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Amnesty Criticizes OK Control Unit

On June 14, 1994, Amnesty International (AI) released a report harshly criticizing the control unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) at McAlester. An AI investigation team toured the prison's H. Unit in March, 1994, and found that some 350 prisoners are held 23 or 24 hours a day in underground, concrete, windowless cells which allow virtually no natural light or fresh air. Prisoners can only exercise during weekdays, five at a time, for one hour in a bare, enclosed, concrete yard that gives no view of the outside. "Prisoners are confined to a concrete world in which they never see a blade of grass, earth, trees or any other part of the natural world," said the report.

Since H unit opened in November, 1991, AI has received repeated complaints about its conditions, which the human rights group considers to be in breach of both US and international standards governing the treatment of prisoners. Some prisoners housed in the unit have developed severe depression since being in the unit, which was designed by a committee of prison staff. The report focused mainly on the 118 death row prisoners because they are housed in H unit indefinitely, either until the state murders them or the death sentences are overturned, without regard to their individual behavior.

The cells have no alarm bells and prisoners talk to guards via an intercom system controlled by staff. When the intercom is switched off it is very difficult for prisoners to attract attention. AI believes that this remoteness between staff and prisoners can breed a sense of indifference to prisoners' legitimate needs. Prisoners complain that guards repeatedly ignore requests for medical or other attention. Seriously mentally ill prisoners receive little or no psychiatric care.

AI was gravely concerned by the stress and danger caused by the prolonged confinement of two prisoners together in such enclosed cells. The isolation and lack of out of cell activities or any opportunity for work, education or recreation can have a detrimental effect on prisoners' physical and mental health according to AI.

The report contains a number of recommendations to prison officials to improve the unit: more out of cell time; better exercise facilities and access to fresh air; a review of medical and psychiatric services provided H unit prisoners and an opportunity for death row prisoners to have their custody status reviewed. Copies of the report are available from: Amnesty International, 1 Easton St. London. WC1X 8DJ. England.

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