all the time, only allowing inmates out of their cells for one hour a day--a fact that Skon is quick to point out. Oak Park Heights had only one segregation unit, with a maximum capacity of 52, until 1994. But two years ago, the prison's first permanent Special Housing Unit (or SHU)--where inmates are only allowed out of their cells for around three hours a day--was established. The purpose, officials said, was to house overflow prisoners from the segregation unit and to separate the lazy from the more hardworking general population. Skon has taken the strike as an opportunity to set up the prison's second SHU. That means that three of the prison's eight complexes are now effectively on permanent lockdown.

"I felt that I was left with little choice at that point in time," says Skon. "I have 26 inmates who are refusing to work. They are going to be an extremely negative influence on the population." The plan to separate the "negative" influences and leaders from the others amounted to what inmate Russell Hurd calls a divide and conquer strategy. "When they took certain people out of certain blocks," he says, "other inmates decided they didn't like being on lockdown anymore, so they would go back to work." Skon expects that by later this week, the prison shops will be operating at full strength again.

Though some inmates fully expected that the penalties of their actions could be severe, others were a little taken aback by the administration's staunch response. Hurd says the plan, as far as he could tell, was to take a day or two off to make a point and then return to work. As for the threats of violence against staff, he says he hadn't heard anything about that. "We wanted it to be peaceful," says Hurd. "We wanted it to be communicative without jeopardizing anybody's job. But the administration retaliated severely."

Hurd and other inmates wonder if Skon and the DOC aren't using the strike as an excuse to make OPH a more repressive facility. Such a stick could come in handy as inmate populations continue to grow in Minnesota and prisoners become more and more edgy. "Eventually this will be a total lockdown prison anyway," says Hurd. "The handwriting is on the wall. That's why they keep taking and taking and taking. They are going to ease this prison into lockdown after they get the new one built [at Rush City]. The people with good behavior will be sent to the new prison. I personally, think they are taking the route where they keep on taking so they can get a major reaction. Then they can say to the media, 'See? We told you they're nothing but a bunch of animals.'"

According to Cox, who used to edit the prison newspaper, "When I first came here, they had six complexes that were general population. Now it's down to four. Are they going toward a full lockdown? A lot of people look at that. They are planning to build another prison. What is the future of Oak Park Heights? Is it going to be like Marion [Federal Penitentiary in Illinois] was, where one or two units are for general population and the rest is for lockdown? It appears that that might be the direction they are going. [Oak Park Heights] is going to be the stick they can hold over your head if you're in some other prison."

Skon denies that he's moving toward a full-time lockdown facility. "I hope and pray that we never go any more rigid than we are right now. On the other hand, given my role managing the maximum-security institution, we have to have the strongest programming and probably the strongest control measures in order to provide the backbone to the Minnesota system. At any point if there is a problem at any institution, I am expected to take as many transfers as those institutions feel they need to effect in order to maintain control. Oak Park Heights doesn't have another institution to send their inmates to."

The Minnesota Legislature recently passed a proposal as part of the Omnibus crime bill that would add strain to an already tense situation by eliminating smoking in all correctional institutions and narrowing inmate access to college courses. Sid Helseth, corrections liaison for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees' Council 6, doesn't have much to say about the policies of the past. But when it comes to banning smoking, he sees problems dead ahead. "This is not a public place. If they want to smoke, let them smoke. We do have inmates in this system that are not of the norm mentally. As long as they have cigarettes and coffee, they are happy. Otherwise they are unruly."

Hurd says the day they take cigarettes isn't going to be a pretty one at OPH. "They just keep on taking everything. Taking and taking and taking and taking. It's going to get worse. They are going to take smoking. I don't want to be in their shoes. Something more than a sitdown will happen."

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