Two hours east/southeast of Oklahoma City, McAlester is a small, unimposing country town resting quietly in the middle of farmland just off the road connecting Tulsa and Dallas. At the north end of McAlester, down a rustic two-lane road, one turns into a gated entry where a single guard allows entrance to the grounds of Oklahoma State Prison. Once admitted, a visitor travels slowly up an old, poorly-surfaced lane toward the parking lot, passing the warden's stately, two-story house under trees on the left. On the right, behind an apparently redundant chain-link fence topped with razor wire, huge, seemingly impregnable old prison walls loom ominously.
OSP, or McAlester, as it is alternately known, was built around 1908 and shows it. The "old" prison, still in use, reeks of Lysol and misery. Newer structures, added in ensuing years to accommodate the results of tough-on-crime policies, reach out beyond the east wall and are wedded to it by more chain link and razor wire.
At the easternmost point, on low ground at the edge of the old prison lies H-Unit, the newest addition. This is Oklahoma's super-maximum security facility. Here are housed those in administrative segregation for whatever reason staff deems appropriate, the inmates considered most dangerous, and the condemned. These, then, are the lowest of the low.
H-Unit gives the impression of a bunker. While built above the ground, only the front and the back ends of the structure have access to the world, and those only to staff and outsiders who have business within. The other two sides are covered with dirt that has evidently been bulldozed up to create an earthen slope beneath which the inmates live.
Once inside, there are no windows in H-Unit and virtually no access to fresh air or natural light.
If the old walled prison is stolid, musty, heavy and impregnable, H-Unit is in some ways its antithesis. Modern, antiseptic, sterile, there is inside it a sense of almost robotic efficiency. Heels click, echoing off scrubbed tile and freshly-painted walls; muted messages spurt from walkie-talkies, every sound somehow muffled as if unwelcome. Canned air and artificial light complete the sense of being buried deep below the surface of the earth.
Contrary to the often-heard complaint about the cushy lives of prisoners, 'all they do is watch TV and lift weights all day,' inmates here are housed in cells 15 and 1/2' long, 7 and 1/2' wide and 8' 3 and 1/2" from floor to ceiling - think of the average American bathroom. Each cell has an open toilet, a sink and two built-in concrete slab beds with some storage space below and a formed concrete shelf above. Ducts provide air through a system inmates say is polluted by concrete dust, allergies and asthma the claimed result. Two built-in light fixtures in the ceiling, controlled by staff, offer the only useful illumination. Though there is a small, thick, plexiglass window in the cell door, it allows little light. A shin-high "beanhole," a few inches in height and perhaps 16" wide, is the port through which food, mail, medicine and other necessaries are passed.
The effect is a tiny concrete cave in which inmates remain for 23 hours of every day. Try, for a moment, to imagine that. Then add to the picture the fact that you are forced to share this tiny space with another, a virtual Siamese twin. This convicted felon, likely someone you've never known - perhaps a murderer, possibly a psychopath - shares your space, your breath, your toilet, your every moment with the exception of one hour out of the cell three times a week for a shower and one hour out 5 times per week for "yard." In the event of an emergency, should he, say, or you, have a seizure, collapse or go berserk, there is no alarm bell, no way to call for assistance beyond beating on the door or yelling through the beanhole, a practice frowned upon by those in charge and as likely as not to go unheeded.
"Yard," as it's known, is another concrete cubicle, maybe 16' by 25' with a door for entry, a window for guards to monitor the activities of the sometimes four or five men who are in the space together, and three solid walls that are 25 to 30' high. Straight up, the walls are capped by a chain-link fence through which one can catch a glimpse of sky. No trees or vegetation are visible to these men, ever. Beyond the unlikely fleeting glimpse of a bird, any living thing other than staff, inmates and the constant - perhaps hated - presence of one's cell-mate, or "cellie," is a memory.
In inclement weather, yard is not available at all..
On those occasions when one leaves the cell, inmates are shackled hand and foot, a process that is, like every other contact, effected through the beanhole. First one strips completely so that inspection can be made to ensure that no weapons are secreted on the body. After all clothing is removed and passed through to the guard, back and front views are offered. The inmate then faces away again, bends at the waist and spreads his cheeks to demonstrate that nothing is hidden in the anus. Once the guard is satisfied and prison clothing is put back on, the hands are passed through the beanhole so wrists can be manacled first, then the ankles. Once the shackles are in place on wrists and ankles, a hobble-chain connects the two sets and the cell door is opened. One can only shuffle, not walk in the sense those on the outside know it, and raising one's hand even chest-high is impossible while standing.
This, to no one's surprise, is a "behavior-modification" unit. Those not slated to die are placed here as punishment for breaking rules, acting out unacceptably, or sometimes, as in the case of one labeled a "snitch," for his own protection. Think of it as a pressure-cooker intent on squeezing out and destroying unacceptable behavior through the continued and unremitting escalation of negative pressure at any perceived infraction. That this treatment will inevitably pervert the basic nature of those in its control to the detriment of the community into which they are ultimately released - those who will be – is apparently lost to its architects. As a concomitant, the perhaps less visible but no less inevitable moral and ethical corruption of those members of staff required to implement these policies promises a legacy in which few can take pride.
Talking to the inmates is an exercise in self-control. The waves of confusion, rage, hopelessness and despair that emanate from these men makes breathing difficult and thinking next to impossible. One must quell the panic that rises, the crushing claustrophobia, the desire to leap up and run outside, scream, fill one's lungs deep with fresh air and scream again, then perhaps rip off clothing and roll on the ground.
Having successfully fought back these impulses, a hopefully calm voice asks questions, learns. -- What's it like to live here?
"Conditions are worse now than before the '73 riot."
Which was about what?
"Overcrowding. Poor food, facilities. Craziness."
Tell me about this unit.
“Men leave here different. The isolation, the conditions, change them. They're more violent when they get back [to another unit]. Have no respect for the officers. If they've spent more than a year in H-Unit, count on [trouble]."
"Going from H to C [a slightly less restricted unit] is like going from there to the street."
"Lack of contact with other people plays on a person's mind."
"H-Unit totally dehumanizes people. Strip naked in cell before going to yard, spread your cheeks, be checked before you come out. Do it again on the floor in front of everyone before going on yard. Do it again after yard."
"All those things keep us hurting."
"I watch the nurses, nice people from the street, I watch them change after an execution and I wonder what's happening to me."
One inmate says he's considering stopping his appeals. "I don't have a death wish, but with all this craziness [aborting the appeals process and letting them execute him is] the only way to feel human."
"I've seen people go insane" [from being locked down]. "It's my biggest fear."
Do you have TV?
"If you can afford it. A $129.00 TV set [per the newspaper] is sold [here] for $260. And then you have to buy the remote."
On the attitude of the guards:
"They say they're not here to protect my rights, they're here to protect the public - which is true. But they make it as hard for us as they possibly can, twist the knife in every way they can. They have said, point blank, 'We're here to execute you.'"
"Their outlook on death row inmates is a lot different than what it is to those of us in G.P. [general population]," says one. To illustrate, this young man tells a story of guards, "who are raised [outside] in a society," becoming so full of hatred and contempt for the death row inmates that they go out behind the cells and "piss in the air vent." Says he's had death row inmates, complaining of the odor, ask him if he did it. He shakes his head with an odd expression of wonder and asks, "Why would I? Besides, how could I?"
"Shit, they [guards] run pools on when someone will die."
"Mike S., who got off death row, was 'somehow' able to get out of his cell and kill an inmate the guards hated."
Guard D. M. "is a trash dog." He will "mark you off as having had a shower [when you haven't] cheat you out of your yard"
"They say they're short staffed. Only two guards [today], so no yard. But the same two guards can take you where they want you to go."
"Guards let two guys die in their cells."
"They've done everything they can do to keep us down. They talk tough to the visitors, shake [them] down.
"Look, I deserve to be punished. I'm guilty. I took my wife's life. But the stuff they do is degrading. It's awful. It's intended to hurt us, to keep us down."
"Every time you come out of a cell you pass the clothes through the beanhole, step out, drop your drawers and spread, then dress. If you're not fast enough, you lose yard time. If you're the last one out, tough."
“Every hour on the hour they come through and bang the doors, to wake you up."
"We've got a 15 minute shower requirement, but guards beat on the door after 5 minutes. Rush you through your shower."
"I've never seen it this worse" between the inmates and the guards. "No respect by either side. Guards brag about beating on someone."
"Sometimes staff will say 'Yard' over [the] speaker very quickly early in the A.M. If you're sleeping and don't respond in time you lose yard. That and strip searches are ways to keep people off yard, because there are too many inmates to have everyone actually get their yard time."
"You get the bare minimum yard time when you get it. They cancel it for any reason, rain, if they're short-handed you name it."
"If a guard is respectful to an inmate, the other guards 'hoot him down.'"
"They brag about beating up on someone."
"They force people in with each other. You cell with somebody you don't know, maybe somebody crazy. The only way you can get away from him, get a different 'cellie,' is to get in a fight."
"Sure, some people want company, but nobody should be forced to cell with somebody. If you want to be single-celled, you should be able to. I've been with two people who were schizos. You never know when they'll go off."
"If you've got a cell-partner problem the guard says, 'One of you goes to the infirmary and one goes to lock-up.' What he means is 'whup him.'"
"Worst thing on H is the cell partner. Never get away from him."
"Killings here are almost invariably cell-partner killings. There have been two this year. Last one was a month ago. Guy was killed at 9 P.M. and the body wasn't discovered until after lunch the next day when the killer said he couldn't wake up his cellie."
For those not on death row, is there hope?
One young man says in the behavior modification unit he has no access to educational tools and there is no access to radio or television if one is indigent and can't afford them. He's been here two years and is trying to get reading material and educational tools in pursuit of a GED [high school equivalency certificate]. "They say they're 'workin' on it.' That means 'shut your mouth.'"
"I go home in 8 months. I'm sitting here under all this stress and all this madness. It reminds me of a kid poking a stick at a tiger in a cage"
"What do they do for me, who's going to go out? There's got to be some kind of educational tools, some kind of books. If you treat a dog like they do in a dog pound, when it gets out it's not gonna be like the dog you get from a pet store."
After a few hours of too-short meetings with men of varying ages, sizes and colors, some of whom seem, impossibly, to radiate hope and energy, most of whom are bitter and resigned, there is a tour of the facility.
The Spartan surroundings, the machine-like nature of every interaction here is so clearly intended to depersonalize that the effect is to make one want to break a rule, to strike out, yell, spit on the floor, to somehow find reassurance that humanity exists. Musings about the notion that negative attention is still attention color one's appreciation of the attitude of the population.
Careful procedures rule all movement. Passage from one unit to the next, from one arena to another, requires strict adherence to ritual: visual or verbal recognition, release of a gate, moving into a small holding area, lock the gate behind, release the gate ahead. Guards in barred cages bring to mind Oz the Great and Powerful as they control all movement through the unit.
The visiting area one passes offers perhaps six plexiglass windows, each possibly 3' wide by 4' high, with no separating partitions and no seating, through which loved ones and the condemned share their most intimate thoughts during limited visiting periods.
The isolation cell in which a condemned man is placed for a period of weeks - duration to be determined by the warden - prior to his execution is identical to the other cave-like accommodations we've seen. The compensating factor, if there can be such a thing for one awaiting death, is that the condemned man lives here alone.
The piéce de resistance of the unit, presented with an incomprehensible sense of pride, is the killing chamber. Mundane in nearly every respect, the chamber is a small room largely indistinguishable from offices or utility rooms we've been shown, the single exception its lonely piece of furniture: a hospital-style gurney destined to have no part in healing. Wing-like appurtenances, closed now, will open to support the arms, ironically creating a cruciform effect. A series of straps wait to restrain the next occupant, ensuring that he does not leave before the job is done, or perhaps to keep him from heaving and bucking his way to the floor in the event of a negative reaction to injected chemicals.
A window for viewing the demise separates this room from a small ante-room with about a dozen chairs set in two rows, on risers to ensure the witnesses an unrestricted line of sight. -- Leaving H-Unit, for those able to do so under their own power, is to re-enter the living world. A keen awareness of leaves, weeds, uneven surfaces, the breeze blessing one's face causes an ache deep within, whether the result of sweet memory's return or sympathy for the forlorn souls left behind is unclear.
At the end of such a day, the trip back down the rustic lane, through the small town and on to a local motel is quiet. Words do not easily fit the feelings roiling just beneath the surface. -- A few months later a letter arrives in the mail. Largely a copy of one sent to Oklahoma newspapers, radio and television stations, it's written by one of the men interviewed at McAlester. No longer in H-Unit, he is now in one of the slightly less rigidly secure units where, he says, one can actually have yard time outside and cell-mates are agreed upon through a selection process, so that being forced to cell with someone you hate or fear happens less often.
The reason for the letter, however, is his attempt to expose a recent development in the prison. He says 30 new prisoners were brought in from a lower-security facility one recent day as punishment for being unwilling to cell with members of opposing gangs or members of other races. They had, he says, "their hands cuffed behind their backs - their legs were secured with leg irons." And, after being brought into his unit, "once again they were forced into a cell with different races and the guards beat them with clubs and broke one mans arm, one mans rib and all were beat."
He explains, "Before today you were allowed to pretty much live with someone you could get along with," and claims, "(t)his is not being done to fight racism or gangs - it's being done for one reason only." Those in control "want to be able to prove on paper that there is a need for a new super maximum security prison like H-Unit here at McAlester. When there clearly isn't (sic) enough violent inmates or serious troublemakers to fill up the one they have now. H-Unit and the so-called general population is full of non-violent drug offenders or inmates that done (sic) nothing or little to be sent here. Of course there are some violent hard core inmates here, but nothing like the public is led to believe - Now all 30 of these inmates will be written up with misconduct reports saying they assaulted officers and refused a direct order. That's done every time a group of officers beat someone in case of future lawsuits."
"This is all about ego and money and politics. I'd like to point out that our so-called super max prison is the only one in the United States that double cells its inmates. The public is told we're so dangerous we have to be locked in our cells 23 hours a day - yet we must not be a danger to each other."
"When these inmates were moved there were cells available to move people in with their same race. One inmate tried to hang his self (sic) today over it and is now in the infirmary. A simple phone call could confirm all of this. This is a direct plan to force gang members to live with oppiset (sic) gang members and whites with black. Every one with any common sense knows what's going to happen and has happened - its what their (sic) wanting. Nothing else."
He notes to the newspaper, "For months now your editorial pages have been full of complaints over cockfighting. What's going on here is no different at all. It's just like putting pit-bulls together. Where's the public outcry for us? Some officers love to see inmates fight and have always put Crip and Blood together or white and black to see a fight, but we've always before had a warden or director that would try to stop it or slow it down."
"There's people in here with severe mental problems that can't live with any one - they repeatedly beat and rape the inmate moved into there (sic) cells."
He adds, "I'd also like you to know its a class X misconduct for me to even write to any news paper or TV station to expose this - they call it inciting a riot." -- I wonder, in reading the letter, is anybody listening? This is the United States of America in the year 2000 A.D. I'm reminded that Doestoevsky is reputed to have said, "If you want to look into the soul of a nation, look into its prisons."
And I offer this thought from a Human Rights Watch report entitled, "Punishment and Prejudice," released in May of this year:
"Prison is a legitimate criminal sanction - but it should be used sensibly, justly, parsimoniously, and with due considerations for the principles of proportionality and respect for human dignity required by international human rights law."