A gulag of our own

Comparing WSPF with other US control unit prisons: A gulag of our own

By a WI Prisoner

Note: this essay was written in 2005, for the FFUP Newsletter Bridge of Voices. The host of this site will soon cease to exist, that is why we re-publish this here.

The dearth of inmates who actually fit the WSPF criteria of ‘assaultive to staff’, gang leadership, and ‘escape artists’, shows the folly of continuing to maintain a very costly facility in the subsequent era of fiscal deficit. The cost rises when almost all work, kitchen, maintenance, laundry, etc. must be performed by highly paid staff instead of the routine prison practice of having this work done by inmates of the rate of 15 to 30 cents per hour. With the DOC budget approaching One Billion dollars, can the electorate continue to support this ‘white elephant’ tucked in the southwest corner of the state?

One activist, L. F., points out other problems in this abhorrent correctional system, surely an extension of slavery, not withstanding the 13th amendment: a high percentage of inmates are Black or Hispanic (as opposed to their representation in the general population of WI) whereas ALL the correctional officials at Boscobel are white. Visits for most inmates are facilitated only by teleconference, hardly worth the trip from Milwaukee.

The free bus has recently been eliminated. One inmate writes: ‘This is the loudest unit (level3). I’ve been in since arrival. It’s been a few weeks since my level four hearing but I’m still here. NOT promising, I’m afraid. But the reason I’ll be given, if not promoted, will be fun.’ This guy was demoted to 3 for purportedly not turning in a library book in time.

One of the goals of a little grassroots prison reform group, Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP), is the education of the electorate on the abuses inherent in the administrative segregation management style at WSPF. With this in mind, they have conducted a national survey of other ‘Control Type’ supermax facilities, including the federal ADX facility in Colorado. In many ways, the results show that Wisconsin’s Gulag is one of the worst and most punitive of the US states. Let’s take a look at the ‘state of the art’ facility in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. (although no prisoner, including Unabomber Ted Kaszynnski can see the mountains). In contrast to WSPF, the inmates have: network , cable, and educational TV, whereas WSPF has 3 channels for religions and educational use. MSNBC has been eliminated. Meals in Colorado include hot breakfast. coffee, tea and fresh fruit. The Federal judge (Crabb) in WSPF lawsuit declined to prohibit ‘nutraloaf’-use in WSPF, an amalgamation of leftovers used to punish recalcitrant inmates. ADX has a shower stall in each cell that can be used anytime, whereas WSPF has limited use to three short periods per week even though the stalls are in the cells. In ADX the inmates can possess a multitude of property: books , shoes, pictures. sweat clothes; caps and gloves; whereas WSPF has few such allowable items. Recreation at ADX is offered 6 times per week with as many as 12 fellow prisoners. Although there is ‘recreation’ at WSPF, it means going to another very small cell, with no equipment, no water or toilet, and a ‘window’ in the ceiling that lets in only light (update: as per WSPF lawsuit. there have been installed outside cages for recreation).

An inmate writer from Red Onion Supermax Facilty in Pound Virginia, complained of use of stun gun devices and this is a situation that has not been repeated at WSPF. He cites the death of a 50 year old man thereafter being shot with a taser devise. In Wisconsin, deaths are not routinely disclosed and families have no details available as to circumstances, although there is a bill in the legislature that would create an independent board to investigate all death. At present, there is no accountability to families, legislators or citizen-electors.

The respondents from Dade County Correctional Institution in Florida cite poor medical and psychiatric care. This same problem is endemic at WSPF and cited on the Federal case by Attorney Ed Garvey: ‘It makes absolutely no sense to have a mentally ill inmate entombed in a cell.’ Those on psychotropic medications are increasingly sensitive to heat: the temperature at WSPF routinely exceeds 90 degrees F in summer. Until AC is installed (if ever), the DOC is instructed to pass out cups of ice but the once a day routine is teasingly inadequate.As a result of the Garvey lawsuit against SPF, there has been an air conditioning unit installed and an outdoor recreation unit built, and some of the mentally ill inmates have been removed, although the definition of mentally ill remains very limited.

Michigan has a ‘supermax’ behavior modification control unit complex located in Munising, a rural location and the respondent cites the same ‘stale, dusty, recycled air’ problem as we have at WSPF These sealed environments are invariably cold in winter and hot in summer. He states a ‘central air system’ is activated in summer. Michigan has a second high risk security prison in IONIA (L6). The respondent cites lack of accountability of staff (falsifying ‘refusals’, etc.), adverse cell conditions, lack of access to Rec. and Law Library, and withholding of food as punishment, all complaints heard at WSPF. In contrast, they have desks in their cells and access to private TV at some levels and the Michigan co-pay is 3 dollars, compared to 7.50 copay at WSPF.

One of the most notorious secure housing units (SHU) is the Pelican Bay SHU facility on the rural north coast of CA. The respondent decries lack of human contact, necessity to ‘snitch’ to get removed from most restrictions, no sunlight but , as opposed to WSPF- no camera in cell. (at WSPF some cells have cameras, not all- this was a change required by the lawsuit). He cites a small 10 by 20 recreation yard, actually concrete with 20 foot high plastic walls. This is what the inmates at WSPF have to forward to if their outdoor recreation facilities are ever opened to them Another problem at Pelican Bay is difficulty of access to local courts. When a staged fight between two opposing gang-oriented inmates was recorded on videotape and leaked to the press by a disgruntled guard, the subsequent lawsuit fell on deaf ears in the local court. When several of the co-conspirator guards were indicted, the local jury was quick to exonerate as the town’s economy is wholly dependent of the prison payroll.

In Wisconsin, only a few inmate (pro-se) lawsuits have reached the court of appeals level. Most are dismissed at the circuit court level in Dane Co. (DOC Headquarters) or Grant Co., the location of WSPF. Inmate B. Freeman tried to challenge his transfer to WSPF in a suit against Warden Berge but was dismissed on numerous procedural technicalities, dealing with ‘administrative remedies’ and time constraints. Inmate M. challenged the behavior modification and mail policy at WSPF and met with limited success. The prison litigation Reform Act (both Federal and State) precludes easy access to the courts to either challenge conditions of confinement, administrative rules, or even matters related to conviction. Whereas previously an ‘indigent’ inmate litigator could get a waiver of filing fees, that is no longer available (except to out of state prisoners) forcing a petitioner to allocate a years salary (150 dollars) to gain a hearing before a circuit court judge. ‘pay me now or pay me later’ is the mantra. A free citizen would be charged only a days pay.

Thus, the only real way to challenge the oppressive conditions at the various supermax prisons are with the help of watchdog groups such as the ACLU. The recent victory in Federal Dist court of WI in reassessing some procedures at WSPF was assisted by the ACLU. In New Mexico, the ACLU was instrumental in achieving a ‘settlement’ via lawsuit which addressed some of the same abuses seen at WSPF: lack of mental health assessment for inmates, specific screening criteria, and added staff.

The FFUP survey also looks at supermax prisons in TN, DE, VA, KS and MD. One inmate in MD write that, after 22 years, he still feels anger, anxiety, periods of rage, hallucinations, claustrophobia, insomnia, and loss of appetite. He states various rationales for taking inmates to the supermax (MCAC) as ‘those with enemies, assaultive behavior, or too many rule infractions.’ He laments loss of all personal property once admitted to MCAC. The same is true at WSPF where most inmate property gets sent out or destroyed upon reception. Upon release (to max), one has to start all over in acquisition of allowable personal property.

Many of the conditions at the nation’s supermaxes are summarized by the Coalition for Prisoner’s Rights in Sante Fe, NM. They state ‘from the beginning, control units have relied on sensory deprivation. People are confined in tiny cells, the size of a parking space (think: living in your bathroom) for 24 hours a day. Educational or therapeutic programming is nonexistent.’ Although WSPF has a CGIP program, they use the worst of the control unit techniques in strip searches, shackling, and isolating prisoners. The Coalition correctly states: ‘It is largely the most vulnerable prisoners who end up in extended isolation who may well be the least able to withstand its rigors and are most susceptible to complete mental breakdown or suicide.’ This indeed is a terrible legacy established at WSPF under the authority of the people of the state of Wisconsin.

Is this responsible use of taxpayer resources? The Wisconsin Catholic Conference calls this issue one of the ‘common good.’ The simple question is: ‘what did we get in public benefits as a result of expenditure of this money?’ It costs twice as much to house an inmate at WSPF as it does in a regular WI prison- 26 thousand a year to about 56 thousand (2001 figures). Are we safer? Most of these inmates will be returned to society after years of isolation, filled with rage and unmet needs. Would we be better off with a humane system that mandates treatment and retraining?

A disproportionate amount of DOC spending occurs as a result of this misguided attempt to ‘micromanage’ WSPF’s 300-some prisoners. With a mandated 4% cut by the Doyle administration for all state agencies, the DOC has to squeeze its other agencies to maintain WSPF employment levels. Nice work if you can get it, notwithstanding the not uncommon reports of domestic abuse in WI Co. families.

The future of WSPF needs to be reassessed at all levels by citizens and their watchdog groups concerned with realistic stewardship of state budget money and humane treatment of incarcerated individuals.

Other than the removal of the most obviously mentally ill inmates, and the change of status to a maximum level institution, WSPF conditions remain the same as before the lawsuit, thought by many to be among the worst in the nation. With the status change to maximum, inmates can be housed at WSPF with less due process, and the floodgates are open. Most people still call it ‘the supermax’ however, because conditions are like those of a supermax.

Other than to tear the place down, WSPF could be converted to a regular maximum facility with school, recreation and library. Or convert the facility to a training center for DOC recruits, keeping 125 inmates under close supervision, yet let them interact with staff-in –training so each group can establish better understanding of their role in the life of our own little gulag in rural Wisconsin.

In the final analysis, we are forced to admit that we may have the worst punitive facility, supermax or otherwise, in the nation (I’ll look it up) once commented: ‘you can judge the degree of civilization of a society by looking at its prisons.’ We have to do better.

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