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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More Brutality and Repression at E.S.P.

To be able to meet and cross paths with true comrades under these circumstances is one of the best things going for a young soldier like me. To have to live under such disturbing conditions while surrounded by so many prisoners who unfortunately obtain counter-productive mentalities is a tragedy within itself. Especially as we are all going through this same struggle together. So to be fortunate enough to come across comrades like Coyote to pass me literature and encourage me to pick up the struggle. And comrades like Brother Reggie who inspires me to be mentally and physically strong while living in the hellhole, a young soldier like me would probably still be promoting a selfish destructive lifestyle. And I wouldn’t be here today to write this article to shed light on yet another case of police brutality and abuse of power by the guards and the administration of Ely State Prison.

We’ve all heard about the incident of police brutality that took place in unit 4 on January 31st, 2010, where a guard allegedly got stabbed after beating over a dozen inmates bloody while in handcuffs, which resulted in a lieutenant and another officer getting fired, and which has provoked a series of lawsuits – on top of hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits that are already ongoing against the cold-hearted administration of E.S.P. So another report of police brutality should be no surprise.

In fact, I’m sure it was because of the lawsuits in regards to the “Bloody Sunday” incident (which is what the January 31st fracas is now being referred to as) that has caused the I.G.’s office to intervene on this latest incident of brutality that I am now about to report. Here for the very first time. Unfortunately the I.G.’s office intervention was a little too late, so hopefully this article will raise awareness and inspire people to start taking action so that we can prevent this type of retaliation from happening again, Let me explain…

I was working in the kitchen on March 7th, 2011. An inmate named Newcastle, known to us as “Chilly”, was alleged to brutally beat the Culinary Manager Steve Roundy almost to death. No one really knows if “Chilly” was the one to beat Steve over the head or not. For all we know it could’ve been a guard, cuz this incident allegedly took place after Steve threatened to write an officer up. But what we do know for sure is that Chilly is the one who was targeted by the officers after the alleged incident took place. The pigs came into the kitchen and handcuffed every prisoner and made us all lay face down on a dirty ground and then the officers proceeded to beat inmate Newcastle for about 20 to 30 minutes before they took him out of the kitchen. Chilly was in handcuffs and fully restrained. The pigs were supposed to have the video camera trained on the inmate, but they would point the camera on Steve, the Culinary Manager, while beating on Chilly. He was screaming and in obvious pain from the brutality of these vindictive, cowardly pigs. Then they took Chilly out of the kitchen into the hallway where I believe they beat him some more, which I will explain here momentarily.

Eventually Chilly was taken to the infirmary where the I.G. (Inspector General)’s offices that a camera be placed on him for 24 hours, 7 days a week to keep him protected from he violent retaliation of these cowardly officers. Why would the I.G.’s office take such drastic measures? Because they obviously know the nature and the criminal ways of these so-called E.S.P. “Correctional Officers.”

All of the other eleven prisoners, including myself, were taken to the hallway and forced to strip naked where a female nurse stood in front of me examining my body for any cuts and bruises. I felt very uncomfortable as the female nurse was staring at me laughing while the guards were standing by making sexual comments about my genitalia. and besides, there are male nurses employed here at E.S.P., so what was the purpose of having a female nurse inspect my naked body other than to humiliate and degrade me? This is all part of the psychological warfare waged on prisoners daily here at E.S.P. So needless to say, I felt violated, especially after it was already said that “The other 11 inmates did nothing wrong.” But that’s nothing compared to the violation I felt as I watched helplessly while Chilly was being beaten with a vengeance by these pigs.

After the inspection, or “degradation” I should say, we were all dressed and placed on our knees with our hands on our heads. And we were repeatedly threatened by the officer in the hallway gun tower that if we moved we will be shot down. After 30 minutes of this we were then all sent back to unit 8.

What´s even more crazy about all of this, is that when we were in the kitchen, lying on the floor in handcuffs, I was positioned in a way so that I was facing the pigs so that I could see then beat Chilly. And I could see everything that was going on, then one of the pigs tells another pig to make me turn my body the other way so I wouldn´t see what was going on. Twenty minutes after we were returned to our unit 2 pigs come to my room and told me that I needed to come with them. And I was then told that I had to speak with an Investigator from Las Vegas, and while I was in the process of being escorted to the property room, I saw some “bloody gloves” in the hallway just laying there. So it makes you wonder…

Upon entering the property room I was told I would be speaking with an Investigator and that I need to let them know everything I know and have seen. After 2 hours of sitting in the property holding cell, Lieutenant Peck comes in and gave me a pink piece of paper and read me my Miranda Rights. The paper was an Administrative Segregation Notice of Classification Hearing paper that I had to sign.

Then I was taken to the infirmary, but on the way to the Infirmary I asked the pig why I´m being treated like a suspect in the case, because to my understanding any time you are apprehended or detained by authority and read your Rights concerning a crime, you are observed as a potential suspect in the crime, and that´s clearly what´s going on here.

The pig´s response to my question was: “You shouldn´t have been facing that way, told you.” So to my understanding they know I was laying on the ground watching inmate Newcastle get beat. So then I was taken to the Infirmary and placed in holding cell #11 for 6 to 8 hours. Then Sergeant Lightsey and 2 C.E.R.T. officers came to my door and handcuffed me and when I came out the cell there was a video camera on a post facing me and the cell that I was in. I didn´t even know it was there until I came out the cell. So then I was brought to “the hole.” In unit 1A, stripped out of my clothes and given an orange jumpsuit. I asked Sgt Lightsey “Why am I being treated like a suspect?” He responded “You are a suspect.” The next day, ;March 8th, 2011, I was then taken to custody and was put in a small office where a sheriff from White Pine County and an investigator from Las Vegas asked me questions about the situation that occurred in the kitchen on March 7th, 2011. They asked me did I see the inmate Newcastle go in there, I said: “No, I was doing my job sacking up the lunches.” Then I was asked did I hear him say anything? I said: “No. I was just doing my job.” I asked them why I was being treated like a suspect. I was then told I am a possible suspect and witness, so I told them I did nothing wrong and I didn´t see anything. I was taken back to unit 1 and placed back into the cell with bloody ankles from the shackles being placed around my legs so tight I requested for medical attention, and I did not receive medical attention: my cell emergency button did not even work.

I am here on Ad. Seg. Told that I will remain under investigation for the 3-7-2011 situation. Of course, even though I´m only 22 years old, I´m still wise to their ways, I understand that all of thi sis just an intimidation tactic. To keep me from exposing how they savagely beat Chilly down while he was fully restrained like the cowards they are. It took me 3 weeks before I could get my property or even before I could take a shower. My rights to make a legal call were denied. And for a week we were being starved out with 2 cold, 300 calorie meals a day. And one hot meal at dinner. All of this to try to break my spirits. To try to make me cave in, left to set in a cell to worry and agonize over whether these cold-hearted cowards were gonna try to set me up as a retaliatory act because they know I watched them beat Newcastle.

After a week of being starved out, an anarchist comrade and an anti-authoritarian comrade on 1B kicked off a disturbance where supposedly fires were started, slots were captured and the tier was flooded out as more and more prisoners started to join in the resistance. From my wing – A-wing – we could see prisoners get carried out on stretchers and smoke everywhere. So we were quick to show our solidarity on A-wing! Supposedly Unit 1 was flooded and burnt out on the day of March 14th 2011. The next day we got fed our normal 2 hot meals a day and a cold sack lunch! So it just goes to show what a little resistance can do!

People need to know about the depravity here at ESP. They´ve already heard about the “Bloody Sunday” incident+ And the mysterious death of Timothy Redman. They ´ve heard about the way they let Cavanaugh rot and die. They´ve heard about the medical neglect, the F.B.I. investigations. And all of the lawsuits. And now they’re gonna hear about this! What else is it gonna take before we can get these callous and uncaring administrators and wardens removed from this prison, where someone capable can come in and operate this in a reasonable and humane way?

I was at one time blind and ignorant enough to work in the kitchen and help uphold the operations of this foul ass prison. I’ve seen the brutality of these pigs. And I’ve seen prisoners almost die because these incompetent nurses have given them the wrong medication.

The kitchen is the most unsanitary place in this whole prison. The pots and pans they cook food in are only half cleaned, the sheet pars they cook cakes and pies in are dirty. The floors and walls are dirty. And to top that off you have mice and rats running around the kitchen bite through food they feed us! There’s holes in the walls and the pigs even put food in the holes for the mice and rats.

This prison needs to be shut down, or else tempers are going to continue to flare and things are gonna blow up around here. The pigs are very disrespectful: they call your name and talk shit to you and they even call you names and talk shit to you and they even call Black people “monkeys”. And they know they can get away with just about anything because most of them live in the same town and are friends, they all watch each other’s back. And these so-called wardens cover up for them and back up their wrongdoing to cover their own asses.

Back here in the hole it’s bad. Psychiatric patients going crazy and terrorizing everybody. If you’re on Disciplinary Segregation you can’t even get a book sent in from your people on the outs. Left to sit in between 4 walls and lose your mind. No food off canteen, so D.S. inmates are forced to eat this unsanitary food or starve to death! It’s all bad.

I was once blind to all of this madness here at Ely State Prison. But now after being through all of this, and running across good comrades like Coyote who have taken the time to pass me literature and extend his solidarity and discuss serious matters about oppression and about how we need to elevate ourselves under these conditions, nothing can be the same for me anymore, now I’m stepping up to the plate, to be involved in the struggle and to be a part of the solution, no more can I stand idly by while we all suffer under these same atrocities. And I’m calling on others to start getting organized, start becoming active in the struggle that we are all aware of for liberation and justice. Leave the old, destructive ways alone and get involved in something that truly matters! I’m only 22 years old, I step up to the plate, so I know you can, because we all know what goes on here at Ely State Prison day in and day out. I step up because I know that “God” got my back for what ever comes my way, I’m prepared.
In for better for myself and others,

“With the heart of a young warrior”,
Comrade Vick P.!

Received by mail:
April 10th 2011
Including 5 pages of documentation.