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A Day at the Human Zoo

My husband and I toured the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a new "private prison" that is soon to open in Youngstown. Near the entrance there is a bulletin board with the words, "Yesterday's Closing Stock Price," a reminder that the Corrections Corporation of America is in business to make a profit.

Fifteen hundred prisoners will arrive from Washington, D.C. in the next few weeks. Eventually there may be more than three thousand housed here. Some will live here for the rest of their lives.

One of the first places we toured was the visiting room. Although this is a medium security prison -- not maximum security there will be no contact visits. On one side of a very large room there are about ten tiny stalls with phones. Prisoners will be on the other side of a thick glass barrier. There will be no hugs, no children on the knee as in the Trumbull Correctional Institution, a close security state prison where we visit.

The woman who was showing us around told us the prisoners will be dressed in orange, 'so you will know who the enemy is." If this is the attitude of staff before any prisoners arrive, I fear a self-fulfilling prophecy: you treat a man like an enemy and he will act like your enemy.

We were taken to a pod where "bad'' prisoners will be housed. Along one side of a large room are showers separated only by a low wall from the area where other prisoners will be watching TV -- no privacy. We were told that there may be female guards who would be able to see the male prisoners as they shower. I remembered a conversation with a black minister who spoke of the humiliation it is for male prisoners to be guarded by a woman, much less observed while naked.

Later in the tour we were shown the segregation unit. I asked what facilities there are for recreation. None. What about fresh air? None. There are no windows, no view of the outdoors. Someone else asked, "What if they set a fire?"

"It doesn't matter if someone is dying," came the response. The guards signal an alert and do not risk their own lives. "If an inmate dies," we were told, "they'll send another one. There are plenty more."

As we were leaving the prison, another woman in the tour group said it was a shame that Washington, D.C. could send its human garbage to Youngstown. My husband looked at her and said, "Yes, it is a shame that this is what Youngstown has come to. It certainly is a shame."

[Editor's Note: Mrs. Lynd is a retired attorney and publishes a newsletter, "Impact" which addresses labor issues, including prison labor issues. This article, submitted to PLN as a letter, was edited for length.]

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