America’s Toughest Prisons

Monday 2nd November 10.00pm

The documentary series that unlocks the doors of the United States’ most notorious prisons continues. This instalment examines a radical new approach to dealing with juvenile crime in Pueblo, Colorado. The Youthful Offender System, or YOS, is a special institution designed to rehabilitate young felons who would otherwise be sent to adult prisons. Through a stringent programme of military exercises, hard work and schooling, YOS offers the youngsters a final chance at life on the outside.

Despite an average age of just 16, the 170 inmates at Colorado’s Youthful Offender System have committed crimes so serious they were processed as adults. While most US states would send such offenders to adult prisons, Colorado has opted to give them one final chance to save themselves from a life of crime. However, YOS is far from an easy ride.

Among the new intake this week is 18-year-old Martin. Like 70 per cent of his fellow prisoners, Martin is affiliated with a gang, and has been in and out of correctional facilities since childhood. Despite his familiarity with the system, however, nothing prepares Martin for Zero Day, when inmates are introduced to their new regime. For the first four weeks, YOS prisoners are put through boot camp – an intense programme of military drills. No sooner have they arrived than the youngsters are dressed in orange jumpsuits and made to exercise in the yard, all the while with officers shouting in their faces. “You’re powerless,” says Martin after his first session. “No matter how bad you are, how strong you are, no matter who you are on the street – in here you’re nothing.”

The boot camp residents are awoken at 5am every day and subjected to 14 hours of commands. There is a correct procedure for everything, including walking, talking, eating and making beds. The idea of the regime is to break the youngsters down as individuals and rebuild them as a team, teaching them how to be responsible for themselves as well as others. “We’re like all one person,” says new inmate Cameron. “If one of us screws up, we all pay for it.” In the first week, the team is punished with harsh physical exercise routines on a number of occasions. Realising that this may be his last chance to avoid a lengthy sentence in adult jail, Martin has decided to obey the rules, whatever is thrown at him. “I choose to do everything I have to to get out of here,” he says.

If the prisoners complete their retraining at boot camp, they will serve the rest of their sentence in a different part of the prison. In the Main Campus, 170 young felons eat, live and work together. They sleep in unlocked units, work for their keep, attend school and are given training for life outside prison. “I think the main thing YOS is trying to accomplish is to get the residents educated,” says drill instructor Sergeant Valencia. “Get them a high school diploma and show them that there is something out there.”

Having spent four years at YOS, former gang leader Michael is now considered a model prisoner. “My turning point was my family,” he says, recalling the moment he turned his back on his former life. “You live and learn. I’ve learned the importance of life and how to cherish it.” In his time in prison, Michael has gained his high school diploma and achieved half his college credits. He has also undergone extensive counselling and anger-management classes. In a few weeks, he will begin a programme of community service, after which he will be granted parole and helped to find a job on the outside. If Michael is successful, Colorado will give him a clean record. “It’s worth it if even one kid is successful,” says Sgt Valencia. “You really want them to succeed.”

While still a long way from release, Cameron, Martin and their fellow new starters have all passed boot camp. However, once they move into Main Campus, gang affiliations from the outside will come back into play, and there will be no instructors to protect them. Not every young prisoner completes the programme, with one in every four being sent to adult jail. But of the remainder, 70 per cent stay away from crime for good.

Monday 21st September 10.00pm

The documentary series that unlocks the doors of the United States’ most notorious prisons continues. In the remote south-western corner of Alaska, state troopers work alongside local public safety officers to keep the peace. In a region where the vast majority of crimes are connected to alcohol and substance abuse, most prisoners are taken to the corrections centre in the small town of Bethel.

The Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center (YKCC) is located in the town of Bethel, Alaska. The jail houses prisoners from all over south-west Alaska – a sparsely populated land of isolated villages on the shores of the Baring Sea. YKCC is home to 115 of the outback’s most desperate outlaws. The majority are charged with violent or sexual crimes and many are repeat offenders.

Prison officials are in no doubt that alcohol and drugs are the root cause of the region’s aboveaverage crime figures. “Most of the crimes that we see in the bush are substance related and alcohol plays a big part,” says Sgt Sheffield. Many prisoners are inebriated when they arrive at the jail. Alcohol problems are so prevalent amongst the native Yupik people that many villages have banned booze. However, this does not prevent locals producing moonshine or smuggling liquor into the towns.

Trooper Mike Roberts visits the community of Quinhagak, where a young man named Billy Rivers has been accused of burglary. Although the settlement is only a short distance from Bethel, there are no roads and Roberts must travel by plane. Once at the village, Roberts finds Billy will not come quietly. “I don’t want to wrestle and fight with you, but I’m ready to do that if I have to,” Roberts says. After a scuffle, Billy is arrested.

This is the first time Billy has been detained as an adult prisoner and the prospect of being transferred to YKCC disturbs him. “I wanna go home. I miss my mum and dad already,” he says. “It makes me want to kill myself.” Before leaving the village, Roberts must smooth over relations with Billy’s family, who object to the forceful arrest. Roberts is aware that his job depends on the support of the community. “I care about what they think and I care about what they feel about the troopers,” he says.

The state troopers also rely on the help of Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs), local officials with powers to police their towns and arrest suspects. With 25 years’ experience, VPSO Max is well placed to explain the problems facing the Yupik. “Alcohol is not our way of life,” he says. “It’s devastating. We didn’t grow up with alcohol and we don’t know how to use it.” Max works in a ramshackle building that serves as a police station and local jail. After three years of hard work, he has raised enough money to build a brand new VPSO office in his village.

Elsewhere, trooper Lucas Altipeter sets off by boat to pick up a prisoner from a nearby village. “I have been working in the same villages for about two years and I am still an outsider,” he says. The Yupik word for state trooper, he adds, means ‘the person who takes you away’. In this context, the work of the VPSOs is vital to ensure villagers cooperate with law enforcement. Altipeter collects his prisoner and delivers him back to YKCC for processing.

Altipeter’s next job is to respond to a call involving a drunken man who has threatened to shoot his girlfriend. The trooper and a colleague break out their firearms and fly to the village where the suspect lives. “I think this guy could be very dangerous,” says Altipeter.

Billy Rivers, meanwhile, is having a hard time adjusting to prison life. When a fellow inmate threatens him, he commits the cardinal sin of snitching to the guards. Billy is then granted a reprieve when the judge releases him on bail. “I will never steal anymore because I don’t want to come back here,” he says. Unfortunately, just days later, Billy violates the terms of his release and finds himself back at YKCC. Can he clean up his act and avoid a long jail term?

Monday 14th September 10.00pm

The documentary series that unlocks the doors of the United States’ most notorious prisons continues. This edition focuses on a Colorado jail dedicated to sex offenders. Fremont State Prison houses 1,400 sex offenders, many of whom are compelled to undergo therapy to face up to their crimes. But with violence and victimisation simmering under the surface, staff know they must remain vigilant.

Fremont State Prison in Colorado is home to 1,600 prisoners, around 1,400 of whom are guilty of sex offences. In the penal system, sex offenders are regarded with contempt and disgust by other inmates, who categorise them according to the severity of their crime. Rapists occupy the top rung of the ladder while child molesters are considered the lowest of the low.

The prisoners are divided into cell houses containing around 250 men, guarded by just six officers. “We’re definitely outnumbered,” affirms Officer MacLaine. “If one of them wanted to create a problem… it would be an issue.” The guards must impose order and prevent inmates victimising other prisoners. In particular, they must stop convicts from imposing a ‘rent’ system on their cellmates – forcing them to pay for their bed in contraband.

Many of the guards are female, which represents a particularly tough challenge when handling inmates. “Some of them just absolutely can’t stand women,” says MacLaine. It is vital that guards do not become friendly with prisoners or share personal information. Interactions are kept to a two-sentence limit. “These inmates are sex offenders,” says Sgt Festimi. “They’re gonna try to manipulate you.”

Randall is serving time for sexually assaulting his 12- year-old stepdaughter. He is one of the few inmates to talk openly about his crime and does so in an effort to change people’s perceptions about sex offenders. “Sex offenders are singled out because they picked on the most innocent people,” he says simply. “They get off on victimising people that can’t fight back.” Randall points out that they cannot get away with lying about the nature of their crime: “The only thing you have in here is your word. Once you blow that, you’re not good for anything.”

In Fremont, sex offenders find that they have safety in numbers. Some inmates, guilty of other types of crimes, are appalled by the relative freedom allowed to child molesters and the like. “They’re just happy to be alive, because anywhere else they’d be dead,” says drug dealer Sean.

One inmate who feels particularly concerned about his personal safety is Matthew, who refuses to discuss the nature of his offence. “I wanna do my time peacefully and not have any problems,” he says. Having received threats, he deliberately floods his cell to earn himself 20 days in solitary confinement. After returning to general population, he earns another 30 days in segregation by cutting his wrist. Staff can do little to prevent Matthew from manipulating the system to get what he wants.

A key part of the jail’s work is to rehabilitate prisoners for release. Phase one of this programme is group therapy, in which sex offenders are encouraged to discuss their crimes and accept the blame for the first time. “You have to work with them, confront them in a respectful manner and get them to talk about the issues,” says social worker Mr McGill.

Phase two occurs in a separate facility within the prison, where 96 inmates are slowly prepared for release. The manager, Mr McCullough, accepts that some offenders may never be suitable for parole, but believes that rehabilitation is always preferable to life imprisonment. “Personally I don’t just believe in throwing people away,” he says. As he speaks, the latest batch of inmates wait to see if they have gained the chance for a fresh start in the outside world.

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.”

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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