Room Without A View

St. Louis Correctional

St. Louis Correctional Facility- the largest Level IV prison in Michigan.

Jails and prisons are not known for their hospitality, luxury, comfort, convenience, or aesthetics.  They are utilitarian facilities designed for security, control, functionality, and durability. The compound consists of a secure perimeter designed for controlled entrance and egress.  Razor wire, cameras, notion sensors, officer patrols on foot and by vehicle, inspections, metal detectors and body searches are the basis of security on the perimeter.  Prisons in many ways are based on the military model.  The difference being the focus on keeping inmates in.  However, with the advent of drones, smuggling contraband like cell phones and drugs in prison security is having to adapt to these new threats.

In the MDOC there are currently four levels of security: Level I, II, IV, and V. Level V is maximum security.  I’ve never been there but they tell me it’s not nice.  There are two ways to get there.  Maximum security is for those that are uncontrollable at lower levels of security or the entry point into the prison system for those serving life or very long sentences.

Level V is one-man cells, highly controlled movement and no creature comforts.  No personal property, no gym or yard time, no libraries, TVs, or day rooms.  Locked down 23 hours a day with only brief exercise periods outside in a cage.  Good behavior is the only way out.

Level IV is two-man cells, controlled movement and limited creature comforts.  Basic personal property like athletic shoes, radios, TVs, and books.  Locked down 22 hours a day with access to yard time and the day room.  Call outs for the gym, library and school are available. There are two types of level IV facilities.  There are those that stand alone and those that are part of a multi-level facility.  The latter type was the type of level IV that I’ve experienced.

Level IV is also a destination for those whose behavior could not be controlled in general population or for those with more than seven years to serve till their ERD.  I spent seven months in Level IV.  In multi-level facilities level IV prisoners are segregated and not allowed to interact with those from other levels.  Separate yard, gym, library, medical, chow and visits.

In level IV cells the doors lock from the outside.  The furniture is bolted to the floor.  The toilet is in the cell.  The windows have bars over the glass and only a small vent to get fresh air. An officer must let you out of your cell to go to work, take a shower, attend call outs or do anything at all.  Church services were held in the housing unit and inmate lead with occasional outside volunteer speakers.

Level II along with level I is called General Population.  Level II is as far down as lifers will ever get.  Two-man cells and they give you your own room key.  Incoming prisoners with a minimum of 5 years to serve and a maximum of 7 years are generally assigned to level II.  Prisoners with disciplinary issues in level I and sent to level II.  In fact, some people dislike level I so much that they will intentionally earn enough points from minor tickets to get sent to level II.

In multi-level facilities level I and II prisoners go to school together, worship together, attend gym, library and medical callouts together and go on visits together.  They used to share the big yard together but there at the multi-level facility I was at they separated the big yard time for level I and II there because there was too much violence.

The cells have a bunk bed, two desks with chairs and two lockers.  While the windows have a vent to get fresh air there were no bars over them.  Toilets and showers were down the hall. A big improvement over level IV.

One of the best things about level II was access to a microwave oven.  It’s no fun preparing Raman Noodles or instant coffee with warm tap water from the bathroom sink faucet in your level IV cell.

Level I facility housing units are mostly pole barn style dormitories with open cubicles. Level V, IV, II and unsecured level I housing units are cell based.  There are two types of level I facilities- secured and unsecured. Unsecured level I is for level I prisoners with less than two years to their ERD, ticket free and don’t have certain restricted convictions. These prisoners are generally gate pass eligible to work jobs outside the compound fences.  For those qualified, unsecured level I represents an oasis of peace and quiet.  The housing unit still has a fence with barbed wire but not the double row that surrounds secure facilities.  Unsecured level I has come and gone several times as bed space was required.  Technically being located outside the secure facility means that the inmates housed there have limited access to the compound only for medical and the visiting room.  They have their own small yard and meals are served in the housing unit.

Secured level I comprises roughly half of the bed space in the MDOC. When the prison population exploded in the 1980s the MDOC went on a building spree and created what they referred to as “Temporary” facilities.  Rather than utilizing cells the housing units are an open dormitory design with cubicles subdividing the pole barn structure along hallways. While most prisons were made to last, these pole barns were not designed to remain in service as long as they have and it really shows.

I was at level I Temporary facilities with pole barn housing units and they were really showing their age.  Poorly insulated, poorly lighted, bare concrete floors, endless plumbing problems, dusty and a security nightmare.  At my last facility they were closing the pole barns one at a time to perform major repairs and updating things like security cameras.

Originally built to house 80 inmates per unit the pole barns have had their capacity doubled to 160 beds, but not toilets, showers, sinks or day room seating.  According to the American Correctional Association each inmate should have 60 sq. ft. of space in semi-private sleeping areas. In an 8 man cube the furniture takes up all the space and I only had a couple of square feet in front of my bed. Just enough room to put my feet on the floor as I sat on my bed or looked into my locker.

The pole barns were built in the 1980s and 90s.  The biggest thing to change in the MDOC since then is the level of violence in level I.  When the prison population expanded, and prison facilities proliferated these level I temporary facilities were like honors units.  Due to a few bad incidents the work camps and farms were closed and these prisoners were moved to these new secure facilities.  Violence wasn’t tolerated and those that engaged in it found themselves back behind the walls of the old prison in Jackson.

After the closing of the old walled prison and the pressure to reduce cost more inmates were moved into the pole barns including those with violent crimes, less than stellar institutional records or gang affiliation.  The result is that the open design lead to problems with theft and violence inside the housing units.  To address this while I was there they added wire cage structures to the top of the walls that separated the cubicles in the front and back halls and added additional security cameras.  Like putting a Band-Aid on cancer, a cosmetic fix for a truly institutional problem.

Security cameras don’t make things safer.  After the fact they might provide evidence to identify the perpetrator but the damage has already been done. And in an ironic twist, the same cameras used to convict are conveniently broken or didn’t show anything when an innate seeks to use video to exonerate themselves.  But inmates have to take the Inspectors word for it since they can’t be shown the video since it is a security rule.

The wire caging goes from the top of the wall up to the ceiling to prevent inmates and stolen property from crossing from one side of the housing unit to the other out of sight of the cameras which look up and down the halls.  The caging was nothing fancy.  It took the inmate maintenance crew two days to install the panels.  Only time will tell whether these measures will reduce theft and violence in level I pole barns.

As a cost saving measure a few years ago the MDOC closed the level V prison in Standish. That again had a ripple effect across the MDOC.  It wasn’t that there were fewer level V prisoners, they simply waved the security classification to move inmates to lower security levels- V to IV, IV to II, and II to I.  The higher the security level the higher the cost of incarceration.  Level V costs more than twice the cost to house an inmate in level I.  While cutting cost was a political decision when the legislature reduced the department’s budget, it failed to account for the human cost. When inmates are placed in a lower security level it should be because they have demonstrated good behavior and cooperation in completing programming.  The issue is that you end up in prison because of bad behavior and time in prison alone won’t improve it.  The higher levels are intended to reduce the inmate’s ability to cause mischief through isolation. So, the inmates institutional record at the higher levels by its self my not be a good predictor of what will happen at lower levels.  By waving initiates to lower levels, the MDOC let predators lose in the lower security levels.  There were still in prison where the general public was protected from than but free to hurt other inmates.  But they’re just inmates, right?

Housing units in the MDOC are not air conditioned.  During the summer the air temperature inside will often exceed 80˚F and with a heat wave can approach 90˚F or higher.  Without air conditioning there is no dehumidification so you also have to account for the heat index as well.

The school, medical and administration buildings where the staff work do have air conditioning and many of the housing unit counselors have retrofit air conditioners installed in their offices.  So apparently suffering through the heat is part of the punishment.

For those inmates with certain medical conditions where hot temperatures could put them at risk for a medical emergency their medical classification will include an accommodation for heat related illness that will allow them to utilize designated cooling centers when the facility is under a heat advisory.  Heat advisories are issued when the heat index goes above 100˚F. During a heat advisory all strenuous activity is curtailed, no weight pit, no outdoor sports of any kind.

When it gets hot in the housing unit it tends to remain hot.  The brick and concrete construction absorbs the heat and holds it long after it cools off outside.  I had many miserable nights unable to sleep because it was too hot.  There is little air movement because the windows in Level II and IV only have small vents for fresh air.  With the cell doors closed there is no way to generate air movement.  The level I pole barns have slightly larger windows which open with screens.  Unfortunately, the building design prohibits good air circulation.  Ceiling fans do little to move air in/out of the building.  The bunks closet to the windows are highly coveted because they are the only that benefit from the fresh air.

The heat really takes its toll physically and heat stroke is a real possibility. In housing units with fixed temperature controls in the showers even taking a cool isn’t an option.  The small personal fans do almost nothing to alleviate the discomfort.

Most facilities don’t have ice makers in the housing units.  Those that do can’t provide enough ice to cool 160 men.  You could expect that it would be empty before count time and that there would be a stampede when count clears as guys try to beat the adage about ice water in hell.

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