Saturday, March 05, 2005

Friday March 4 - Prison tour

Friday March 4

This time I will post in English…
Today I’ve been on a prison tour. The tour was organized by Professor Michele Deitch. Since 1993, Ms. Deitch has served as a consultant to state and local policy-makers and agency officials around the country on a wide range of corrections and sentencing issues. Ms. Deitch currently serves as Contributing Editor to the Correctional Law Reporter, one of the country's leading journals for correctional administrators and lawyers. She previously held some key positions with the Texas Legislature, including serving as General Counsel to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee and as the Policy Director of the Texas Punishment Standards Commission. Working in those posts, she was involved with virtually every major criminal justice policy initiative considered by state officials in Texas in the early 1990s. During the late 1980s, Ms. Deitch was appointed by Judge William Wayne Justice as a monitor of conditions in the Texas prison system, as part of the landmark Ruiz prison reform lawsuit. (source)
Ms. Deitch is teaching the Criminal Justice Policy: Corrections and Sentencing Class at the LBJ public affairs school at the University of Texas in Austin.

Today my classmates and I visited two prison facilities. The Wynne Prison Unit in Huntsville and the Estelle Unit, which is about 10 miles north of Huntsville. Huntsville is a place a few miles beyond the end of the civilised world.
We left Austin around 0700 am. The trip to Huntsville took us about 3 hours in 4 cars.
In the last couple of weeks we received a lot of (inside) information about correctional facilities, punishment, parole and probation.
Seeing correctional facilities from the inside with your own eyes is a whole different story then just reading about it and looking at some vague photos.
I have visited a few prisons in the Netherlands, so I was already familiar with correctional facilities out of the books. Most of my classmates have never visited a prison facility before.
The first correctional facility we visited was the Wynne unit. Wynne is a fairly old (1939) and architecturally a very interesting prison. It houses a wide variety of inmates at all custody levels (+/- 2500 prisoners) and offers a lot of industrial programs.
After showing our ID we were allowed to proceed through the prison gates. The first thing I noticed about Wynne is that it was very intimidating to me. The prison warden was our personal guide in the prison. We could literally ask everything we wanted to the warden or one of the officers. The answers were always long and honest.
The first wing we visited was a dormitory wing with low level custody offenders (from now on I will use the word inmates instead of offenders). The wing was divided in blocks (looked a bit like overcrowded office gardens). In every little unit there was a bed and a small table. We took a look in the dayroom that was directly linked to the dormitory. A lot of the inmates were in the dayroom playing chess, sleeping, sitting around, staring at television or did nothing but gaze into nothing. Some of them made eye contact. Some of them avoided I contact. Some of them pretended that they did not see the group of 12 students. Some of them didn’t pretend. I’ve never had such an uneasy feeling. These men, al convicted of crimes, were men. They were humans. Just like you and I, or maybe not just like, but a lot of them just looked like people you meet every regular day on the street.
After the low custody level wing, we went into the high custody level wings, also known as the administrative segregation part. A lot of (potentially) violent inmates and gang members are being locked up here. The cells are about 5-6 square meters big, small is a better word... There are bars that separate the cells from the hallway. Every cell is housed by 2 inmates. Imagine yourself living on 5-6 square meters with another person who is not your friend. Every movement in the cell makes you touch your cellmate because the space is so small. The cell contains two beds above each other. Every cell has one toilet, one small table and no privacy at all. Being in prison is one of the most unnatural things a can think of. I can’t imagine being in prison for one week without turning crazy. I don’t want to think about spending a great amount of my life behind those bars or even forever. I just can’t imagine… Wynne has a slightly older inmate population. Almost all cells were in use during the time we visited. We were looking at the inmates and they were looking at us. I remembered the word of Deitch “it is fine to be friendly”. I tried to make eye contact and greet some of the inmates, sometimes there was even room for a short question. During the whole tour I kept in mind: treat them as you would like to be treated and the felt actually pretty good. I don’t know for what crimes the individual inmates are in prison. Some may even be in prison for crimes that I (as a Dutch guy) do not consider as a crime. I don’t know. And therefore I can’t judge them. And if I know what crimes they did commit, .they still deserve, and have the right, to be treated as humans. The Wynne main building is a very dark and depressing building. It is not only the building itself, it is also the smells, the sounds, the air; actually everything there was depressing to me. I do not see how this kind of environment can change the inmates into better beings. Just after being there for a few hours you already feel a kind of deformed.
After the ad seg parts of Wynne we went to the prison factory part where the inmates produce the Texas license plates. It is a pretty large factory where a part of the inmates are involved in several work programs. The guards at the factory were pretty proud of what they were doing there with the inmates. They had also a little present for us; a special license plate made by real inmates. After the factory visit we shook hands and talked to some inmates. One of them was a murderer serving a life long sentence. But he is still a human being. I have such mixed feelings about all this. The two prisoners I talked to were nice and polite men. They answered all the questions I had. They also complained about the failing parole system. One of them was a white man who has been in prison for 13 yeas now, he is eligible for parole in about one or two years. He was a college student when he was incarcerated…

Mission Statement TDJCID
“The mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Correctional Institutions Division is to provide safe and appropriate confinement, supervision, rehabilitation and reintegration of adult felons, and to effectively manage or administer correctional facilities based on constitutional and statutory standards. We work with communities to improve public safety by providing effective interventions through a safe, secure, and positive environment that empowers individuals to achieve life-long success. We protect the interests of the state of Texas when contracting with outside vendors and representatives through effective management, monitoring, and on-going communication between the Agency and its contracted representatives.”

After the visiting Wynne we had lunch with Doug Dretke, he is the director of the Correctional Institutions Division. Doug told us a lot about the mission statement of TDJC and his views on the correctional institutions.
After lunch we went to the Estelle Unit. Estelle has a design more typical of pre-1991 facilities and houses about 3000 prisoners (3000!) It has a wide variety of inmates, plus it is home to several programs. Estelle has within its walls an intensive substance abuse treatment program, a program for physically handicapped inmates, a geriatric facility, a high security unit and a regional medical facility. Not just a typical prison but certainly a fascinating (and disturbing) place to tour.
Estelle has a very different atmosphere comparing to Wynne. At first I was stunned about the size of the facility. As mentioned Estelle also houses handicapped inmates. The first wing we visited was a wing where the deaf, the blind and the cripple are housed. One of the deaf inmates started making signs to the warden. The warden was kind of disturbed by these signs and showed that he also knows a sign: he made a cutting gesture over his throat (not with bad intentions).
After that wing we walked through the facility to the geriatric facility. The geriatric facility is the place where they keep the old inmates. And when I’m mentioning old I mean 60-70+. And seeing that old men is pretty hard, and difficult to understand somehow. One of the students started to cry. Its is hard and difficult to realize that these fragile old men are criminals, although several of them are not really a danger anymore to society they still serve the life long sentence. Some of the just recently arrived for new crimes. Some of them showed clearly signs of Parkinson disease. I don’t know what crime they commited. But seeing the old men there, in the conditions that they are in, it shocked me, it really shocked me. It’s hard to write this down in words, especially in a language that is not my own. But I know I can’t find the right words in my own language either. I walked between some of the old men. Some of them said hello, smiled or looked away. One man was rearranging some photo’s and drawings.
After the geriatric wing we went to the medical facilities. The head nurse told about the healthcare that is provided to the inmates. They do a lot of kidney dialyses at the medical facility to keep inmates with kidney problems healthy and alive. One of the kidney patients is a man who is actually on death row. The medical facility has a region function. Death row is a 15 miles drive from Estelle. 3 times a week the man from deathrow is taken to Estelle to get kidney dialyses. after that they bring him back to deathrow. On death row he can wait for the moment of his execution. I have mixed feelings, over and over.