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.”
Another never finished production was an R-rated version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet fresh from their appearance in Titanic. The advertising campaign was all laid out: “The Titanic stars of the screen now appearing in a Titanic tale of terror by the Titan of Terror himself.” Unfortunately, an earthquake destroyed the sets and the production company could not raise enough to rebuild them and the film was never completed. Winslet acquired the only footage of the scene pictured here and destroyed it, feeling that her writhing was more erotic than horrifying.
Campaigners today presented a petition to the Governor complaining about a “perverse” and “inconsistent” approach to incarcerating offenders across the state. They are seeking to reverse changes which has created 22 correctional districts headed by an elected superintendent, which has led to dramatic divergences between the policies of different correctional facilities. “It’s ridiculous,” claimed one protestor at the State Capitol, “you have prisons in one district where the inmates are sat in the cells all day, they get fed this shit and just end up getting really fat. The district next to it, the superintendent is a health and fitness fanatic, he has any prisoner who is overweight doing non-stop exercise and basically starves them.” “There’s no consistent approach,” argued another campaigner, “how is the state supposed to have a unified approach to justice and corrections, when there’s 22 figures who are all seeking votes, and all have these different – crazy – ideas about how things should be run. It doesn’t make any sense.”
When we spoke to a spokesman from the Governor’s office, he defended the new system, praising the “innovation and experimentation it has brought to our corrections system.” He argued that “within a few years we will have data on what works and what doesn’t, but also it’s about the people of this state who work hard, pay the taxes that fund these prisons, they should have a say in where their taxes are going.”
Soon, citizens will have a more direct say in where their taxes go, as the funding for correctional facilities is transferred to each of the districts, and will be under the control of the elected superintendents. “From now on, the tax dollars funding correctional facilities will be raised in each district, and spent in that district. So, you may get one superintendent who gets elected promising to cut taxes, and fund the facilities less, and others raising taxes to increase spending, maybe with the promise that this will reduce crime levels. It will be up to voters.” Many of the superintendents are already preparing for the time when they have direct control over how they raise their budgets, and redesigning their prisons to suit their visions. Archw.com reporters visited two women’s prisons to see some of the different approaches for ourselves.
No sooner had Marie shut her eyes than she was woken up, by a guard loudly declaring that it was “time to get up,” in a tone both authoritative and routine. She had been asleep for hours, but it didn’t feel like that to her; it had been too short, and too uncomfortable for her to really feel that it had been a proper night’s sleep. She groggily lifted her head and then tried to lift her body. Her tiredness, and the restraints she was in, prevented her from doing this. After trying a few more times she realized that she needed to get leverage by swivelling round and putting her feet on the cell floor, so she did this, and at the second attempt had hauled her upper body upright. She dreaded to think what she looked like. She felt exhausted, and knew her hair was a mess. But with her hands cuffed behind her back, there was not much she could do about it. Having got herself upright, it took two tries to get off the bed.
She asked the guard if she could pee before being put back in the pod, and received an abrupt response: “Quickly. If you’re not done in two minutes, I’ll take you out of there. If you’re still pissing, I’ll put you on a disciplinary.” While pleased at being able to relieve herself before going back in the pod, she panicked at having to pee against the clock, with the guard watching, and seemingly so hostile. “I guess you’re not a morning person,” she thought to herself. Marie was able to finish on the toilet before the guard came to yank her out, but she was unable to properly wipe herself. For the first time, she was grateful that her pubic hair had been shaved, even if the area still smarted when touched by the sharp pangs of urine. She walked to the front of the cell, and the door was opened by the rude guard, who grabbed her arm, marched her to the pod, opened the door, and motioned her inside. As she stepped in, she mouthed “Hi” to the red-head in the neighboring pod, and she replied by waving to Marie with one of her cuffed hands.
As he presents his ID badge at the secure entrance, Matthew Wilkerson looks just like a junior executive starting his workday at a corporate office. But he is actually one of the new breed of judges specifically trained to work within the new judicial system instigated by the conservative President and Congress that came to power in 2020. The 32-year old is told by older judges that even though he might not have the same pay or scope for decision-making as the traditional judges (who are being phased out as they retire), but the other aspects of the job are much more pleasant.
As he enters the building each day, he enters a well-designed modern building with all the latest technological advancements to help his work. “And because a judge got murdered when the new criminal justice laws were being passed, in the courtroom itself we are behind one-way mirrors – we can see the rest of the court, but they can’t see us.” That, combined with voice alteration technology, which transforms a judge’s voice in his office behind the screen into a neutral undistinguishable voice in the courtroom, ensures that no-one in the court knows exactly who the judge is. “As well as making it safer for judges, it means that experienced attorneys who know the quirks of individual judges don’t get an unfair advantage.”
The new model of criminal justice also has other advantages. “In the past, judges usually had to deal with people who were constantly in trouble, people who didn’t really care too much what a judge said. But now, I have plenty of defendants in front of me who are normal people, who are very concerned by the trouble they are in. So there is much more chance that the words we say to them, and the sentence we pass, can really make a difference and make sure they don’t break the law in future.” The reason for the change in the composition of the defendants is because of the new zero tolerance approach to criminal justice. Wilkerson explains that “Violent crime was in historic decline, but I think a lot of people were still not happy. According to the crime statistics, people were safer than ever, but they didn’t feel that way. That’s why a zero tolerance crime platform did so well in 2020, I think, and that’s why we now have a very different, a much stricter, attitude towards what used to be thought of as anti-social behavior or misdemeanours.”
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