Letter to the Public from Inmates at OSCI: What is the cost of prisons?

Dear Public,

What is the cost of prisons? The real cost, not the budgeted value. What are the effects on society? What of the family with parents torn away, the children left without a provider, emotional support, guidance? What opportunities are lost: college, summer camp, weddings, funerals, birthdays, family trips?

Imprisonment is a socially acceptable form of torture. The most mundane, innocuous things are used to torture a prisoner’s mind and body. Showers are hot in summer, cold in winter. The tile grout is black with mold. Bloody bandages are left on shower heads. The showers can be shut down for an officers whims.

Fans coated in dust move hot funky air through restrooms, shower areas, into food serveries, across food. They’re loud, vibrate, and run 24 hours a day.

Ventilation is amazing! It’s almost non-existent. Prisoners suffer with allergies, sinus infections, asthma, and other breathing and sinus problems.

Ice, water, and hot water are available in the dayrooms. The ice machine routinely runs out so buckets are provided. These buckets have ladles that get stuck in cup after cup, fluid splashes all over the place.

Dishes used to cook ramen noodles can only be washed at washing stations. These stations are bussing tubs used to collect mealtime drinking cups from the unit population. These are simply sprayed out, filled with warm soapy water.

Sanitation is almost un thought of. Prisoners use their gloved hands to pick up things off the floor, wipe their face, scratch their behinds as well as serve food. Buckets from the floor are set on counters, rags are reused, mops smell sour, drains stink like sewage.

The main kitchen ofen send the units insufficient food to serve the entire population. Prisoners are sometimes ordered to not serve full portions or only when item is requested. Prisoners may need to wait while someone goes to the main kitchen, or they may not even get the item. Menu items are often replaced by other foods. Calorie counts for the same menu items have changed over the years, some by over 50%.

The food is of poor quality. It’s bland, over-cooked, watered down, salty, undercooked. Most of the meat is highly processed into patties. In dishes such as taco meat, spaghetti sauce, meatloaf and salisbury steak, the meat is majority soy protein. Textured soy protein has a number of negative health problems associated with it, but it’s federally subsidized and expensive. The vegan diet trays receive 8 oz of pure soy, merely rehydrated and warmed; no salt, no seasonings. The soy tastes like cardboard, with a rubbery texture.

Calorie counts are fudged. The same menu items have different values over time. Sometimes in the same week, the menu will have 2 or more values for the same item. When the issue of calorie count variances has been addressed, food service management shunts the blame off onto Madison, claiming it’s the unified menu that was instituted several years ago. However, research shows that other prisons’ menus differ. The unified menu really doesn’t exist.

Administrative staff avoid contact with prisoners. Unit managers, security director, deputy warden and warden all go out of their way to deflect, avoid and minimize interactions with prisoners. When visiting units, they do so when the fewest prisoners are available, such as when dayrooms are closed at count times or when the majority are at work, school, program or recreation.

The avoidance of administrative staff builds in a sense of frustration amongst the prisoner population. Why can’t simple problems be solved? Why can’t sanitation, health, safety be made priority? Why do these people walk through dayrooms to officer stations to offices with closed doors as if their pants were on fire?

Specifically, Ms. Sabel, Ms. Casper, Ms. Delveaux, Warden Smith, Director Zanon, Director Toney, all snub prisoners openly. Often they will make an acerbic retort to a question, but never will they stop and talk, ask about a prisoners well-being or how things are going. These people spontaneously create policy with no regard or interest in how it impacts the lives of prisoners.

The DOC spends more than $22.2 million on education each year. For what? I don’t know! OSCI has a computer lab of 23 stations that go nearly unused. Teachers cancel about ⅓ of their classes. The library is filled with fiction books so used they are losing pages, but is nearly devoid of texts on relevant technologies. The interlibrary loan system is non-existent. When it was operating it wasn’t functioning well. Numerous books are missing, stolen and never returned. THese books are still listed in the library’s catalog database; which prohibits the book from another library. Thousands of books have been thrown away over the last few years as shelving was removed. Entire sections of shelves are bare while many hundreds of books lie in wait in boxes to be cataloged. I’ve waited for over 4 years for some of these books, donated books, to reach the shelves.

Recently, OSCI has been unable to provide staff for the library. As a result, the library has been closing more and more often. It’s been closed for entire days. Staff claim ignorance in printing or copying legal documents, so guys can’t send out filings. There is no inherent need for a staff person to be in the library for basic services, but the administration artificially creates the need via policy. Other prisons don’t require a staff person present.

Canteen is always a hassle. Keefe, the company with the canteen contract, gets more right than wrong, but at what point does the error rate become unacceptable? I estimate between a 10-15% error rate. At least ⅓ of prisoners ordering canteen have orders completed wrongly. There is missing stuff, added items, packages sliced or broken open, crushed chips, etc. Then how refunds are handled is frustrating. It could take several weeks, and the business office might take deductions out for obligations. You never know. Would you patronize a store that charged you more, had poor service, forgot half your order and crushed your chips and cereal? What if your donuts were moldy? If your cheese was runny with globs in it?

We are allowed an email service, now, through Keefe. At $0.05/email it’s an expensive service for something that is essentially free in the free world. We’re limited to 13,000 characters, no pictures or attachments. There is no cut/copy/paste features, and you must type an email in a single go. I can’t even switch back to an old email to read a note and back to the email I’m working on. I’d need to retype the entire thing. The touchscreen is imprecise, slow and a pain to use. Emails are supposed to be purged after 180 days, but are being deleted by someone much earlier. There is no way to print them off either. Sometimes it takes days for emails to reach their destination because the officers reading them aren’t around. The emails get read well enough that staff comment on their contents. They ask how we know so-and-so, or how our uncle’s doing, or if our brother is really going to divorce his wife. Very personal things.

Recreation yards are closed if the temperature index exceeds 100 F, there is no strenuous activities if the index is over 90 F. Yet prisoners must work in kitchens in temperatures exceeding 120 F with 100% humidity. We must come in and sit in rooms that are warmer than outdoors.

The cells, the buildings retain lots of heat. My ell, at times never dropped below 85 F for 5 days. Even if nighttime temps were in the low 60s, the buildings will remain hot…even with the windows open. What happens to medication when kept in high temperatures? Heart medication, psychotropics, statins, antibiotics?

OSCI recent reduced all visiting times to 2 hours in length. WI DOC policy requires more than that, so Monday visits can be as long as 4 hours. However, prisoners must end their visits to use the restroom. Who is properly hydrated that can hold their bladder for 4 hours?

Justice is fairness. How is justice served by punishing people by the use of unfairness? What reasoning compels this practice? Prison wounds the prisoners and staff. It sickens people with a toxin that is insidious.

I leave off here. Let me be an unnamed Ghostly Scribe from the abyss, for fear of retribution.

Be Well All.