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Maximum Scrutiny: Turmoil at Greene

State-of-art SCI Greene criticized as repressive

Second of Two Parts

Monday, August 10, 1998

By Robert Dvorchak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two centuries ago, the Pennsylvania Quakers came up with the blueprint for modern prisons, abolishing whipping, flogging, the pillory and other forms of punishment deemed cruel and inhumane.

 
Daryl Eperjesi, a guard at SCI Greene, checks locked doors in A block. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

They created Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, designed so criminals might come to grips with their wrongdoings and wean themselves from crime. Lawbreakers were given a Bible so they could reflect and do penance -- the root word for penitentiary.

But the nation's first modern penitentiary was built on the concept of solitary confinement. Prisoners lived, ate and worked alone in a cell for 23 of every 24 hours, leaving only for brief exercise periods.

Pennsylvania did not invent the latest incarnation of super-maximum-security prisons, but its prison in Greene County incorporates the most modern control technology and is seen as a model for other states to copy. Yet some experts who monitor the state of penology see places such as State Correctional Institution Greene, which has a solitary-confinement section where prisoners are kept under lock and key for 23 hours a day, as regressive.

"We've kind of come full circle," said Michael Hackman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which has promoted prison reform since 1787. "Separate solitary confinement was a noble idea at the time (Eastern State was built). Unfortunately, people went crazy from total isolation.

"In some of these new maximum-security prisons, it's a bit like going back to the early 1800s. Granted, they have better medical programs, food and care, but the isolation some of these units create is detrimental to a person's rehabilitation."

Eric Lotke, research director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, said the maximum-security model was like going back to the future: "This is 19th century ideology with 21st century technology. It's backward and barbaric. We ought to be getting more bang for our buck."

State Department of Corrections spokesman Michael J. Lukens, in a letter last week to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said SCI Greene was built with a specific purpose in mind: "There is no question that a segment of SCI Greene's population contains inmates who have proven to be difficult to manage. The institution was clearly designed to increase the department's capacity to deal with troublesome inmates."

But even though Greene was designed to house what some inside and outside the prison system call the "worst of the worst," Lukens points out that nearly half of the 1,500 inmates there are not locked up much of the day and have educational and work opportunities.

"As for certain staff members' belief that SCI Greene contains the 'worst of the worst' inmates, the staff may simply be looking very narrowly at the operation of their institution and not looking at the big picture, particularly as it relates to institutions that deal with troublesome inmates," Lukens wrote.

"With their institution isolated as it is, staff at SCI Greene may have a perspective about their inmates that is not entirely accurate. I'm sure staff members could be found at (prisons in) Graterford, Camp Hill, Pittsburgh and other institutions throughout our system who also believe that they are charged with dealing with our most troublesome inmates."

In Pennsylvania, prisons are a booming industry. The state Department of Corrections has an annual budget of $1 billion and cares for 35,000 inmates in 25 prisons. Its most secure facility is SCI Greene in Waynesburg -- a world unto itself, a population of men sealed behind a double wall of concertina wire and locked cells.

Two Post-Gazette reporters and a photographer were given a tour of the prison in June. Outside, the 4-year-old prison looks sleek and modern, but inside, there is no doubt about its purpose: to keep some of the state's most dangerous men away from the rest of society.

To enter the prison, outsiders must pass through a highly sensitive metal detector and a series of doors that can be locked and unlocked from remote guard posts. Hearing those locks click shut is a stark reminder that personal freedom has been forfeited. A long corridor with locked, solid-steel doors on either end leads to the visitors area. Outsiders are required to place a hand under a florescent light so guards in a control room can see an invisible stamp that was applied when they first entered the prison.

There is no place in the prison where one feels free from surveillance. In the visitors area, a guard sits at a desk above a series of tables so he can observe all activities. There are cameras mounted at each building entrance. Many more electronic eyes peer from other locations throughout the prison, including in every cell block.

The housing structure drives home the point that SCI Greene is not one of those country-club prisons reserved for white-collar criminals and politicians caught with their hands in the public piggy bank. A 18-foot-high fence topped with razor wire surrounds the prison and each block. The main section is composed of nine blocks, named simply with letters of the alphabet, A through I. J Block is outside the prison, a minimum-security area for non-violent inmates who are soon to be released.

The first five blocks form a semicircle around a rectangular building that houses the prison library, school and chapel. A guard tower is being built at the tip of the building above the chapel. When manned, it will appear that a guardian angel is watching over the inmates. But this "angel" is armed with a semiautomatic rifle.

C Block, in the middle of the semicircle, is the only medium-security block and was home to the first inmates, Jan. 4, 1994. The other four blocks are a degree less than maximum security and require inmates to be locked up when not involved in some activity, such as working in the kitchen or on the grounds crew.

A long, L-shaped building that extends along the bottom of the semicircle of blocks houses the prison's administrative offices. Inmates come here for visits and medical care, to work in the kitchen and in the Correctional Industries business, which manufactures prison clothing for the rest of the state.

The old saying, clothes make the man, certainly is true in prison. Cocoa-brown jumpsuits are for general population inmates, kitchen workers wear white, gray is reserved for inmates who work outside the prison perimeter, and their inside colleagues wear orange. Inmates are required to change into blue uniforms for visits. Those in the maximum-security cells wear gray-and-white-striped jumpsuits, similar to the convict outfits in old movies and cartoons.

On the other side of the L-shaped building, through a long, dark corridor, is the restricted housing unit building and four maximum-security blocks where inmates are locked up 23 hours a day. This is home to most of the state's death-row inmates and prisoners who are separated for their safety, who are being punished for violations of prison rules or who are violent, incorrigible men viewed as threats to other prisoners and staff.

In the center of each block is a control center, equipped with panels of electronic gizmos worthy of a spaceship in a 1950s B-movie. From this vantage, a guard can see and control the doors of every cell on both sides. Bulletproof glass protects the center in the event that a gunman were to get past the metal detector, the sets of solid-steel doors and the armed guards that stand between the center and the prison entrance. A glass box mounted on the wall, labeled "Emergency Use Only," contains the control-room key, should a guard be subdued and locked inside.

Blocks A through E have a more expansive feel than maximum-security blocks F through I. Concrete and metal combine in the restricted housing unit building creating a claustrophobic feeling. By spring, 128 cells will be added to the restricted housing unit, bringing even more maximum-security inmates to SCI Greene. A second block being built will house inmates at the next two lower security levels.

The restricted housing unit blocks are stark, each containing two groups of 24 solitary-confinement cells that a control center resembling a concrete bunker separates. Inmates share showers next to their cells but are handcuffed before, during and after bathing. Handcuffs are placed on inmates through a slot in each solid-steel door before they leave their cells. The slots, called "pieholes," are also used to pass food trays to inmates and deliver supplies, such as toilet paper.

In G Block, where death-row inmates live, there are three cells reserved for inmates whose death warrants have been signed. Those inmates are under 24-hour video surveillance.

Pierre Sane, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said he was "horrified" at conditions on death row in the restricted housing unit when he visited SCI Greene in November. "Death row in Pennsylvania looks and feels like a morgue," he said. "From the moment that condemned prisoners arrive, the state tries to kill them slowly, mechanically and deliberately -- first spiritually and then physically."

Compare his statement to that of British novelist Charles Dickens in 1842, when he visited Eastern State Penitentiary's solitary-confinement cells, completed in 1829 at a cost of $780,000 -- for its time, the most expensive building in the U.S. "I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers," Dickens wrote. "I hold this slow and daily tamperings with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

SCI Greene opened the same year Eastern State Penitentiary reopened as a museum showcasing early U.S. penology. Today, tougher attitudes toward crime and criminals include mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes-and-you're-out laws and tough-talking politicians. It is also apparent that Americans are more interested in punishment than rehabilitation, as prison amenities such as weightlifting facilities, libraries and education programs are curtailed.

"The only explanation for any of those moves is a desire to punish," said Malcolm Young, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates alternatives to prison. Young and others question whether that is not only bad policy in the long run but more expensive, too. Inmates who don't learn social skills while inside are likely to end up returning to prison.

The average annual cost for housing an inmate in a state prison is about $22,000; at SCI Greene, it is $22,940. Department of Corrections officials said figures weren't available for the average cost of its maximum-security inmates, but nationwide, a maximum-security facility costs $50,000 per prisoner per year or more -- more than tuition at some of the nation's best universities.

"The mood in the country is just to lock people up," said Jenni Gainsborough, spokeswoman for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "In many ways, we've gone backwards in our attitudes about prisons."

As a remedy, reformers are resurrecting rehabilitation, a 1960s buzzword that came to be seen as a policy of failure. "The current direction in corrections -- building expensive prisons, focusing on punishment rather than treatment -- is simply a dead end. It's being dumb on crime," said Randy Gauger of the Fayette-Greene chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

"We are not against prisons. We are not against removing people from society if they've committed wrong. But even those who need confinement need to be treated. Most of them are coming back out some day to live in society. It is less expensive to the taxpayer to treat them than building these incredibly expensive, high-security prisons."

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