Story – Incarceration Experiment

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. reporters visited two women’s prisons to see some of the different approaches for ourselves.

Our first visit was to Sienna Valley Women’s Correctional Facility, which is under the control of former congresswoman Libby Harkes, a veteran liberal politician. “I lost my seat in congress several years ago, and then just did a lot of advocacy work, charity fundraising, that sort of thing. I hadn’t considered standing for office again, it’s tough and losing sure hurts,” she said with a giggle. “But when these superintendent positions were created I thought, “great, here’s a chance to put some of my advocacy into practise, let’s go for it.” She stood, and in a liberal part of the state, won easily. “It’s not easy, let me tell you. It’s one thing being one congresswomen, pushing the causes that I care about, and other people shooting you down, but when you have to shoot down your own ideas, because they’re tougher to do than talk about, well, that isn’t something you like doing.”

(another great Women in Prison text by Luke Matthews:  Audited)

When asked what she had compromised on so far, she replied, “well, it seems like I’ve compromised on a lot. When I took over, prisoners were spending 23 hours a day in their cells, usually on their own. And this isn’t murderers or rapists, these are thieves, DUIs, people caught with small amounts of drugs. I was looking around this prison, and I saw this young woman coming down the corridor. There she is, blonde hair in a ponytail, porcelain skin, blue eyes, full jumpsuit, black and white stripes, the whole lot, she has a chain around her waist, her hands are cuffed tight to that, no movement there at all. She’s got leg irons on, no more than 10 inches of chain between ankles, leg irons attached to the waist chain with another chain that looked way too short. Real tough stuff, it was painful watching her trying to walk, trying to keep up the pace that the two guards flanking her were trying to get her to move at. I thought, gee, what the hell has she done? She looks like my granddaughter, not much older, so sweet, what can she have done, you know? I was curious, so I asked the warden who was showing me around. You know what she said? ‘Emma Robinson, 19 years old, possession of marijuana. They found dope in her college dorm, she’s spending six months in our facility, and they had her like that whenever she was taken outside of her cell block. She was just getting a visit from her parents. It was crazy. Even crazier, after they took her back to her cell, they unchained her, and then subjected her to a cavity search. Completely humiliating for the poor girl, and what did they expect to find? She had been trussed up like Hannibal Lector, and there was an inch of perspex between her and her parents. We were treating low level offenders like serious criminals. How were they supposed to not get damaged by that, and end up committing new crimes when they’re released. So, here’s the compromise. I have to deal with the guards’ union. That’s fine, I’m pro-labor, see my voting record. I want lower level, non-violent offenders out of their cells more, I don’t want them put in restraints when they’re out of their cell, I don’t want pointless cavity searches, and I want there to be education and training programs, counselling, that sort of thing. So I announce all this, but the union isn’t having it. If there are too many prisoners out of their cells, if they are all in one space getting education programs or whatever, it’s a security risk, the guards aren’t safe, can’t control things. OK. And the cavity searches? ‘They always find a way to get stuff in otherwise. And inmates on drugs is a safety issue.’ That’s what I got from them. On top of that, I have resource issues. I can’t raise taxes just yet. Education and training programs, well we know they cut re-offending, but they cost money. Can’t fire guards to fund that, I need to keep them onside, I need good staffing levels to get prisoners out of their cells. So what do I do?”

The result of the clash between Superintendent Harkes’ attempts to reform the prisons in her jurisdiction, and the demands of the union, can be seen in a day in the life of a minor offender, 28-year old Kelly Walker. She’s serving 15 months for breaching a court order by not allowing her ex-husband to see their son. “When I got here it was awful. I was away from my son, away from home, and couldn’t go anywhere, do anything. They searched me when I entered prison, really intimately, then they searched me there pretty much every day. But I couldn’t touch myself there, you know, they wouldn’t let us relieve ourselves. So I had strangers invading me, and touching me in places they wouldn’t even let me touch myself. It was horrible. I was stuck in a cell pretty much all day, and whenever I was let out they had me all chained up. ‘Exercise time’ they called it, but I could barely move my arms or legs, I was just able to shuffle about before they took me back to the cell. But it’s different now, not great, but better.” How so? “I’m out of my cell much more, probably 4 or 5 hours a day. And now they just cuff us behind our backs when we’re outside the cell, no leg chains, waist chain. I am taking classes, and when we’re in the classroom, they just cuff my left hand to the desk, so my right hand is free. As I’m a low security level, I don’t get cavity searches very often, just strip searches, which I’m kind of used to by now,” the inmate said with a slight smile on her face, before brushing her long brown hair to one side with her free hand. “And the superintendent, well she lifted the ban on, you know what. It can get so frustrating in here, it really does help to get some…relief, ha!” Superintendent Harkes is pleased that prison life is now less unnecessarily horrible for Kelly, and more productive. “Prison isn’t meant to be nice, and Kelly’s still having a hard time of it. She did something wrong, she’s paying for it. But there’s no point in treating her like an animal, and every point in using her time here to make her a better person. I didn’t get to change everything I wanted, but I’ve moved things in the right direction I think.”

A superintendent who has achieved more of his aims is Walden Ryder, who was elected on a platform of efficiency and cutting costs. “Every day I think of new ways to save money. When the time comes, I will be able to cut taxes, so the law-abiding citizens of this district will pay much less to house those who have broken the law.” An austere man, the prisons he runs have already taken on an austere appearance and atmosphere.

We visited Pebble Ridge Penitentiary, another women’s prison, and wondered what it would be like in contrast to Sierra Valley. Very different. “The inmates don’t leave their cells unless they really have to,” Ryder explained, “and that means we need less guards. Less guards means less expense. We feed them with the lowest cost mulch we can get away with that still keeps them going. The food is delivered twice a day in a chute which leads to a hollow which is the inmate’s plate. They eat with their hands. They shower in the cell – it’s turned on for 3 minutes twice a week, and dry off in the cell – there’s a fan that works for 3 minutes after the water shuts off. There is no uniform. They are given a paper gown if they have visitors, but they are only allowed one every two months. They are kept permanently in handcuffs and leg shackles. It saves time for the remaining guards. The light in the cell is on for 2 hours a day, and there is a small slit in the wall through which they can view the outside. They have no mattress or sheet on the bed. They are allowed books in the cell, but they gotta pay for them. There’s a toilet, but no toilet paper. There’s a sink for them to wash their hands and their butts, and drink from. That’s about it. It’s getting hard to make more savings. Hard, but I reckon we’ll keep finding stuff.”

If Sierra Valley was a hard place to be happy, but a place that someone like Kelly Walker can avoid being completely miserable in, Pebble Ridge seems almost designed to maximise the despair of its inmates. But it isn’t at all, claims Ryder, “I’m not here to make them happy, but I’m not here to make them sad either. Just so happens that what I’m doing doesn’t make them too happy.” Ryder allowed us to visit and interview two prisoners, but only on the condition that we pay for the extra guard pay this would mean. We agreed, and got to meet 31-year old Laura McDonagh and 27-year old Kathy Randall.

As we approached Miss McDonagh’s cell door, the guard barked at her to “get up and face the far wall.” As we could see when we looked into the cell, she did this as quickly as she could. The heavy door was opened, and I was allowed in. The guard told me that I had two minutes, and then closed the door behind me. Having been told that inmates were given gowns when they received visitors, I was shocked at the prisoner’s nudity. “Please turn around,” I requested to her after the guard had done. She turned round, deliberately trying to cover her bare breasts with her arms and her pubis with her cuffed hands. I decided not to offer to shake her hand and cause her to lose the only modesty she possessed.

She was serving a 6 year sentence for fraudulent medical claims, when investigators targeted her business of lifestyle advice and nutritional supplements.Still bitter at her conviction nine months after entering Pebble Ridge, after we exchanged our introductions Miss McDonagh immediately launched into a polemic. “They put me here, put me in this state, the American Medical Association,” she claimed. “They make millions off sick people that their medicines make even sicker. I challenged that, they saw me as a threat, and they got the FDA and the DoJ onto me. I’m positive they made sure I was sent here, to this hellhole, to set an example as well,” she stated, gesturing at herself and her cell as much as her hands allowed her while they were covering up her most private parts. She contended now, as at her trial, that none of her claims were fraudulent, or at least no more damaging than the treatments of medical doctors.

Miss McDonagh soon moved quickly onto complaints about the conditions in which she was incarcerated. “Look at me,” she invited. “I’m kept shackled like a wild animal all the time. I’m kept naked all the time, even now when you’re here.” When I asked her why she had not been given a gown for the visit, she replied, “because they’re cheap sadists. They give me one once every two months for an official visitation. That’s it. No more frequent than that. And even that is worse than useless. It’s just awful here. Part of it is the obsession with saving money, but I think they enjoy making us suffer as well. Why else would they keep up chained up all the time?”

Miss McDonagh looked very different from the photographs on her website and from her trial. In court, she was lithe and elegant with beautiful tanned skin. Now she is overweight, spotty and pale. She notices me observing her body, and addresses the issue. “You see what I look like, you can’t help it. I look disgusting, I feel disgusting. That stuff they give us to eat, it’s not food. What a sick joke, they send someone to a place like this with that for food, for giving out advice about good nutrition! I have no control over what I eat. I can’t even exercise because of these chains, whenever I tried – I’ve given up now – the chains just jerked my ankle, right on the bone. The bruises didn’t heal for weeks. I’ve gained weight and I eat crap, so even though it’s so cold in here, I just sweat all the time. Cold sweats. Makes me feel even more like trash.”

She is appealing her sentence but doesn’t hold out much hope. “The judges in this State, they’re corrupt. They get their re-election funds from exactly the companies I was campaigning against. They’re never going to let me out early. If I survive this six years, it’s going to take me over a decade to get back to full fitness and health, I just know it. If you can spread the word about the conditions in places like this, maybe something might change. I don’t know though. I’ve kind of given up. I don’t live anymore, I just exist.”

With that defeated declaration, the guard raps on the door, announcing his arrival. With a resigned sigh, Laura moves to face the far wall. I wish her all the best, and leave the cell with an impatient and irritated guard standing by it.

He then took me to Kathy Randall’s cell, but didn’t shout at her from outside it as he did previously. “You’re not going in this time,” he said, “just looking. I heard the last interview. You’re going to listen to the words of a criminal?” Clearly hostile to me, I did not attempt to argue the point. I calmly told him that the superintendent had given me permission to see two women. He still denied me. “Not this time. You can look though.” Realizing that argument was pointless, I decided to just look. Kathy Randall was serving 2 years for stealing supplies from the office she worked in. She was lying down, naked and chained as Laura had been, with her back facing me. Already chubby in her intake photographs, she had grown even fatter. Her restraints had not been adjusted to account for this, and they now tightly bound her ankles, and presumably also her wrists. The redness around her chained ankles indicated the discomfort she must feel.” Feeling guilty about spying on the inmate without her knowledge, I step back, and the guard takes this as a signal. He tells me “OK, time to go,” and within five minutes I was outside the prison.

In a nearby coffee shop, I reflected on what I had seen. In one prison, the superintendent had done everything she could to improve the conditions of inmates. In another, the superintendent gleefully made their lives miserable to save money and satisfy his lust for punishment. There had always been differences in the prison system, with some correctional facilities more enlightened than others, but did this new system encourage extremes? If it does, is this a bad thing? Laura McDonagh and Kathy Randall are not having a good time, and the guard at Pebble Ridge didn’t like the idea of me reporting what I saw and heard. But maybe hearing those stories might just encourage a woman thinking of committing a crime from stepping back. We can’t know for sure whether that is the case, and we can’t know what the results of this grand experiment in incarceration will be either.

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