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A Day at the Prison Fun Park

"Have you guys been here before?" a female high schooler asks two young guys in baseball caps and shorts. "We have," she goes on. "We liked it so much we came back a second time." I hear an older man saying to his family, with just a tinge of irony, "This place is just like Disneyland, except the lines are on the left side!" As in Disneyland, people are willing to wait an hour or more for a good ride.

A hundred or so folks, of different classes and races, are squished into a large concrete room ringed with American flags. We've just been informed that this is the receiving room for the new Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) administrative maximum security prison in Youngstown, and that the first shipment will be coming in any day now from the maximum-security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. It's the last day of a four-day media blitz by OSP. A ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, April 9, 1999, was followed by a three day "Open House" - advertised in three states - in which the public was invited on guided tours of the prison.

The open house was a primo PR effort, rallying locals behind the newest and most extreme state penitentiary in Ohio. Dave Bobby, assistant to OSP warden David Johnson, estimated 13,000 people came through the prison during the open house. They were almost entirely from Youngstown and several surrounding towns, including some across the nearby Pennsylvania border. The Supermax is something new to be proud of in a town that's seen nearly half its population desert since the late '70s. Passing the sinking porches of homes and the crumbling abandoned businesses on the way to the prison, it's easy to understand why some people take pride in this state-of-the-art Bastille.

The only thing that marred the event for the state were 40 or so protesters from Oberlin College's radical student group Oberlin Action Against Prisons. They distributed 2,000 plus pamphlets voicing human rights and school vs. prison concerns, and spoke to the media and any passersby who wanted to feel them out.

A Supermax - as in "super-maximum security" - is typified by extreme isolation of 22-24 hours a day. Such isolation, bordering on absolute sensory deprivation, was originally used in the 1820s as a crude means of rehabilitating American prisoners. It was refined in the 1970s, when the German state used sensory deprivation against members of the communist guerilla group the Red Army Faction. At the same time, the United States employed extreme isolation (as well as forced administration of experimental drugs and the threat of lobotomization) against prisoner revolutionaries, most notoriously in the Behavior Modification Unit of the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion.

As used in the U.S. today - over 40 states and the District of Colombia have a unit of extended isolation cells or an entire prison of them - they teach prisoners "what we want to be like," as an OSP tour guide put it. People confined in such conditions report terrifying and violent fantasies. They also often self-mutilate in hideous ways, such as the men in Indiana's control unit at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility who chewed themselves and inserted pencils in their penises and straightened paper clips into their abdomens. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the extended isolation regimen as state-sponsored psychological torture equal to physical violence. Prisoners are sent to such units or prisons because they are deemed worthy candidates, not because of their original crime.

I was one of the protesters. We wanted to see the prison and hopefully deflate the propaganda tours by participating in them.

The tours, led by soon-to-be guards transferred in from other state prisons and low-level administrators, titillated the Midwesterners with visions of suffering Hannibal Lechters, "worst of the worst" cases who screwed up every chance they'd been given and were sent to OSP to get their due. The atmosphere of extra-tight control implied that anyone subjected to it deserved it.

Gay McCown, a guard trainer and my first tour guide, displayed OSP's high-security features with gusto and pride. Innovative toys now functional at OSP include towel hooks that retract under pressure, so prisoners can't hang themselves; toilets that can't clog, so prisoners can't flood their cells in protest or insanity; cell lights that are controlled by guards and are never completely turned off, so guards can always see what prisoners are doing; doors with no opening so prisoners can't throw their shit and piss ("Inmates like to do nasty things," McCown explained).

She also displayed two large glass tanks, like empty aquariums, in the sixteen-cell "pods" where the prisoners will live. The tanks are exercise cells. "Everyone loves this," McCown cooed, as she pointed out the difference between outside and indoor recreation: the outside has a small grate, a couple inches wide, allowing fresh air to blow in. This is so that the cell meets the basic state requirements (though not the international requirements, McCown fails to mention) for "outdoor" recreation.

McCown keeps up the act, mocking prisoners and their little grievances such as cold coffee and hamburgers. As the word was at the time that the most brutal guards from the nearby Trumbull Correctional Institution were undergoing training for OSP, this trivialization was essentially a lie.

I asked McCown about how OSP administrators could get away with running a prison that violates the U.N.'s Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners (answer: these people have demonstrated that they need this level of security. "They chose to be here."), and how this place will make anyone less crazy and dangerous ("These people are beyond rehabilitation."). McCown then tried to shuffle me off to talk to someone who could spin me better than she could, but I stay on the tour. I keep trying to challenge her rah-rah shit, and when the other folks on the tour get annoyed that I'm spoiling the show I strike up conversation with them. There's a nervous-nellie father in the group, whose daughter wants to be a guard at OSP. He wants to make sure she'll be safe. McCown and I assure him this isn't the kind of place where guards have anything to fear (except their souls, I added in my mind).

When I did meet with the warden after the tour, Johnson, a former social worker, catered to my perceived liberalism. He talked about how the prisoners he would cage had reached rock bottom and he wanted to help them rise. He spoke of general societal anomie and the high rates of illiteracy and survival of sexual abuse among the prisoners. He told me, "These are the people the Marines used to take, but now we're the socializer of last resort."

The goals Johnson set for himself were that after incarceration in OSP - be it several months or several years, he wouldn't state his ideal time frame - prisoners will be able to fit in in the isolation wing at Lucasville, and, "If we do a good job we'll have a very low suicide rate: I'm hoping for zero." Since I'd already seen the high tech toys designed to make it so that prisoners don't even have enough control over their lives to end their lives - a situation meeting anyone's definition of hell - it doesn't seem he'll have much of a problem meeting his goals.

I was outside OSP protesting the next day so I went on the tour again. A guard recognized me and said flatly, "You again." The tour guide was quickly switched to a slicker, higher-ranking guard.

A lot of the comments I heard from the other folks on the tour were jokes to their kids, telling them to be good or this is where they'll end up. When, asking the guide a question, I let slip a naughty word in describing the "fucking" cells, a mother looked at the presiding guard with indignation, then pulled her child away from my menacing presence, stroked his hair to assure him she was protecting him, and said "You just abused the rights of my child."

At least some people seemed shaken by the Supermax. Those who entered the narrow concrete cells and truly asked themselves what it would feel like to be forced to live in one weren't as psyched about the institution. A friend from Oberlin was visibly shaken. She said to me outside OSP: "This whole thing reminds me of an amusement park. You get the whole community to come to a prison! And they bring their kids! They may as well sell ice cream and snow cones ... What does this say about our society?" OSP actually was hocking t-shirts, caps, and other merchandise at both the entrance and the exit of the tour. By Monday afternoon, the last day of the spectacle, all the child-sized shirts were sold out.

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