In the main housing unit at the 'former' Supermax prison in Boscobel, Warden Sam Schneiter pauses before an imposing steel door that seems to slide open magically in his presence. He leads the way through a narrow corridor. On either side, convicts along the tier stare curiously through their cell-door windows, which are just wide enough to accommodate one eye. It is their only view of the outside world.
'The cells are single cell, there is no doubling up,' says Schneiter, with a salesman's confidence. 'The food is excellent. The out-of-cell activity is in accordance to the administrative code, and, in fact, we're going beyond what that [requires].'
Schneiter, standing amid the concrete and steel of Wisconsin's most notorious prison, seems almost proud. 'There have been a number of changes made here. Changes like climate control. I don't like to call it air conditioning, but it definitely has improved the climate. When it's cooler in the summer, everybody likes that.'
Then he makes his most audacious boast: 'If I had to do segregation time as an inmate, put me here. I would want to do it here.'
Few share Schneiter's sense that Supermax ' now officially the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility ' is the preferred prison of Wisconsin inmates, but most agree that conditions there have improved.
The biggest spur was a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the prison in 2000. Inmates alleged that conditions inside the $47 million prison violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
A settlement agreement reached in 2002 ended the extreme isolation and sensory deprivation that once underpinned Supermax's correctional philosophy. Among other things, the agreement prohibited mentally ill inmates from being housed there. But inmates' attorneys have repeatedly accused the Department of Corrections of stonewalling when it comes to making promised changes.
The settlement was modified in February to end most of the restrictions it placed on the prison. If the court gives its consent at an April 25 hearing, the agreement will terminate completely next year. A new three-person panel, headed by a psychiatrist, will bolster safeguards against the mentally ill making it into the prison ' and against the prison making inmates mentally ill, a parallel concern.
Moreover, the settlement allows the prison to open its doors to a general population of inmates. This would bring the institution more in step with the state's three other maximum-security prisons.
Madison attorney Ed Garvey is 'delighted' by the changes wrought by his six-year legal odyssey. But still he calls the prison, currently home to about 400 inmates, 'a nightmare.'
As Garvey sees it, the prison represents an aberration of what he considers the Wisconsin tradition. 'People are realizing it was a dumb idea,' he says. 'It has nothing to do with the reasons why we have prisons. It's a very expensive bad idea.'
But it's one the state will have to live with for some time to come. The Boscobel prison is, in its design and architecture, a brutal place, planned to deliver maximum isolation. Garvey worries that opening the prison to a more general population is 'just expanding the concept of putting people in a Supermax setting, without any ability for rehabilitation.'
'Flawed from its inception'
Supermax, the crowning achievement of Gov. Tommy Thompson's prison building boom, opened in 1999. The prison drew intense fire from critics and human rights watchdogs, including Amnesty International, which said it violated international standards. Garvey and co-counsel Pam McGillivray agreed.
'It was stunning to see what Wisconsin was doing to people,' says Garvey. 'If you put a German shepard in those conditions, everybody would be picketing and demanding that the dog be released. But you put a human being in there, and that's acceptable behavior.'
Thompson billed Supermax as a place for 'the worst of the worst' ' inmates so dangerous and out of control that no other prison could safely contain them. But Garvey soon learned that an inmate's original crime had nothing to do with whether he ended up at Supermax. Rather, the prison was used to punish disruptive or noncooperative behavior.
In fact, there were never more than a few dozen inmates who require the close custody Supermax is designed to provide, which is one reason state prison officials never asked for the prison. And so, under pressure to fill its 511 cells, the prison became a dumping ground for other offenders, including the mentally ill.
One especially shocking case concerned Canyon Thixton of Mount Horeb, who was just 17 when he was placed in the prison's Behavior Modification Program in the summer of 2001. Thixton, incarcerated for stealing a car, was allegedly left naked in his cell for 58 days with a broken toilet, and beaten by guards who dragged him from his cell. He was released from prison in 2003, but returned in June 2004 after leading police on a high-speed chase. (In February, the state of Wisconsin agreed to pay Thixton $475,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed against it.)
'When the class-action lawsuit began, we started asking lots of questions, only to find that really no one had been paying much attention,' says Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), who was at the time and is again a member of the Assembly committee overseeing corrections. 'Then when we did do some digging, we really found that this was a facility flawed from its inception.'
Prisoners were on permanent lockdown in tiny cells, with a light that shone at full brightness 24 hours a day. They were prohibited from using their blankets to cover their eyes at night. Their three hours of weekly out-of-cell time were spent alone in a cement room without so much as a tennis ball. The only human interaction came when guards dropped off meal trays.
Cell temperatures have climbed into the triple digits during summer. Inmates were required to sleep with their heads toward their toilets, which flushed intermittently and often backed up. Clocks were prohibited, so inmates lost all sense of time. Even guards weren't allowed to wear watches. These conditions, said one expert, were 'an incubator for psychosis.'
'It's that sensory deprivation that was sort of perfected there that shocked me,' recalls Garvey. 'The problem with Supermax is that the people who go there often don't even know how to play the game so that they can get out. The longer they're there, the more problems they get into.'
The settlement agreement reached in October 2002 required costly modifications, like an outdoor recreation area and air conditioning. It also appointed a monitor to help mediate prison policy and inmates' rights. A year later, Garvey filed court papers accusing the prison of failing to uphold its end of the deal.
For instance, the state balked at installing air conditioning, arguing that, because it would be the only air-conditioned prison in the system, inmates at other prisons would misbehave on purpose to be sent to Supermax. Federal Judge Barbara Crabb rejected this argument, saying the prison needed to bring temperatures down to the required 80 to 84 degrees during heat waves.
'They've given us no indication over the past six years that even when you reach an agreement they're going to stick with it,' says Garvey. 'Things are very fluid when it comes to enforcing that kind of agreement. The fundamental problem is that you get politicians scoring points by being tougher on crime than the next guy.'
Stuck in a netherworld
Though it was former Gov. Thompson who willed Supermax into existence, the Department of Corrections ' which didn't want or need the prison ' was left grappling with the unique problems it posed.
Ken Streit, a professor at UW-Madison's Law School who has studied Wisconsin's prison system for 25 years, traces many of these problems to the prison's political roots.
'The Legislature was really in a scared-straight, punish-the-guy, make-evil-animals-out-of-prisoners mode, so there was pressure at Boscobel to make it as harsh as the Legislature wanted,' says Streit, who was appointed as assistant monitor under the original settlement. As such, he's visited the prison frequently over the last several years, interviewing guards and inmates.
The Boscobel prison, he says, 'wasn't driven by a real strong philosophy of what we were going to do.' And so corrections officials 'were forced to sort of come up with a rationale for it.'
Thus it was that the prison came to be used as a tool for behavior modification (see sidebar). Inmates passed through various levels, based on their behavior, and were only released when they successfully completed the entire cycle. As they rose up the levels, they were allowed more in the way of personal property. But the stunning degree of isolation remained the same. And it was largely up to the guards to decide whether inmates were following the rules.
'It would be like if your parent said, 'Sit there and don't misbehave,' and you weren't quite sure what you could do, because you didn't really know what constituted misbehaving,' says Streit.
But prison officials, especially at first, were resistant to suggestions that they needed to change their ways. 'They were still figuring it out,' says Streit of the prison's early approaches. 'Temporarily, they wanted to stick with it, because it was this power thing.'
When UW law professor Walter Dickey took over as lead monitor in 2004, he spent a lot of time observing the prison, talking with staff, investigating inmate complaints and reporting to the court. His early visits, he says, confirmed his worst fears. He found the level system excessively punitive, and lacking the standards it needed to be an effective behavioral tool.
'It did not look to me like they had the kind of objective criteria for measuring inmate behaviors that they should have had,' says Dickey. 'So you had these guys sort of stuck in this netherworld.'
Dickey, who headed the Department of Corrections from 1983 to 1984, set out to change the character of the institution. One idea he pushed was to adopt a level system similar to one he had helped create years earlier at Wisconsin's Columbia Correctional Institution. Under that system, property wasn't an issue within the levels. And good behavior earned out-of-cell time.
'Time out of your cell mattered because you were getting the opportunity to show you could behave yourself when you're out of your cell,' says Dickey, whose initiatives were initially met with resistance.
What was needed, he felt, was a whole new approach.
'We send people to prison as punishment, not for punishment,' he says. 'We're not in the business of trying to inflict as much suffering on them as we possibly can. The suffering is the limitations on their freedom. It needed to be changed, and when the new warden came in, he basically agreed with us.'
When Warden Schneiter took over the prison in February 2005, compliance with the 2002 settlement began moving faster. He embraced some of the changes sought by Dickey, and a clear process for how to rise through the system was put in place.
Those inmates in permanent lockdown who the prison has no intention of returning to the general population are told so outright, instead of being led to believe otherwise. Schneiter likens these inmates to tigers: 'They're fine when you put them in a cage, but let them out of the cage and then there's problems.'
Inmates the prison is willing to work with, and who want to move through the system, must apply for a three-phase high-risk-offender program, which Schneiter hails as 'the first of its kind.' The program evaluates inmates in nine areas, including impulse control, dealing with authority, attitude and motivation. And notations are made in an inmate's file when good behavior is observed.
'The biggest thing is that the inmates are much more aware of what they have to do to work themselves up. It's not this, 'keep behaving, keep behaving,'' says Schneiter. 'Once you get into the program, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.'
Other changes are in the offing as the prison prepares to accommodate a new general population. One wing of the prison has already been converted, so its general population can move more freely. Schneiter has also requested $500,000 to build an outdoor exercise yard and an additional building for inmate programming.
Recently, Rep. Pocan was among a group of Democratic lawmakers who toured the prison and met with warden Schneiter. He gives the prison credit for 'trying to make good use of a bad space.'
But Pocan worries whether the state will commit to making the necessary changes. 'Our biggest concern with the general population is making sure resources are provided, otherwise it'll be a good intention that will turn into a problem,' he says. 'It's definitely moving in a positive direction, but we have to keep a close watch on it.'
Dickey believes a general population will bring the prison in line with how other institutions operate ' which he sees as a much more appropriate use of the prison.
'We've got this institution, it's here to stay, let's not kid ourselves,' he says. 'And as long as it's here, let's do justice to the inmates, the staff and to the taxpayers, and convert it into a place that is cost-efficient, that does its job, and does it in a way as decently and humanely as possible.'