A Law Student's Attempt to Understand It All.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Prison Trip III

This is part of a series on my trip to the Colorado Department of Corrections. See the other posts: The Supreme Court Sent Me To Prison, Prison Trip I and Prison Trip II.

Our last tour was the most profound. We toured the Colorado State Penitentiary, which is Colorado’s SuperMax. It also houses the execution chamber.

We first saw the execution chamber. When we walked in, immediately every person’s countenance changed. You could see the sorrow and pain in the women’s faces. The men no longer cracked jokes but stood stone faced. Everyone shifted their weight from between one foot and the other. This was a place of the ultimate punishment. This was a place for serious reflections on justice. This was a place of death.

Our tour guide explained the procedures for execution. From the date that the warrant comes down to the moment they remove the body. He spoke in a matter of fact voice, not as one calloused but as one who has a job to do. He spoke of why we have only executed one person since the 1970s.

We then moved to tour the rest of the prison. The security is supreme, but I will not detail it here. There are sixteen cells to a unit (or “day room”). There are eight day rooms to a “pod.” There are six pods in the facility. Further there is a medical center and decontamination room in the basement that can handle everything except major surgery.

Each pod has its own medical room and barber shop. Each cell houses only one man. The inmates never go outside. Their only time beyond the walls of the cell is a fifteen minute shower and an hour in a very small exercise room. Both the shower and the exercise rooms are in the day room, so they do not even see other parts of the pod. Only one inmate is out at a time.

Lest you believe that these men are mistreated, please note that they put themselves there. Due to the incentive system, the prisoner’s hold the power to determine where and thus how they serve their time. Only when they cause severe security problems and refuse to behave do they end up at the SuperMax.

The way to leave the SuperMax is simple: behave and start reforming your attitudes. Unlike other programs that simply teach the prisoners to say the magic words that the administration wants to hear, Colorado’s program involves cognitive exercises and hypotheticals designed to test if they are really “getting it.” The average stay at the SuperMax is thirty months.

Even here the staff hopes that some of the prisoners will reform. About thirty percent are certifiably severely mentally ill. They may never go to the general prison population and the state mental health penitentiary (San Carlos) is full. Some are simply “bad seeds” that refuse to reform. However, some have been reached. One inmate used to make prison riots a game. Once at the SuperMax he would regularly assault the guards simply because he was bored. Then, one day after being pepper-sprayed, he finally wised up. He started participating in the program and was eventually moved to another facility. He had been at the SuperMax for twelve years.

I left the prison a changed person. I now have a new view of the world. Our “field trip” made me understand the seriousness of this thing called law. The “field trip” was more like a trip to a foreign land. Just as a trip to Europe or Asia changes a person and makes him see America differently, so too has this trip affected me. I have seen the dark side of our society, but I have also seen hope. Every citizen should take such a tour

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