Avoid at all costs

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Level 5. Whenever I hear “level 5” it doesn’t seem to be good. Today we visited a “Level 5” maximum security prison. It is the only one of its kind in my state. I have never been to a correctional facility before. It was very eye-opening and quite interesting.

We were taken on our tour by the education director at the facility. The prison itself is built mostly underground. It kind of reminded me of a “walk-out” house. It looks like one level in the front, but the back opens to about five. So even though it is built into the ground, there is a fair amount of natural light. We were able to see several areas: the canteen, education area, the “yard,” the visiting area, a typical cell and a cell in the area where offenders are isolated in their cell for 23 hours per day. When we went on this tour, we could only carry our driver’s license. I wore no jewelry and no watch. The metal detector that we walked through was more sensitive than at the airport. Our hands were stamped with an ink that was read under a special light. We had to put our hand under the light to go through certain areas.

Every time we went through one door, we had to wait in an area before another door would open. The number of security cameras and guards is incredible. It was interesting to see what an actual maximum security facility is like. Most of us only have ideas about them from movies. Enough said. Currently this facility has 420 inmates. The average age is 36. Seventy-nine percent have their high school diploma or GED. For various jobs, they earn about 50 cents per hour. They are responsible for paying a co-pay if they request to see the doctor. They have to pay for their toiletries, phone cards and personal items. They do pay for the educational courses they take. It doesn’t seem like much to us, but when you make 50 cents per hour, it’s significant.

In the educational area we were actually just outside in the hallway from their classrooms. There was one room where the offenders were working on their GED’s. Another room was a higher ed class. There was one inmate working on a computer just behind a divider from where we were standing. In order to take classes, they needed to not have any behavior incident. I don’t remember how long they needed to have a clean record. I was struck by how young they were. Honestly, it didn’t seem too different from my classroom, minus the girls and the Hmong students. When tour groups come through they have been told that they must stay in their classrooms. They were very curious about us. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I’m sure there were some people who did.

The area where they keep offenders in isolation was kind of freaky. They get put into these cells because they have assaulted a guard or another inmate. Sometimes they are there because they are not safe with other inmates. If they are a high-profile offender, they are often in one of these areas. While we were there, they needed to transfer an inmate for a court date. Three officers went to get him and he came by us in an orange jump-suit, hand-cuffs and shackles. I’m not even sure of the wording for how they had him restrained. When he came by, one of the guards jokingly told him to smile at us. I think we were all so surprised at this that we didn’t get the prison humor. The recreation room in that unit was very sparse. It had a bar for doing pull-ups, a phone with a bench built into the wall, and that’s it. A large room with hardly anything to do. In their cells, the lights and water are controlled. They are under constant surveillance. The guys in the control booth flushed the toilet and made us jump. The inmates in the cells next to the one we stopped off at were definitely interested in watching us all walk by. Just being in that cell for a short time was enough to make me want to move on with the tour and get out. That creepy feeling was definitely present.

At the end of the tour we were given some statistics about the facility. I’m glad for this since we couldn’t take any notes. You know how teachers are about taking notes… Eighty-five percent of the governing sentences of the population are for an offense against a person. What is this? Homicide, assault, criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, robbery and first degree burglary. The next largest category was “other” and it’s 9%. That list includes: Felony DWI, weapon, traffic accidents (excluding felony DWI), obscenity, prostitution, escape and other. Drug offenses made up 4% of the population.

I kept wondering throughout the tour if there were any inmates from my school. When I looked at the board with all of their pictures at the end of the tour, I didn’t recognize any names. I wondered about the former student that was recently sentenced to 30 years. I didn’t see his name. But I was hoping that he was in another facility where there wasn’t any climate control in this hot and sticky weather. Even though this is a maximum security prison, they do benefit from climate control and all of the cells are single.

It costs $170 per day per inmate. How’s this for scary math? $170 x 420 = $71,400 per day. That times 365 equals $26,061,000 per year. When you divide that by the number of inmates, it’s $62,050 per year, per inmate. I know you can’t compare it with the costs of education. But the per pupil funding in my state is not much over $5000 per pupil per year.

How do I use this information in my life? I guess I can tell students what it’s really like in a prison. It was extremely informative and interesting to visit, but it will take a while for me to frame this in my mind for how I will use the information. All I really know, is that you want to avoid this place at all costs.

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