Pressure rising

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 23, 2006

He says he has not taken his medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and asthma since last spring, when he was put in the Supermax for possessing banned tools that prison authorities said could be used in an escape attempt, but which he said were for fixing prisoners’ radios. His doctor could not be reached for comment.

Associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord says, “We have a responsibility to provide appropriate physical and mental care, but prisoners have the right to refuse care. Ultimately, it’s their decision.”

Sometimes Brown’s words of complaint are broad: “That whole unit needs to be swept right out.” Among his concerns is the arbitrariness of incarceration in the Supermax, which is supposed to confine escape risks, prisoners who are threats to themselves or others, and those who break rules by, for example, possessing contraband. Brown says a mere allegation by one prisoner can land another in the Supermax. Prison officials deny this.

Corrections Commissioner Magnusson, for his part, puts in a word of caution about Brown: “He hasn’t shared everything with you about his behavior,” but says the state law barring disclosure of information on specific prisoners prevents him from giving more details.

Sometimes Brown’s demands are specific — and personal. He wants his prison job back. He wants authorities to return his stereo, confiscated when he was put in the Supermax.

But some of Brown’s complaints reflect on general conditions in the Supermax, which are more severe and restrictive than in the rest of the prison. The Supermax doesn’t distinguish between prisoners who are mentally ill and those who are disciplinary cases: One set of rules governs both.

Some prisoners in the Supermax — motivated either by rage or protest — throw their feces. Brown worries that those who do not engage in this behavior may have their food contaminated by those who do. He is asking, in effect, if confinement to the Supermax means being sentenced to eating potentially contaminated food.

When Brown was confined to the Supermax his toothbrush — like that of others — was taken away. Toothbrushes, allowed in the prison’s general population, are among the everyday implements that are sometimes turned into weapons. Brown says that his inability to properly clean his teeth has given him severe periodontal disease.

The corrections department says food servers use clean gloves to protect servers and inmates alike from contamination. For prisoners’ dental hygiene, the department also supplies Supermax inmates with nubbled fingertip caps of the sort used for cleaning dogs’ teeth.

“If the commissioner is seriously committed to reform, then he can do some small steps,” Brown says.

But Brown also would like large steps to be taken. He has worked out a plan of how prisoners with challenging psychological conditions could be better separated from prisoners who are in solitary “because they have been busted for having cigarettes.”

The only change in the Supermax in four months — since the commissioner publicly promised reform — is its repainting, he says. He believes this was done because an American Correctional Association accreditation team was scheduled to visit.

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