The Supermax Solution

Hopes, Fears, and Prison Building In an Upstate New York Town

As the state's SHU population has grown, prison officials have run out of places to house these inmates. To solve this dilemma, the state converted one of its maximum-security prisons, Southport Correctional Facility, into a supermax in 1991. Putting hundreds of troublesome inmates together in one prison helps keep the peace at other state facilities. "It's a major management tool," says Flateau. But a few months after Southport's transformation, angry inmates staged a riot to protest conditions, taking three guards hostage for 26 1/2 hours.

Southport is still a supermax, but the demand for places to send rebellious prisoners persists. So over the last year, prison officials have added 100 SHU cells to eight prisons around the state, and have begun housing two men in each. The rest of the solution lies with Upstate. There, officials insist, the problems will be manageable. "When you get large groups of inmates— that's when you have problems," says Thomas Ricks, Upstate's superintendent. "But here there's never going to be any large groups of inmates. They're not as likely to get in trouble because they're only dealing with their cell mate."

If you get sentenced to at least 75 days in the box, you could find yourself on a bus headed to Upstate. The only way you can avoid this fate is if prison officials decide you are mentally ill or a "known homosexual." (In the state prison system, sex is banned and a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy prevails; you are a "known homosexual" if you get caught having sex or if you tell someone you're gay.)

At Upstate, your new home will be a 105-square-foot rectangular room. It'll be bigger than any other state prison cell you've lived in. But it's still no larger than the bathrooms in many Manhattan apartments. Step in and spread your arms, and your fingers will touch both your bunk bed and the wall. But don't even think about rearranging the furniture. The sink, toilet, desk, chair, mirror, and bunk bed are already bolted to the cell's five-inch-thick walls.

Prison officials say they will try to find you a compatible cell mate. If you smoke, you should wind up with a smoker. If you're small, you're not supposed to get a roommate who can easily overpower you. Most likely, you'll share a cell with someone who is the same race. You may spend your days obsessing about whether he has tuberculosis or HIV. And if prison officials don't do a good job matching cell mates, you could be assaulted or raped or killed.

At first, it might not be so bad living with a roommate. He may help you battle the boredom, and he could stop you from becoming suicidal. But it won't be long before sharing a cell all day every day becomes unbearable. You'll be able to tell what your cell mate has eaten for breakfast by the stench of his feces. And soon, you will feel like you are living inside his skin.

When you arrive at Upstate, the guards will confiscate most of your possessions— snacks, razors, radio, photographs. All you'll have to entertain you are a pen, paper, and your cell mate. You won't be trading gossip in the mess hall, napping through ESL classes, or playing ball in the rec yard. In fact, you won't be leaving your cell at all. Food trays arrive through a slot in the door, and there's a shower in the corner that's carefully regulated to spew lukewarm water three times a week.

You will almost never see the prison's 370 guards. Nor will you see much of the 300 "cadre" inmates, who keep the facility running, mopping the halls and doing laundry. To stay plugged in to the prison's gossip mill, you may try to chat with your neighbor on the "telephone"— by plunging all the water out of your toilet and shouting down the pipe. But if you're losing your mind, or if your cell mate turns out to be a "booty bandit" (rapist), you better pray the guard who is supposed to check on you every half-hour intervenes. Good luck trying to get help from the outside world— from a journalist or an attorney with Prisoners' Legal Services (PLS). Prison officials don't let reporters interview inmates in the box, and Governor George Pataki shut down PLS last year by decimating its budget.

A guard in a central tower will control your access to the outside world. Each day, the officer will unlock your back door by flipping a switch in the control room. Now is your time for "recreation"— a privilege that the courts have said you must get. At Upstate, "rec time" means 60 minutes by yourself in the outdoor cage attached to the rear of your cell. It's about half the size of your cell, just big enough to do jumping jacks. You could try to wrap your fingers around the steel-mesh fence and do a few pull-ups. But you can't lift barbells, toss horseshoes, or shoot hoops. The cage is empty. Of course, even if you had a basketball, there's barely enough room to dribble more than a couple of steps.

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