In our previous report, we visited prisons in three of the 22 new correction districts, headed by elected superintendents with broad powers to reshape the correctional system in their areas to their own design.
Now, after a court judgement, archw.com reporters have been able to visit Gray Mesa Correctional Facility, to which we were previously denied access.
Gray Mesa, and the superintendent responsible for it, Mason Boskovich, have been the focus of controversy that has attracted national and international attention. The facility gets most of its funding from payments by the prisoners themselves, and this has enabled Boskovich to continually lower taxes that fund the correctional system in his district. His ambition is for the prison to one day earn enough money to pay a rebate to residents. It has made Boskovich a popular figure in his area, but divisive beyond it. The regime he has introduced has provoked lawsuits, and even the criminal prosecution of some of his staff. But he remains unrepentant, and maintained his silence to the media, even if he was now forced to allow us to see inside his notorious prison.
Potential inmates are introduced to the regime they may have to live under when they are charged. “It’s Boskovich’s hard sell’, one attorney representing prisoners told me. “Whenever someone gets charged with any criminal offense that potentially carries a prison sentence, they get the book and the DVD, and it is designed to scare the life out of them. And it does a pretty good job of that.” The book and DVD inform the accused of what life would be like in Gray Mesa under the so-called ‘default option.’ “They’re told, if you don’t do anything, this is what life is going to be like for you. And it’s horrible.” But the point of this isn’t to prepare people for inevitable hardship, it’s to give them a big incentive to hand over lots of money. “After scaring them, Boskovich offers them an out, a way to a much less unpleasant life behind bars. At a price, of course.” At the end of the DVD and accompanying book are a bewildering list of possible packages and options available. There’s the ‘basic package’, the ‘bronze’, ‘silver’, ‘gold’ and ‘platinum’, each more expensive than the previous, and offering a less restricted and more comfortable sentence for the prisoner. As well as the packages, prisoners could also buy individual enhancements to improve their living conditions. “It’s all carefully designed to wring as much money out of the prisoners as possible. They make things deliberately awful for them to make them buy their way past some of the worst aspects. The problem is, not everyone can afford to do that, and it also incentivises the prison and its staff to give prisoners as hard a time as possible to get them to pay up even more. It’s a sick system.”
For women charged with an imprisonable offense, to avoid the ‘default option’ on entry into the penal system they have to ‘pre-commit’ to a package and individual options that they select before conviction. This means paying a refundable deposit equivalent to the first month’s payment required for their particular package, which is returned to them if they are not convicted, or avoid a prison sentence. Otherwise, it becomes the first payment, made as soon as they are sentenced to incarceration.
The benefits of spending big on better packages and options becomes apparent to prisoners as soon as they enter the gates of the prison.
Prisoners shuffling through the initial intake desk are diverted into one of six lines, corresponding to each of the packages or options the new inmate could have chosen. Unsurprisingly, the women in the ‘default’, ‘basic’ and ‘bronze’ lines are either wearing cheaper clothing or are already in a jail uniform as they were unable to afford bail. Inmates in the lines for the more expensive options are altogether more elegantly dressed. Many of them are just as distressed as some of the more unfortunate women
in the cheaper lines, as their life had never prepared them for the possibility of the shame and disgrace of a prison sentence. But they will suffer considerably less than the women in the poorer lines, and will probably not see them again for the whole of their sentence.
The disadvantages of the inexpensive options are immediate. Default option women are walked into a room where they are ordered to quickly strip. Surprised or struggling women are not helped with their clothes, but endure the impatient staff forcibly removing their clothes, including by cutting them off if they are feeling particularly nasty. When stripped, the women are herded to the next room, where they have their hands secured in cuffs dangling down from the ceiling. This is less of a problem for the taller women, but one short young woman had to stand on the ball of her foot to avoid the chains tugging too hard on her wrists. They would be left there, naked, cold, some stretched out and in some discomfort after mere minutes, until all other prisoners of the other classes had been dealt with.
The ‘basic option’ women are also stripped naked, though the guards intervene to hurry them up only in cases of deliberate disobedience. Like the ‘default’ women, they are made to wait naked and standing up, together in a room, though they are placed in narrow cages lining the room rather than being restrained by a chain coming from the ceiling. They will be kept in these upright cages for over an hour, while all the other classes of prisoner are dealt with, apart from the default option women.
Women who have chosen the ‘bronze’ option will also have to strip in front of the other females of their prisoner class, but will be permitted to put on some flip-flops after disrobing to avoid having to walk on the cold floor with their bare feet. They are all placed in individual cages containing a metal stool welded to the floor, which they can sit on.
If you don’t like getting naked in front of too many strangers, you had better hope that you can afford the ‘silver’ package. ‘Silver’ prisoners are taken to small individual holding cells where they take off their clothes supervised by a guard, before being locked in. Like the cages for ‘bronze’ inmates, ‘silver’ women are provided with a metal stool to sit on. Guards passing by may look into the holding cell, but the prisoner is at least spared the gazes of her fellow convicts.
However, ‘gold’ package holders do not even have to strip in front of a guard. Assigned to a holding cell, they are permitted to strip themselves unsupervised, and put their clothes and other belongings through a hatch. They are provided with flip flops and a paper gown to put on. Guards can look into the holding cells, but unless there is a good reason to, they will not. The holding cells are equipped with a bed and a toilet.
Like ‘gold’ prisoners, ‘platinum’ prisoners are allowed to undress themselves in privacy. The ‘platinum’ holding cells include an upholstered chair, a toilet and washbasin, and are carpeted. Unlike other prisoners, those who have purchased the ‘platinum’ package are able to go through the rest of the intake process without exposing their nudity to others. Once they have undressed, a door opens to an adjoining room where they can shower for as long as they like, dry themselves and then get dressed. They then go through an airport-style security scanner, which will detect if they are carrying any contraband. If any is detected they may have to undergo a stripsearch or even cavity search. Otherwise, they are taken to their cell.
As the process is usually quite quick for the few ‘platinum’ inmates that may be in a day’s intake, ‘gold’ convicts do not usually have to wait for long in their holding cell before completing their processing into the prison. After being taken from their cell to a nearby carpeted room, they undergo a ‘squat and cough’ and then pass through the security scanner, before being given 15 minutes to shower and dry. They then receive their uniform.
After the guards have finished with the ‘gold’ prisoners, ‘silver’ inmates are individually taken from their cells to a room where their cavities are visually inspected with the aid of a torch, and they are ordered to squat and cough, before passing through the same sort of airport security scans that the ‘gold’ and ‘platinum’ classes went through. They are then allowed to shower and then dry themselves, with 10 minutes permitted for this. Following cleaning themselves they are issued with their uniform and handcuffs.
Once the ‘silver’ package women have completed their intake procedures, ‘bronze’ inmates are taken individually from their cells and into a connecting room, where they receive a full body cavity search, in full view of the guards but not the other inmates. They are then permitted to spend 5 minutes showering and drying themselves, before moving into the room where they will put on their uniform, and have guards apply the chains and other encumbrances they will have to wear throughout their stay in prison.
Basic option women are released from their cages one by one, and receive a full body cavity search in front of the other female inmates in the room. Once this is done, they are taken through to another room, where they will have 60 seconds to quickly shower and dry themselves, before being moved through to an adjoining room to be given their uniform to put on, and where the guards will apply their restraints.
Finally, the default option women were dealt with. By now, the guards were tired, looking forward to a break, and consequently have little patience or sympathy for the prisoners. Not that sympathy would help much given their contractual obligations to treat this lowest class of prisoners most harshly. Individually, the convicts were released from their chains, roughly pushed face down on a table, and then subjected to a quick and necessarily deep, rough and rushed cavity search in her pussy and butt with no consideration for her feelings. As soon as this is complete, she is pulled upright, and moved into the next room, her place at the table taken by another unfortunate woman by the time she exits.
As well as the differences in the intake procedure, there are big differences in the uniform that different classes of inmate are provided with, as well as the (usually metal) accessories that they will be wearing for the duration of their incarceration.
Platinum prisoners are only restrained when outside of their accommodation block, which is rare as most of their needs are catered for within the block. Outside the block they are handcuffed in front. Beyond the prison walls they are handcuffed and shackled with specially padded comfortable restraints. They may receive visitors in a special private visitation room.
Gold prisoners are handcuffed (behind their back) whenever outside of their cell block. They have access to a private visitation room in the cell block, monitored by video. Silver prisoners are handcuffed (in front) whenever out of their cells, handcuffed behind their back and shackled and shackled whenever outside of their cell block, and are able to receive visitors in a room in their cell block, one that is shared with all prisoners in the block.
Bronze prisoners are handcuffed in front and shackled whenever outside of their cells, handcuffed behind their back and shackled and shackled whenever outside of their cell block, and are able to receive visitors in a room in their cell block with a perspex divide separating them from their visitor. This visitation room is shared with all prisoners in the block.
Basic prisoners are handcuffed in front in their cells, outside of their cells on the cell block they wear a waist chain with hands cuffed with a short chain either side of them, and they are shackled. A connector chain between the waist chain and the shackle chain is added whenever prisoners go outside the cell block. Prisoners of this status see visitors in a room outside of their cell block with a perspex divide separating them from their visitor. Once again, no privacy is assured, and the prisoner must communicate through the use of the telephone.
Default status prisoners are handcuffed behind their backs and shackled in their cells, and whenever outside of their cells a short connector chain is added between these restraints, and additionally a transport chain around their waists is added, to which the handcuffs are fastened. Default status prisoners are not permitted visitors.
The cells themselves vary greatly as we see when we visit the three prisoners we have been granted access to. The first is like a medium-market hotel room, but to stay in it costs Melanie McCormick far more. Her father is a multi-millionaire though, and still pays for his little princess, even though she’s 29, and a murderer. Because of her crime, she – or rather her father – gets a discount on the standard platinum package, as she must be handcuffed behind her back whenever outside of her cell, or if she has a civilian inside her cell. Even though she agreed to speak, she’s not happy about being handcuffed in her cell – or “my room”, as she calls it. She makes her feelings known to the guards who accompanied me, and stated that she would be telling her father about what she sees as an appalling insult. Once the guards leave, it is useful to have her cuffed wrists as a reminder that this is a cell, and that she is a prisoner. Nothing else about the conditions would suggest that. The cell is carpeted, with a proper bed and bedding, a television, a laptop computer with limited internet accessibility, shelving, a small wooden table at which she eats and reads and a dresser strewn with jewellery and make-up. There is a separate bathroom with toilet and shower. The window is secure but not barred, and has been decorated with curtains.
Miss McCormick herself is wearing her own clothes, the only item of uniform being the plastic band on her wrist that identifies her as a prisoner. Her hair is luxurious blonde, her skin pale but still glossy, and her nails immaculate. Yet she does not compare her conditions with those suffered by women who were not fortunate enough to have a rich father, but with her life before prison. Pouting and with her cuffed hands attempting to gesticulate, she moaned about the “cramped room,” and guards “ignoring her” when she makes constant demands of them. “What do I pay them for?” she wonders, and also ridicules the “totally unnecessary” restraints imposed on her when she leaves the cell. It’s understandable that she wouldn’t be happy. She’s still in prison, and will be for at least the next 23 years, until she is eligible for parole for stabbing her boyfriend to death during an argument. But she doesn’t recognize the part she played in getting herself in this situation. She expected sympathy from me, and from readers, at her plight. Instead, I wished that her father realized that it might do her good to stop paying for the platinum package, to suffer more unpleasant conditions, and to confront the terrible thing she has done and try to make amends.
The other two prisoners I encountered were remorseful for their crimes, even though they were comparatively minor, and were being punished for them disproportionately because of their lack of wealth. Jenny Sanders is a 35-year old former high school teacher who is serving four years for her part in a corrupt scheme to cheat standardized tests. Her husband does the best he can to earn as much money as possible to buy Jenny out of the worst aspects of prison life, but even working two jobs he can only do so much. She is a basic package prisoner but has bought additional items. For example, basic package prisoners typically undergo at least one cell search and at least one cavity search a week. She has been able to pay to reduce this to one strip search a week, one cell search a month and one cavity search every three months. “It’s still awful,” she told me, “but less awful at least.” When I asked why she had paid to reduce cell searches, she told me, “I was glad we got advice about this before I came in. The guards here are looking for any opportunity to spot rule breaches, which leads to punishment. There’s a bonus scheme which means the more rule breaches they cite, the more they get paid. The prison does that because they can then sell the right to avoid certain punishments. It’s totally corrupt.” Previously, the prison did not even justify handing out punishments in terms of rule breaches, but a legal challenge to this went all the way to the state supreme court. The court ruled that punishments must only be awarded for disciplinary infractions. The prison kept the right to determine how proportionate and appropriate the punishments are, and to sell the right to avoid them, except where this clashed with ‘necessary security measures.’
“The court ruling was a joke,” Jenny told me, “because the incentive is still there.” The former teacher was friendly and frank, but was clearly regretful at what she had done. “It was wrong. We thought we were doing it for the kids, to help them through, and it was probably because we were worried about our jobs too. Well look at us now!” she exclaimed using her cuffed hands to gesture to the small gray cell that she now lives in. She’s still a dignified woman, despite her disgrace, which makes the surroundings she finds herself in, the paper uniform she wears, and her handcuffed hands all the more striking. She has not paid out for luxuries, but ways to make the experience at least bearable. She had bought the right to avoid certain punishments like being gagged, or her breasts flogged, for instance. “My husband said ‘of course’ to the second one, but the gag, he thought that was maybe a good idea. Shut me up, maybe I’ll get out sooner!” she joked. “I had to lose the underwear to pay for that though.”
All decisions made by Boskovich seem to be with the calculations of profit in mind. That sometimes benefits the prisoner. One guard told me that at the moment the prison managers are working out whether to introduce chastity belts and charge for their removal or include removal in the more expensive packages. The superintendent is confident that he can secure a deal to buy a large quantity at a low enough unit price, but is concerned that the time that will be taken by guards removing them to allow inmates before putting them back on may require more staff. Senior guards have likely persuade him that given the strict controls over masturbation, which work well, all the chastity belt would offer is some inconvenience and discomfort. “And we give the inmates plenty of that,” said one guard to me off the record.
That much was evident with the third prisoner I met, Abbie Landon. A 19-year old student, she was found to have a small amount of alcohol in her blood when her vehicle was stopped by police. She received an eight month sentence due to the stricter DUI laws for drivers under 21: “I had been to a party the night before…I didn’t think. I made a big mistake.” She doesn’t have any money, and neither do her parents, so she must suffer the default option. When we enter the cell, she is completely naked except for some paper wrap-arounds on her feet. Her legs are shackled together with no more than a foot of chain, which itself is connected to a chain wrapped tightly around her waist. There is a short chain leading from this waist restraint to a pair of handcuffs on her slender wrists. She cannot greet me, as inside her mouth is a large gag, secured in place with straps which run around the back of her head, trapping her bob of auburn hair. The cell itself is completely bare, making Jenny Sanders’ spartan conditions look cosy by comparison. There is only a small raised block of concrete, which Abbie is expected to sleep on with no covers at all, and a small concrete toilet barely off the ground. The only items that look out of place are the books by the concrete bed.
The guard goes over to Abbie, and unfastens the straps holding the gag in place, which is then pulled out. The straps remain around her neck, as a reminder that the relief etched on Abbie’s face as the large three inch long intrusion is removed will be only temporary. “Hi,” Abbie directs towards me, betraying in the strained way that she spoke that she had barely spoken for the seven weeks she had been incarcerated so far. She took the opportunity of a mouth free of obstructions to exercise muscles that had lain dormant or contorted for so long. “Sorry, it only comes out twice a day to have a drink and eat,” she told me, still sounding like she had just been to the dentists for a procedure. She also apologised for her nude appearance, by once again saying “sorry” while showing that her cuffed hands were unable to reach her breasts to cover them up, and nearly able to obscure her – still visible – vagina. She is evidently keen to demonstrate that she would present herself more respectably if she were able. Clearly deeply ashamed at seeing a visitor in this condition, she made a point of indicating the books by her ‘bed’ – “I can’t afford much, as you can see, but I wanted to keep up my studies. My parents helped, and we paid to make sure I was cuffed in front and to be allowed books. I can go back to college after I’ve served my sentence. I wish I could afford anything else, you saw the gag I have to wear, but it’s worse than just that, well, you know.”
She didn’t want to say it herself, but knew that I would have researched what a default option prisoner like her faces. Daily cavity searches, food that is little more than mulch, no contact with the outside world, appalling treatment from the guards, and regular punishments of breast flogging for minor (or even imaginary) rule breaches. On top of all this, being unable to pay for the right to be considered, Abbie will not secure early release and will therefore spend every day of her eight month sentence in these conditions. “It’s hard, really hard, but I’ve just got to get through it.” The guard restricted our time to five minutes, and was soon placing the gag back in Abbie’s mouth, to her obvious distress and shame. But I came away reassured that she is a strong young woman who can get through the torments she is undergoing. Her future, unlike Miss McCormick’s, can still be very bright indeed.
Many people are asking whether it is fair that Miss McCormick should be kept in much better conditions than Miss Landon, given the respective crimes they are being incarcerated for. With the prison becoming less and less a financial burden to the state, however, the system instituted by superintendent Boskovich will likely remain in place for many years to come. If you’re a woman in his jurisdiction, be advised to not even jaywalk or park illegally. You might end up like poor Abbie Landon or Jenny Sanders, or pay a heavy cost for avoiding the conditions that they are currently experiencing.