America's Toughest Prisons Series Premiere: Surviving Statesville

Monday 7th September 10.00pm

Beginning on Five this week is the second series of the documentary that unlocks the doors of some of the United States’ most notorious prisons. The opening instalment focuses on Statesville prison in Illinois. With violence a constant threat at this maximum-security facility, guards and inmates alike must find ways to cope with daily life.

Statesville prison in Illinois is a maximum-security facility housing the worst of the worst. Not every murderer or rapist is deemed sufficiently menacing to be assigned here. To determine who will stay and who will be shipped elsewhere, the prison’s reception and classification centre (RNC) evaluates the severity of each newcomer’s crimes and propensity for violence, and also checks for contraband. Only the most dangerous remain.

Since 1990 nearly half the prison has been closed or condemned, resulting in massive overcrowding. Combined with the particularly violent nature of Statesville’s inhabitants, this makes for a highly charged atmosphere. The stress is compounded by the length of the sentences handed down to many inmates. With decades or even centuries left to serve, the men have nothing left to lose.

The guards maintain a strict regime to keep the lid on this cauldron of tension, but it is not easy – particularly in the ‘roundhouse’. This circular cell block houses 400 of the most disruptive inmates in the prison, with just nine officers in charge. The building’s classic 19th-century design – with the cells laid out around a central tower – assists the officers. From the tower a guard can see all inmates and can quickly fire a warning shot if trouble breaks out. “It’s more secure because you can see 360 degrees,” Sergeant Baldwin explains.

Lockdown is another tool at the guards’ disposal – and one which those in the Roundhouse use often. As a result, some of the most violent men in Illinois spend days at a time without leaving their six-bynine cell. Sergeant Baldwin believes it gives the men time to reflect on any violence they might be planning. “You lock ’em down, most of ’em rethink what they’re contemplating,” he says.

This tough regime is sensible from the guards’ perspective, but from the prisoners’ point of view it can be nearly unbearable. “It’s hell,” as one inmate succinctly puts it. Locked up day and night, the men find strategies to cope. These emotional safety valves vary from prisoner to prisoner, but many look to the outside world for relief.

Terry Dibble, for instance, is a 34-year-old double murderer. Recently transferred to Statesville, he places his hopes in a forthcoming court ruling that will decide if he can move to a prison closer to home. For the hearing, he will travel back home and get the chance to visit his mother and girlfriend Lydia, who both live too far away to travel to Statesville. A college student, Lydia claims that Terry is “everything I’ve ever wanted”. When the hearing date comes, car trouble keeps her from seeing him – but Terry remains optimistic about his transfer.

For Simkatyah Winfield, a former drug dealer and convicted murderer, focusing on his two kids keeps him sane while he serves the remaining 45 years of his sentence. He struggles with the limited number of calls and visits he is allowed while the roundhouse is on lockdown, saying of his children: “They’re my heart… I love them to death.” A major upside of drug dealing, Simkatyah explains, was the amount of time he got to spend with his family.

When visiting day finally rolls around, Simkatyah’s parents and 17-year-old daughter come to see him. The visit is a little fraught as Simkatyah has only recently learned that his daughter is pregnant, but despite his initial anger, he advises her to seek parenting classes and neonatal care. His father, an ex-con himself, explains that he blames himself for setting a pattern for his son.

While each inmate has a personal story to tell and individual coping mechanisms to keep despair at bay, Sergeant Baldwin avoids taking their outbursts to heart. “I don’t make it personal,” he says. “That’s how I’m able to deal with it much better than most people.”

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