Put in the supermax six months ago for allegedly spraying a guard with a fire extinguisher at the minimum-security Charleston Correctional Facility, Carter denies the assault but admits to a diagnosis of "antisocial personality disorder with impulsivity." An articulate man who has taken college courses on the outside, he regrets the lack of educational opportunities in the supermax. If he had the chance to further his education, he says, "I'd be all over it."
Carter says the changes Ponte has made are highly visible. "It used to be packed," he says of the supermax, but it's "a ghost town now." The commissioner has told guards to "talk down" agitated inmates, he says, instead of being quick to forcibly extract them from cells.
Joe Jackson, the thoughtful, middle-aged vice-president of the prison's NAACP inmate chapter, who also was interviewed at the prison, sees the document that Ponte is using as a guide as "overall, a good report." The supermax was in such a state, "Somebody had to do something." While Ponte is clearly making "a lot of changes," he says, inmates are still reserving judgment on him.
(Inmates tend to be skeptical about prison officials' actions. While this reporter was in the reception area waiting to be let into the visitors room to interview Jackson and Carter, a stocky inmate mopping the floor said to him, unexpectedly and quietly, "I'm still waiting for all the changes that are supposed to be occurring.")
Some guards, Jackson reports, are not happy with the changes Ponte has made. Carter agrees: "They say he's for the inmates." MPAC's Jim Bergin says the committee reviewing supermax and mental-health issues is grappling with how to re-educate guards: This "is probably the biggest problem we're dealing with."
Ponte knows his reforms are not what the staff has been taught before, but "I'm real happy with the progress we've made." As with his other plans, he hopes to retrain employees without spending much money on it. One way to do this is, he suggests, is getting Department of Health and Human Services mental-health experts involved, especially for the supermax mental-health personnel. And money may be saved as the supermax population decreases. Labor-intensive, high-tech solitary confinement is the most expensive kind of incarceration.
Big problems remain
Not all supermax problems are likely to be quickly solved, and not every recommendation of the report is universally supported — such as the suggestion that a law be passed to make it legally easier to force mentally ill inmates to take psychiatric medication.
Ponte says forced medication should only be considered for "the very violent, mentally ill offenders." The MCLU's Heiden, while conceding that the involuntary-medication permission process could be "streamlined," says the issue "has to be approached very carefully," given the general history of institutional abuse of psychiatric medication. Inmate Jackson notes that the ability to refuse medical treatment is "one of the only rights a prisoner has."
Complicating reform possibilities, supermax problems are tied to prison-wide conditions — for example, medical care. Complaints from inmates about the inadequacy or outright cruelty of medical care have long poured into the mailboxes of prisoner-rights activists — and of the Phoenix.