WISCONSIN PRISON WATCH
October 10, 2000
Fear pervades Supermax
By David Callendar The Capital Times
A survey of inmates at the ultrahigh-security Supermax prison indicates that some fear for their lives -- and even more fear for their sanity.
A survey by the Wisconsin Coalition to Stop Control Unit Prisons of 71 of the prison's 175 inmates at the time of last summer's survey (there are now 312 inmates) found that "prisoners are afraid of prison staff, afraid of other prisoners, and afraid of losing their minds."
The prison has been the target of criticism from lawmakers since it opened last November. Two prisoners have filed suit in federal court alleging inhumane treatment at the facility. Gov. Tommy Thompson was scheduled to visit the prison today on a fact-finding tour, but aides said the trip was unrelated to the recent controversy. The Department of Corrections has denied any prisoner abuse and contends the prison is meant to handle those who will not comply with prison rules and who pose a danger to themselves and others. The 500-bed Supermax prison keeps inmates in total isolation in 8-by-12-foot cells for up to 23 hours a day and allows them only one hour per week of exercise in an enclosed yard. Inmates are allowed more privileges -- such as more time in the exercise yard or access to reading material -- if they behave.
Many of those surveyed said they were afraid of being beaten by guards, particularly during "cell extractions," when inmates are forcibly removed by a team of guards. Three inmates said they were afraid of dying while in Supermax. In the words of one inmate, whom the survey did not identify, "I don't think the word 'afraid' is appropriate. I simply do not believe I am going to leave (Supermax) alive. My great fear is being handcuffed and led to a cell to find a noose hanging there waiting for me, then having these correctional officers cover up my death with a story of suicide."
Others said they fear the long-term effects of isolation. "I'm afraid that I'm going to lose my mind," one prisoner wrote. "This prison's staff employs tactics that are used to break men's minds. I don't know how long I can hold on to my sanity and that scares me."
Inmates generally have no contact with guards, who monitor them via TV, and are allowed only brief visits with friends or family also via two-way TV. Thirty-nine of those surveyed said no one had visited them while they were in Supermax. Many said they told family members not to visit them at Supermax. "My family doesn't want to drive here to see me on a video monitor," one inmate wrote.
The Supermax, which opened in Boscobel last year, is intended to house "the worst of the worst" among Wisconsin inmates, such as those who have assaulted guards or other inmates or who pose an escape threat. The survey disputed those assignments, however, and found many "did not reflect the most violent prison behavior. In fact, a few prisoners expressed that they really did not know why they were there.
Others were sent to complete disciplinary sentences which, before the existence of (the Supermax) were completed in disciplinary segregation units inside the state prisons." Others were placed in Supermax because they were federal prisoners who previously had been housed in Wisconsin prisons and met the criteria for incarceration at Supermax.
Sixteen of those surveyed said they had been housed at a privately run prison in Whiteville,Tenn., that had been the site of an inmate uprising last November. The Department of Corrections had found evidence of guards abusing inmates there. Other inmates who identified their reason for being in the Supermax included seven who said they had a history of prison assaults; seven who had a history of gang involvement; seven who said the assignments were based on old disciplinary records; and four who had previously been in federal prisons. ________________________________________________________________
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