America’s Toughest Prisons

Monday 6th April 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 prison 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-by- nine 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.”

Saturday March 28 on five

Beginning this week is a 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 prison 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-by- nine 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.”

Monday March 16 at 10:00pm on five

The documentary series unlocking the doors of some of the United States’ most notorious prisons concludes. This edition looks at the county jail in Portland, Oregon. Drug addicts rub shoulders with mental-health patients and first-time offenders in a jail that is operating 25 per cent above capacity.

The Multnomah County Jail is housed in a tower block in downtown Portland, Oregon. The jail is home to 700 inmates at any one time and processes around 45,000 people a year. The facility is 25 per cent over capacity and welcomes offenders of all types, from ‘frequent flyers’ to first-time visitors.

The inmates are held prior to trials or sentencing, and are charged with offences ranging from drug possession to murder. Around two thirds are habitual drug users and many suffer from serious mental illnesses. The vast majority are angry and aggressive when they arrive at the booking counter to be searched, fingerprinted and relieved of their possessions.

None of the prisoners in the booking area are handcuffed. This is a conscious decision to reduce the stress – and consequently, the aggression – of new arrivals. Guards are unarmed to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands. To maintain control, they impose a zero-tolerance policy. When a prisoner shows disrespect to Deputy Bledstoe, he responds by bundling him into an isolation cell. “We got no time for the games they play,” he says.

Another new arrestee is given a dressing down by Duty Sgt Galton, who tells him he will be treated with respect if he shows respect. “It’s easy to physically control somebody,” she says. “Our goal is to verbally control them.” Some of the most unpredictable prisoners are the first-timers, who do not perceive themselves as criminals and resent the strict procedures.

One frequent visitor is heroin addict Paul, arrested this time for petty theft. Paul now faces the painful prospect of withdrawal symptoms. “I’ve got about a week of physical sickness,” he muses. Paul is given medicines to manage his illness, but once he is transferred to the housing unit upstairs, he begins to demonstrate signs of agitation.

Elsewhere, 28-year-old Miranda is also making a return visit to County. Miranda is in jail for failing to attend court-ordered rehab. Already on her last chance, Miranda faces a weekend in prison before her hearing with the judge. If she cannot convince him to grant clemency, she could be back behind bars for a longer stay. Miranda – a former paralegal student – considers herself an addict rather than a criminal. “Not being defined as an individual is the hardest thing about being here,” she says.

Miranda is sent to the Classification Unit, where prisoners are assigned their cells and their cellmates according to the potential danger they represent. Deputy Picton reflects on the breakdown of the inmates she sees on a daily basis.

“I’d say about 60 per cent are lying and 40 per cent are mental,” she says. “Once in a while I meet a sober person, but it’s very rare.”

State budget cuts mean that many mental health patients are sent to County. The most unstable are kept on the psyche ward. One inmate shows signs of a psychotic break and is put on suicide watch. After he tries to cut his wrists with the knife from his meal tray, the patient is dressed in an anti-rip ‘suicide smock’ and given meds to calm him down.

For many officers, however, the hardest part of the job is having to release prisoners simply because the jail is too full. On busy nights, those inmates judged to be the least dangerous, and those facing only minor charges, are let go. “They keep bringing them in but we don’t have a place to put them,” says Sgt Galton. Overall, around 80 per cent of inmates re-offend after their release from County – many of them just hours later.

Monday 9th March at 10:00pm on five

The documentary series unlocking the doors of some of the United States’ most notorious prisons continues. This episode follows the experiences of new guards at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, a maximum-security facility. Many of these ‘newbies’ struggle to cope in the harsh environment, where they are heavily outnumbered by violent inmates and walk the halls armed only with pepper spray.
Baking under the desert sun just outside Rawlings, Wyoming, is a human pressure cooker – the maximum-security Wyoming State Penitentiary (WSP). The prison’s 600 inmates have committed serious crimes and many face life –or death – sentences. The prison is very overcrowded, with many prisoners forced to share their ‘single’ cells, while around 60 newcomers arrive each month.

In 1997, three prisoners broke out and killed a guard before being recaptured. Given the dangers of the job, it is hardly surprising that WSP is dangerously understaffed. Many new guards last as little as two weeks before the pressure forces them to quit, while one in three will not last a year. The warden has to advertise across the US, appealing for recruits from areas with little alternative employment.
Each intake of 30 ‘newbies’ undergoes an intensive training course. There is a strong emphasis on unarmed combat – a vital skill in a jail where guards are outnumbered 75-1 and their only weapon is
pepper spray.The latest batch of recruits is a typical mix, ranging from vulnerable types to those with
military experience. Former US Marine Brian Moyer was lured by the prospect of job security at WSP.

“It’s steady,” he says simply. “People have been committing criminal acts from the beginning of
time and there’s always going to be a need for a place to incarcerate them.” Twenty-seven-year-old mother-of-two Kelly Cooper admits that her family were appalled when she told them about her new career, but she is determined to make the most of it. The former health centre employee is soon pumping iron regularly to keep up with the demands of the job.

Meanwhile, bookish Travis Dipalma hopes his only previous work experience – in a department store – will stand him in good stead. “It’s just a little different – you are still dealing with people,” he
says. Travis has a degree in criminal justice, but at WSP he is thrown in at the deep end on his first day with a shift in E-Unit – the maximum-security wing. E-Unit contains the likes of James Wylie, who, at the age of 15, killed his stepmother and three brothers. “At the time I thought I was helping them,” he explains. “My brother looked at peace when I shot him.” Chillingly, Wylie is another prisoner who once escaped from the jail. He spent four days on the run before being caught.

Kelly patrols the rather more relaxed corridors of B-Unit, although she knows she cannot drop her
guard. The 41 cells in the ‘pod’ contain almost twice the number of prisoners they were intended to hold, and Kelly has to walk alone, instead of in a pair as regulations require. If things do get out of hand, the 20-strong Special Operations Response Team (SORT) is on hand 24 hours a day, armed with shotguns, tear gas and riot shields with electric stun devices.

But the staff at WSP also have some help on the inside. Several prisoners take part in a social-reform programme, in which convicted murderers counsel wayward teens to help them get back on the
straight and narrow. The cons terrorise the kids with stories of the violence that is commonplace in prison. These shock tactics seem to work, as the course enjoys a 90-per cent success rate. One of the prisoners involved, Martin Gabriel, was jailed for shooting his wife’s lover. Now, living up to his guardian-angel name, he says: “I think if I had had a mentor in my life, I wouldn’t be here today. Now I
hope to be a mentor for others.”

This documentary series unlocks the door of some of the United States’ most notorious penitentiaries, giving an insight into the harsh reality of life behind bars. This edition profiles an overcrowded Californian prison that offers college courses to its inmates.

In the desert-bound town of Blythe, southern California, the medium-security Ironwood State Prison is filled to double capacity. With 4,700 prisoners and only 2,200 cells, the jail is a hotbed of unpredictable violence. Riots can break out at any time, but are most common in the yard during recreation when convicts split into warring factions based on race and gang affiliation. Prisoners fashion crude weapons to use in these impromptu battles, including the ‘carrot’ – a device made from a sharpened toothbrush. The carrot is camouflaged with foliage and stored in the prison grounds for easy access. “I’ve seen inmates stabbed in the neck, throats sliced, multiple stabbings,” says prison officer Lieutenant Sue Smith. “I’ve seen death.”

Despite the huge challenge presented by such an overcrowded facility, Ironwood places a strong emphasis on self improvement for its inmates. The jail runs an adult-education programme in partnership with two local community colleges. The programme was the brainchild of Jim White, a veteran inmate serving a life sentence for murder. Seven years earlier, Jim had declared, “My dream is for 200 guys to be going to college.” His expectations have been exceeded twofold, with 400 convicts having graduated from the course.

Hard man Donovan Green is rapidly approaching this milestone. A Crip since the age of 11, Donovan is behind bars for armed robbery. He is working towards a certificate in business studies. All being well, he will graduate in two weeks and be granted a visit from his young daughter, who he has not seen in over a decade. “I love her to death,” he says. “I wish I could have been there for all those years.” However, his chance at graduating could be thwarted by a sudden bout of violence at Ironwood between the Bloods and the Crips. Even though Donovan wants to turn his life around, he continues to follow the gang code, which dictates that he must fight. “There are still things I’m supposed to do as a convict,” he admits.

Roger Serna, who hangs with the whites, also aspires to a college education. Having served three months of his seven-year sentence for attempted murder, he is trying to enrol in the programme. After Roger passes the entrance exam, cellmate Jim White sees a bright future ahead for his newest student. However, Roger’s goal may be in jeopardy when a surprise announcement is made – he is being moved from his cell to the gym, which is packed to the gills with excess inmates. With no way of escaping the noisy and aggressive open- plan environment, Roger finds it impossible to focus on his studies. “Living in the gym is like living in an animal house,” he says.

This documentary series unlocks the door of some of the United States’ most notorious penitentiaries, giving an insight into the harsh reality of life behind bars. This edition profiles Iowa’s Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, where young offenders Thomas and Anthony are the new kids on the block.

The inmates of Fort Dodge nickname the facility ‘gladiator camp’ because of the vicious in-fighting that takes place there. New arrival Thomas has been put in Emmet Unit, along with 150 other prisoners. A self-confessed social outcast, the 19- year-old lost his temper one day after being fired from his job. He pulled a knife on a stranger at a local shopping centre and was sentenced to 15 years’ jail time because of his actions. “I have somewhat anti-social tendencies,” admits Thomas. “I tend to keep to myself a lot and that helps keep all the anger in.”

Thomas has few friends in life, but in prison it is vital to form alliances in order to survive. Initially, Thomas’s attempts at fitting in go well. He starts talking to second-time prisoner Ben, who is behind bars for burglary. Unfortunately, Ben gets into a scuffle with a fellow inmate and is put into protective custody. Ben is concerned that Thomas’s newbie status and lack of physical credentials will make him vulnerable to attack. “People are out to prove themselves, so that’s a good target to do it with,’ he says.

It is recreation time, and the prisoners head to the yard. They separate into various social groups based on race and gang affiliations. Thomas tries to gain acceptance by showing a display of strength on the weight machines. However, his efforts are ridiculed by the other men and Thomas is immediately branded a weakling.

During a routine strip search later in the week, Thomas is found to have severe bruising on his arms and trunk. He tells officials that he got the injuries while playing a martial-arts game with some other prisoners, but they are dubious about his story. Veteran inmate Jerome Anderson is thrown into isolation in the protective-custody cells under suspicion of assaulting Thomas. He flatly denies any wrongdoing, saying, “He probably gave them to himself. He’s got some issues.”

Protective custody is dubbed ‘the hole’ by inmates because of the tiny, windowless cells and lack of social interaction. If a prisoner enters the hole voluntarily, they are considered to be cowards and no one on the outside will associate with them. Despite this stigma, Thomas elects to enter isolation for his own safety. The repercussions of his decision begin to echo through the jail. “He’s a coward,” spits Jerome. “He ain’t no good. He’s on his own.”

Meanwhile, new inmate Anthony has been given a chance to change his ways early on in his prison career. Like many of the other convicts, the 22- year-old has been locked up for drug offences. He has been placed in the Rivers programme, a rehabilitative boot camp that lasts for five months and involves gruelling physical challenges and hard manual labour. Anthony has high hopes of succeeding, but his cocky nature and constant flouting of the rules has put him on the wrong side of prison officials. Can he last the course and win an early release?

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