America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Ely State Prison makes it to the Dishonorable Mentions (top 17)

America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Dishonorable Mentions
7 runners-up, from a “gladiator school” to America’s largest death row.

By James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
Wed May. 15, 2013, in:  Mother Jones Magazine

#1: ADX (federal supermax)
#2: Allan B. Polunsky Unit (Texas)
#3: Tent City Jail (Phoenix)
#4: Orleans Parish (Louisiana)
#5: LA County Jail (Los Angeles)
#6: Pelican Bay (California)
#7: Julia Tutwiler (Alabama)
#8: Reeves Country Detention Complex (Texas)
#9: Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Mississippi)
#10: Rikers Island (New York City)

Read the complete introduction to our 10 Worst Prisons project.
Last of 11 parts.

Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of the problems we explore, some stand out as particularly bad actors. These dishonorable mentions make up the final installment of our 11-part series, a subjective ranking based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy.

Attica Correctional Facility (Attica, New York): More than four decades after its famous uprising, New York’s worst state prison still lives up to its brutal history. According to the Correctional Association of New York, which has a legislative mandate to track prison conditions, Attica is plagued by staff-on-prisoner violence, intimidation, and sexual abuse.

Communications Management Units (Marion, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana): These two federal prisons-within-prisons, whose populations are more than two-thirds Muslim, were opened secretly by the Bureau of Prisons during the Bush administration, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is challenging the facilities in a federal lawsuit. “The Bureau claims that CMUs are designed to hold dangerous terrorists and other high-risk inmates, requiring heightened monitoring of their external and internal communications,” notes a lawsuit fact sheet. “Many prisoners, however, are sent to these isolation units for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system.” (Also see: Pelican Bay.)

Ely State Prison (Ely, Nevada): A “shocking and callous disregard for human life” is how an auditor described medical care at Ely, which houses the state’s death row along with other maximum security prisoners (PDF). The audit, which found that one prisoner was allowed to rot to death from gangrene, formed the basis of a 2008 class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The suit was settled in 2010, but by 2012 the prison still was not in full compliance.

Idaho Correctional Center (Kuna, Idaho): Run by Corrections Corporation of America, the world’s largest private prison company, ICC has been dubbed a “gladiator school” for its epidemic of gang violence. According to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the ACLU of Idaho (PDF), the violence is not only condoned but actively promoted by the staff. The suit was settled, but last November, the ACLU said CCA appeared to be violating the agreement, which called for increased staffing and training, reporting of assaults to the local sheriff’s office, and disciplinary measures for staffers who didn’t take steps to stop or prevent assaults.

San Quentin State Prison (Marin County, California): This decrepit prison, which sits on a $2 billion piece of bayside real estate, is home to America’s largest death row. As of late-April, there were 711 men and 20 women condemned to die at San Quentin—you can find the latest stats here (PDF); the figure is constantly changing, despite a state moratorium on executions, because prisoners frequently die of illness or old age. Some even commit suicide rather than remain in solitary limbo.

Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola, Louisiana): At America’s largest prison, those who embrace warden Burl Cain’s pet program of “moral rehabilitation” through Christianity are afforded privileges while sinners languish in institutional hell. A former slave plantation, the prison lends its name to the so-called Angola 3, two of whom have been held in solitary for 40 years, largely for their perceived political beliefs. (In March, Louisiana’s attorney general declared, bafflingly, that the men had “never been in solitary confinement.”)

The federal pen at Lewisburg.
United States Penitentiary (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania): In this overcrowded supermax, the target of multiple lawsuits, prisoners are locked down for 23 to 24 hours a day in the company of a cellmate. One lawsuit alleges that prison officials deliberately pair people with their enemies, and that this practice has led to at least two deaths. The suit also claims that prisoners have been strapped to their bunks with four-point restraints if they resist their cell assignments.

Research for this project was supported by a grant from the Investigative Fund and The Nation Institute, as well as a Soros Justice Media Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations. Additional reporting by Beth Broyles, Valeria Monfrini, Katie Rose Quandt, and Sal Rodriguez.
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At no other time have more inmates been isolated or locked down in Nevada prisons in over a hundred years than during this time when McDaniel has taken over

Letter sent to us to send for:

Mr. Senator Tick Segerblom
3540 West Sahara Avenue, Suite 352
Las Vegas, Nevada 891025816

Presenter of Senate Bill 107

I am writing you in response to responses made to the press by E.K. McDaniel (deputy director of NDOC), as well as comments of “facts” you made to the same article(by Matt Woolbright and the Associated Press).

Firstly the comments by Mr McDaniel could not be more misdirected or blatant lying to the public in regards of housing in Solitary Confinement. At no other time have more inmates been isolated or locked down in Nevada prisons in over a hundred years (per ratio of incarcerated percentages even) than during this time when McDaniel has taken over.

It is through this mis-information and mis-direction that Ely State Prison is completely locked down except ½ (half) of a workers unit. It is not because of violence that this prison is permanently on isolated lockdown, because even with only less than 24 men able to leave their cells (as where the rest are on 24 hour lockdown) ESP continues to be the only prison with a death rate of at least one man per year caused by the inability to leave their cells.

This is only a small fraction of the argument that can be made in regards to the comments made in this article. Another being – segregated inmates do not have everything general population does. See AR733. Inmates are allowed a TV – or radio – however this becomes a game of power and abuse to the offenders. 

McDaniel’s ½ truths don’t tell you that for any rule infraction the TV or radio is taken away for 60 days more and so on goes the game. Any infraction is another 60 days. Inmates can go years without any appliance. The same game is applied to food, books, showers. For example: inmates lose an average of 20 LBS while in “Disciplinary Segregation.” The portions are half and if an inmate has any altercation (verbally, because there’s norecreation yard for days, weeks on end), then his food is withheld for a week! Ely State Prison is so isolated without overview, that abuses of Constitution and Human Rights are rampant in this prison.

However – you claim inmates are not paced in Isolation for months and years. Sir, bluntly spoken you have no clue what you’re talking about. Don’t go to Lovelock and presume you know how I tis for all NDOC prisoners. That kind of comment, made from blind ignorance, is just… well is a farce of grotesquerie.

I myself have spent 10 out of 14 years in Isolation. There are men who have spent the last 15-20 years in Isolation. The only reason being the Administration claims that there are others they will hurt, or want to hurt them. With this excuse ready able to be given by your ignorance of how people in prisons are truly being abused and are being punished – that is the only excuse they used.

I have been in ESP for almost 15 years. 12+ years have been spent in lockdown. .This form of confinement is still Solitary Confinement. Having one other man that you must live with 24/7 with no jobs, schools, group therapy, or contact without restraints is still isolated confinement, Sir. Try living in your bathroom for the next 12 years with no one but another stranger as company. It makes for a violent, paranoid, uncertain situation, Sir. Men are dying or beaten into a hospital bed, simply because they can’t leave when/if an argument breaks out.

You may argue it’s because we are the worst of the worst. This too is a misdirected and misinformed argument, Sir.  Even still, if we are all the worst of the worst, then locking us up in a cell with 24/7 living isn’t much more than putting two rabid dogs together now, isn’t it? Statistics tell the truth here, Sir. No other prison is locked down like this one. Yet only Ely State Prison continues to report deaths. Each year. This is Isolation, Sir. Over 800 inmates on 23-24/7 lockdown. No classrooms, no group interaction – no way to correct or give help to make an inmate learn to do & be better.

Further – there are men in ESP lockdown that did nothing more than give a dirty urine or had a fist fight or were informed on with noevidence, that they were bad guys. They will go home very soon and yet they are forced to be confined and isolated with murderers, rapists and violent criminals so labeled by this abusive system.

The issue Sir is that the Isolation Confinement – whether it is Solitary or Double cell Confinement is the cause of more problems. The system would work if it was being worked. There are those who get flushed through at a normal rate – giving the appearance of a productive system. But there are those such as myself who have had no group interaction (like any social society) in more than 11 years.

I have lost most of my facial recognition skills – my ability to voice complete and comprehensive discussions. My sleep patterns are extreme and my ability to tolerate spacial acceptance is very low. These are only some of the effects long term confinement causes.

Yes, I will be straight forth – I am a convicted murderer. However, my cellmate is a petty burglar sent here for fighting. This is the issue. There are no programs to teach me to be a better person. How can we learn to live better lives? When I do good I’m still locked down – I am still chained any time I leave my cell. I have not touched grass in 12 years. I amin prison, I was convicted. But am I supposed to learn and be better? If so – what good does this solitary confinement do?

What exactly do you know of Isolation Confinement?

If Solitary Confinement is defined as 16 hours per day in a cell, then what is the limit on double cell confinement? Is 23 hours 7 days a week for 12 years good enough to meet your criteria to constitute a problem?

When you really understand what it’s like to be confined, then I hope you folks do what is right and begin to make changes and put your $ where your mouths are to help us learn to be humans not animals in cages.

Sincerely,

An inmate confined at Ely State Prison (name known to NV PW, email was sent to Mr Segerblom earlier today, but for now we want to keep name of author private for fear of retaliation)