Through The Looking Glass: A view inside Wisconsin’s Supermax

This essay was written and published on the Forum For Understanding Prisons (FFUP) website in 2006, and because the host will cease to exist, we re-publish it here.

By N. and M., prisoners in WSPF, Boscobel, Wisconsin

Given the crazed and hallucinatory results of confinement in WSPF’s (i.e Wisconsin Secure Program Facility) belly, my reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in this title appropriate-although it has somewhat improved all too often we’ve observed inmates who’ve buckled under the immense psychological pressure and become: Raving Lunatics who lash out in any way (usually verbally, seldom physically) at anyone and anything (TV, themselves, staff, family, other inmates); paranoid recluses, delusional recluses, perverted exhibitionists, or suicidal.

This madness I’ve experienced myself (i.e. the paranoid and delusional brand, it’s the basic product of WSPF, apparently. I am not a psychologist. I can only analyze what I see and feel), caused by the sensory deprivation, lack of sunlight, separation from loved ones, severe social-segregation and (last but not least) mind/physical games and abuse by staff (e.g. slamming our traps and bolts and our doors, lying about us to keep us here, constantly creating new restrictions, tearing our cells apart and using pat and strip searches to harass us, putting us on ground food loaf and no clothing restrictions, giving our mail to other inmates, disciplining us for expressing our views in the mail, giving us dirt clothes, feeding us junk food and kiddie portions, letting other inmates harass us by yelling or banging on walls/doors constantly. Beating us.. You name it)- WSPF is surreal in a Steven King sorta way (well, maybe more in a Dean Koontz INTENSITY sorta way!) and its not something that can be blamed on the inmates, for we didn’t create it.

For those of you who are internet-savvy, we suggest that you go to: www.uscourts.gov to review some of the cases concerning WSPF (WSPF was formerly called SMI- Supermax Correctional Institution, the former warden was Gerald Berge, now it’s Richard Schneiter) – you’ll find some that are ridiculous (e.g. by one inmate who likes to play with his genitals for every female staff member to see) – and some that are appalling (e.g. by an inmate who got his wrist broken by Sgt R. T. for refusing to kneel to be to be shackled, even though the inmate couldn’t kneel because of a knee injury and he was permitted to forgo kneeling (note: WSPF is the only WI prison the requires all inmates to kneel and be shackled, regardless of their potential for violence). But the glorious 7th Circuit blew them off, sometimes by ignoring critical facts, other times by just refusing to apply the law- we know how it goes, because they’ve done it to me, Nate Lindell, personally.

But it’s not just the courts who don’t give a damn (sure, they occasionally pretend to care, appointing a friend of the judge to pose for the cameras while blatantly selling us out-a la Ed Garvey, where 90% of us class members wanted a trial but Judge Crabb and the 7th court forced a settlement on us) its the public that doesn’t care AT ALL about what’s going on at WSPF. Maybe the public doesn’t know what’s going on (wasn’t that the excuse of the populace surrounding the WWII concentration camps) of maybe they choose not to care because they think we’re all “the worst of the worst” as former Governor Tommy Thompson asserted. Maybe the populace surrounding WSPF doesn’t care because they think torture of us prisoners is…appropriate.

Whatever the reason for the ambivalence towards WSPF by the populace, its wrong. We’re not all “the worst of the worst” – few of us are unrepentantly evil. Although I’m (N.) a lifer, in prison because I killed someone while committing a burglary, I refuse to pursue a life of deviance, dishonorable behavior and self degradation- I did something foolish that can’t be fixed and hurt good people but that doesn’t mean I must continuously engage in criminal or evil behavior. I am more than a murderer- but WSPF does all it can to ensure we are criminal and nothing more.

As for my co-author (M.), “I am in here for burglarizing a house while people were away on vacation. I know that I did wrong but I did not hurt anyone, not would I have. I have spent most of my incarceration trying my utmost to educate myself and rehabilitate myself, despite the best efforts of WSPF to prevent that. I am a non-violent offender and will be getting out in 2 years.”

WSPF strips us of the humanity we have and some of us had little-(ALWAYS by no fault of our own-nobody’s born a sociopath but are made so) humanity in the first place. What sense does it make to torment and degrade people who’ve been tormented and degraded their entire life (such is both of our backgrounds. Both being abused and how amazing that we were able to come out of such lives), and smash any hope of becoming a fully developed human being?

By exposing guys to severe isolation and severe lack of physical interaction with other people. The coldness most of us learned at a young age stays with us. The psychologists here employ pills as the cure all end all and rarely engage in meaningful constructive help for inmates who refuse to take pills. Recently I spoke to a psychologist here, who told me that they only had to speak with inmates on clinical monitoring (pills) once a week and to those not on pills, once a month. And these “talks” only consist of either in front of your cell behind a steel door or behind a glass window in a no contact visit room, where we are handcuffed and some of us shackled.

My complaint about this is where is the social interaction necessary for anyone’s growth? By treating all of us as of we are wild animals, even if we don’t warrant such treatment, as most inmates rarely if ever display such behavior, but being labeled as such we become worse by the repetitive treatment by the staff and psychologists here, because the more a person is treated as if he is bad, the more he will believe that he is bad.

So due to the severe isolation and treatment of us as some how subhuman, we are lacking the emotional nurturing some of us need in order to teach us that we are not bad but chose to be. If there is a complete lack of empathy and love and want for us to succeed, I cannot reasonably see how anyone can justify the so-called programming here at WSPF.

The overwhelming vast majority of prisoners in all United State prisons come from dysfunctional homes where they were either treated very poorly or were out right abused and all in all, due to lack of nurturing we received as children, we grew up only looking out for ourselves. And since we had no one to love us, truly loved us, that is, teach us right from wrong, or to be there for us when we needed it the most, we developed survivalists’ behavior, that is – everyone for themselves. And since we did not have people to help us out or nurture us, we do not trust others and that that the only person who cares about us is ourselves, so we often times turn to other areas to fill the void we received growing up.

Some of us turned to stealing, lashing out against anyone to gain material prosperity and not caring what happens to them because no one cared what happens to us. Some of us joined gangs, looking for love and respect we did not receive at home. Some of us turned to drugs, to escape the lack of love we feel for ourselves and the world around us. The list of things we turn to is endless. But the point is, we, most of us anyways, become this way due to the lack of love and nurturing we received at home while growing up. Some may not have been our parents fault. Some of our parents may have been single parents who had to work all day to feed us and simply didn’t have time to spend with us and nurture us or teach us right from wrong. And some of our parents were either zoned out on drugs and cared only to be high and some were out and out abusive.

So what I am getting at is that how can anyone expect us to change our lives around and become productive, loving individuals if we never have been taught to be that way and we are not being taught that way here! And to add insult to injury, to be treated like we are a caged animal and no one here caring enough to take it upon themselves to do otherwise.

What is interesting about all that we have said relates to the programs here themselves. The programs here that they give us consist of them giving us a piece of paper with questions on it and having us watch a video that asks about the questions on the paper. The total lack of human empathy and contact by staff, the public, and programming here will virtually guarantee that little or no success will ever come out of WSPF. Because how can any of these so-called programs here be successful if they forget the most essential thing for our rehabilitation: our humanity.

Here’s an example of the guys we’ve met at WSPF, you decide if they’re “the worst of the worst”. M. (I’m here for threatening a supervisor); L. (he’s here, or was the last I knew, here for flashing a female guard); J. (he’s here for agreeing to have sex with a female staff member who found him attractive); S. (he’s here for having some skinhead literature); T. (he was here, for years, for trying to buy drugs); C. (he’s here because his DA recommended it, despite good behavior) R.D. B. (here for threatening staff), T. (here for selling cigarettes a guard brought in); J. (here for writing a book about a prisoner escaping).

The list could go on and on, most of these guys here have been here for years. N., I’m here because I stabbed some gang leader who threatened to stab me if I didn’t help him transfer money he extorted- I’m here, he isn’t. Once some of us arrive, we did engage in further rule violations (mostly due to being driven crazy) that is now cited to seal our lease at WSPF – but even this additional poor behavior doesn’t make us “the worst of the worst” unless, like WSPF administration, you are set on believing this.

Even if the public feels no ethical pangs about WSPF housing guys who really aren’t “supercriminals”, the public ought to care about WSPF sucking up unjustifiable amounts of its tax-dollars that OUGHT to be use to fund the UW system or any other productive US destructive government work for it costs AT LEAST twice as much to house an inmate at WSPF than it does to house them in a “normal prison. No big surprize, for at WSPF guards act as butlers and footmen, bringing us everything we need (food, clothing, meds, mail, etc,) and health costs are understandably higher for inmates who spend 24/7 in their cells alone. WSPF currently holds about 350 inmates, but there’s more than 100 vehicles out front! Yikes!

The sheer amount of money being spent to run this place can be offset by allowing inmates here to do some of the jobs the state pays staff here to do. This is the only institution in the state that doesn’t have inmates doing such as cooking, cleaning. laundry, mowing the lawn, janitorial etc. The state has to pay large fees for outside people to do these jobs, whereas if they allow inmates to have some of these jobs, the state could literally save millions of dollars that we could spend on things better than this.

Giving inmates jobs also give the inmates a sense of purpose and pride and gets inmate involved with becoming a responsible person, teaching them job skills, and taking pride in having a sense of accomplishment. And the out of the cell time would drastically improve morale of the inmates here.

Much more could be said about how Wisconsin as before WSPF (Supermax) was built. The inmates that were problematic were put in segregation units for long periods of time, but had a much greater opportunity for release from this status than inmates at WSPF. As shown by the report filed by Walter Dickey, December 20, 2005, who is the monitor in the case brought against Wisconsin’s DOC (Department of Corrections) the monitor reports that inmates are being over- classified to WSPF simply to fill bed space. Meaning that the DOC is sending people there who shouldn’t be there!

So this is the proof that some officials have little intent to release inmate here, but plan on keeping them solely to justify keeping this place, not to mention the cozy jobs this place provides and the state and federal money being put into city of Boscobel and Grant county for the upkeep of this prison.

WSPF has experienced some exposure as a crazy-maker, boondoggle-pushed by a former Governor with feeling of inadequacy who instead of buying a mustang built a supermax (like the kids in Texas and California)-so now calls itself a “program facility” and prison officials had told the media how it’s now a changed prison. Nothing has changed but some names- the “level system ” is now called a “phase system” and inmates are still kept at WSPF for years longer, based on “warnings” or merely having a “poor attitude”. Secret meetings are held where decisions are made to promote/demote inmates to different level phases. We are not even told who types the decisions/what we must do to leave or avoid demotion or who’s making accusations against us.

They tell us that they are going to have a meeting to review whether we will be advanced to a higher phase and we have no opportunity to speak on our behalf at such meetings to refute any unfounded allegations against us at these meetings. We are only told that such meetings are going to take place. Then they give us a slip stating that our so-called evaluations, and for some the so-called bad conduct listed on it we did not have the ability to refute, is for example: they said that one inmate’s cell smells badly, they told another that he needed a hair cut, they told another that he made inappropriate gestures to staff (without any staff telling him he was doing so or what the gestures were) and the list goes on from here.

Now how is it possible that inmates here are determined a threat for having long hair or if their cells smells badly? What does either have to do with threatening or dangerous behavior that so-called warrants the stay for inmates here?

Then the same sheets tell us we have to do certain programs that I described above, (that is a piece of paper and a video to watch) they tell us that we have to do these programs, and we do them, and we still are not advanced! Some inmates here have done ALL the programs here and yet they remain where they are.

We still do not get contact visits. We get no more than 2 (!) hours a week in the dog kennel outside recreation cages. We can only have up to 10 publications (all other Wisconsin prisoners can have 25) we can’t work and earn money. We’re stuck in our cells 24/7 subject to screams of those who can’t handle the stress. We have staff looking to make us crazy, slamming our traps, lying about us and bragging about their schemes to justify their cozy jobs. It’s amazing to us that ANY prisoners here would have any respect for the “system” or give a damn about obeying ethics that the system itself ignores.

A way back, as some may recall, a lot of WSPF inmates were released due to their mental health problems. Some, (including me, N., due to paranoid and mood disorders) were sent to Wisconsin’s Resource Center (WRC) which also employed a “level system ” WRC’s level system, unlike WSPF’s had inmates moseying around out doors within 2 weeks-it only went downhill for me after I (Nate) was moved to a unit with violent inmates (apparently because I wrote many group complaints or suits for others/where a guy who hated whites attacked me and another threatened to stab me. But the point is, WSPF’s level system (now Phase-) system has no intention of releasing us to general population conditions-it takes years to get to walk around. Yet at WRC it takes weeks! As social interaction is critical to rehabilitation, yet WSPF blatantly denied his, with no justification-WSPF’s labeling itself as a “program” is just an attempt to hide the reality from the public. Indeed D.J. and I are on a “long-term administrative confinement ” and must do AT LEAST two more years at WSPF despite our sterling behavior for years!

Much more could be said about WSPF. E.g. how all of the staff end up marrying each other and act as a crime family, squeezing protection from the taxpayers and pain from prisoners; how even the tinyest of misconduct is the basis for severe abuse and degradation; how staff lie about us to keep us here. However, one can’t appreciate all of this unless they go through it.

What we’d like the recipients of this letter to do is come up here, contact the guys noted in this letter, just set up your cameras and microphones in the hallway for a few days- ask the crazed inmates Why they ask like they do. Ask the administration why they impose all the hardships on us (it has no legitimacy in behavior modification psychology- punishment is far less effective than rewarding good behavior). Maybe then you’ll agree with us that if rehabilitation of inmates is truly desired the following needs to occur for all WSPF inmates:

  1. An end to abuse and punishment
  2. personal analysis of who we are, what got us in prison, what we are seeking and can rationally expect.
  3. Diverse, intense job-training
  4. Diverse, intense social training
  5. Excessive outdoor exercise
  6. Diverse, intense education
  7. Employ a level system identical to that used at WRC.

June 12th 2006

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.