Cracking Down

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.

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.

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."

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."

"A law is a law," says Skon, "and hopefully the inmate population will understand that this is coming from our legislative bodies, that this is not something that we're creating. I believe that our commissioner and deputy commissioner are down there fighting for the level of programming that we offer inmates on a daily basis at the Legislature. We're a protection to the inmate population from the public. We are the buffer. If the public had their way, with current sentiment on punishment, they would say, 'Reduce all this programming. Reduce your budget at the same time. And increase cell time.'"

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