Dermot Purgavie visits America’s latest state-of-the-art prison, built to address a rapidly growing prison population in America.
Beyond the sleek, mirror-glass guard towers and the coils of razor wire glinting around the perimeter, the Rocky Mountains are already glazed with snow, but soothing views are not part of the programme. Inside each cell, the window is positioned so all you can see is sky. That’s the good part. The bed is a slab of concrete. Meals come through a slot in the steel door. The whole place smells of fresh paint and hopelessness.
Welcome to Florence Federal Prison, the new showpiece of America’s booming penal system. Built at a cost of £40 million, it offers trendsetting advances in the evolution of the dungeon and redefines the concept of ‘doing time’. It’s typical of the trend in America towards tougher and tougher prisons and prison regimes, which in some states now include old-fashioned chain gangs. Florence Prison makes Britain’s maximum security prisons look like holiday camps. Those unfortunate enough to qualify for a place at Florence had better get used to cheerlessness. They will get out of their cells for just one hour a day and then only in handcuffs and leg-irons and escorted by three guards armed with yard-long prods known as ‘rib-spreaders’.
As my footsteps echoed along the corridors, the thought occurred that not even Mike Tyson would cause trouble here. The chances of inmates indulging in the antics the British have become used to – plotting escapes with mobile phones, running businesses from their prison cells and planning every type of crime – are next to zero here.
When it opens next month this will be the toughest prison in America, designed for America’s most dangerous convicts. It’s in Colorado but once you’re inside, you’re nowhere. Florence is a glimpse of the future and an expression of the anger and fear of a crime-ridden society. America has been locking up criminals with such enthusiasm that it needs 250 new cells every day. The expense is staggering; it costs much more to send someone to prison than to university and it has been calculated that at the present rate of imprisonment – already five times higher than Europe – there will be more Americans inside jails than outside them by 2053.
The convict population of 1.4 million is certain to grow even more under strict laws that impose longer sentences and restrict parole. As the prison system expands, public hostility to the idea of cosy jails has so far encouraged 36 states to adopt unforgiving methods for their most troublesome prisoners.
Florence is meant to inspire fear and deter criminals from causing trouble. The prisoners will have to endure three years of rugged isolation, without incident, to gain release to a gentler prison. They are confined alone in their cell for 23 hours a day of relentless tedium. There is no recreation, no socialising, no work, no communal meals. The potential for trouble is reduced by severely limiting prisoners’ movement. The accommodation is basic, with bed, desk, bookcase and stool made from vandal-proof, reinforced concrete, anchored to the floor. Matches and lighters are banned. An electric device gives smokers a light when they push cigarettes through a hole in the wall.
Florence believes in sensory deprivation. Cells are built on a staggered system to prevent eye contact between prisoners. A steel door thwarts any conversation. Perhaps cruellest of all, the TV is in black & white and shows only religious and educational programmes. Prisoners get one ten-minute long phone call a month. No visits are allowed.
While the trend towards tougher prisons has much public support, critics argue that it simply toughens criminals while others complain it is inhumane and criminals still commit crimes.