Thursday, July 16, 2009

Those Four Gray Walls Closing In

“One phone call, two Tylenol
Four cold gray walls closing in . . .”
(from Todd Snider’s Tilamook County Jail)

In the interest of transparency, I suppose, the Minnesota Department of Corrections offers virtual tours of its facilities. It’s been over six years since I was a research and planning specialist for the DOC, and so it’s been awhile since I physically visited a prison. Tonight, I decided to take the virtual tour, starting with Stillwater, a classic “Big House”-type prison with old-fashioned cell blocks.

One quickly sees that the cells are quite small. Single cells are a mere six feet by nine feet. Double cells are the same, except that there is a second bunk. By comparison, cells at Rush City, constructed in the 1990s, are seven feet by thirteen feet. To paraphrase Tolstoy, how much space does a man need?

For a quick comparison to another state, I checked the New York State Department of Correctional Services website. Specifically, I was looking for information about Sing Sing, the notorious prison in Ossining where the journalist Ted Conover worked as a correctional officer to gather material for his excellent book Newjack (2000). The DOCS provided only driving directions, however, and a map of the area around the prison.

The details vary, state by state and facility by facility. But the emotional reality of incarceration surely has a universal quality, from for-sale San Quentin on San Francisco Bay to the well-documented Farm in Louisiana and anywhere else humans confine each other. Even in a modern pod-like facility where inmates can move around, those four gray walls start closing in.

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