N.Y. prison shows reality of hard time

Inmates in 'The Box' face severe deprivation

April 30, 2000|By Paul Grondahl | Paul Grondahl,New York Times News Service

COXSACKIE, N.Y. -- In accordance with the regulations of directive 4933 of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, you have been assigned to a special housing unit (SHU).

Your fellow inmates call it The Box.

On your way to The Box, correction officers -- known here as COs -- will cinch a thick chain around your waist and handcuff your wrists to the chain, and a padlock will bind your hands at waist-level in front of your body. If you resist or make threats, you also may be locked into leg irons.

You will proceed under correction officer escort to the SHU cellblock. Video cameras will monitor your every move. Microphones will pick up each sound.

You will pass a large octagonal, glassed-in room called "the control unit." A "console officer" stands before rows of video monitors and switches. He operates the mechanical systems that regulate your existence in The Box: lights, showers, radio, recreation, announcements and more.

The console officer cannot see your physical presence. You exist only as an image on the control unit's video monitors. Your isolation over months or years in The Box will be, in effect, incarceration by remote control.

At the end of a corridor, perhaps 100 yards from the control unit, you will reach your box. If family or friends do not come to visit, it is possible that you won't leave The Box for a year -- or perhaps as long as five years.

You will find an inmate inside, a stranger. The majority of SHU cells in New York are double-bunked. Some screening and pairing of cellmates is attempted: smokers with smokers, no rival gang members together, similar physical types to discourage sexual assault.

Before you enter The Box and meet your cellmate, the COs will order the other inmate to face the exterior wall at the back of the cell or to lie face down on his bed. The CO will slide back a metal cover over a 10-inch square of clear, thick Plexiglas to make a visual inspection to determine if the cellmate has complied with the orders.

The console officer will activate a switch that electronically unlocks the cell door. It rolls back on a track. The door is heavy, made of steel. In addition to the small Plexiglas window, the door has a thin slot cut out of the steel through which to pass food trays. The food tray slot and the window have metal covers that can be opened only from the outside by a CO.

The CO departs, leaving you to the stranger with whom you will share The Box.

Your cell is identical to hundreds of other modular units hauled to the prison site two at a time on flatbed trucks and bolted together end-to-end to form an SHU cellblock.

The prefab unit is made of pre-cast concrete, 5 inches thick, reinforced by steel bar. The cell's dimensions are 14 feet long and 8 feet wide. The ceiling is 8 feet high -- 120 feet of floor space.

With arms outspread, your fingers touch both boundaries of your new world: bed on one wall, desk on the other. The concrete walls are gray and unfinished. You are not permitted to hang anything on them.

The beds are 5 feet long and 32 inches wide, two slabs of steel bolted to the wall. Top and bottom bunk are divided by 3 feet of wall. A four-rung steel ladder runs up the far side of the bunk. You will be issued a thin mattress, small pillow and linen.

You and your "bunky," as cellmates call each other, will have to decide who gets top and who gets bottom.

The bed, as well as the other steel furnishings in the room, are Corcraft products made by other inmates.

Next to the bed are four coat hooks mounted on the wall with custom-made, tamper-proof rivets and screws. Nothing that might make a weapon can be ripped or torn out of the walls, floor or ceiling of The Box.

Just inside the cell door, on the left wall, is your stainless steel sink and toilet unit. It resembles those in a preschool classroom. The sink, about waist high, is the size of a large salad bowl. There are no faucet handles. A push-button spigot is used for washing or directed upward for drinking.

Above the sink hangs a small sheet of stainless steel. This is your mirror. It affords a dull reflection. No glass is allowed in The Box.

Attached to the unit below the sink, at about knee level, is the toilet. It is made of stainless steel. There is no seat or cover. The toilet's bowl is small, roughly the size of a dinner plate. It is flushed with the push of a button on the side of the sink.

An arm's length away from the sink on the same wall is the desk unit. Each inmate is assigned a metal locker, which flanks a 5-foot metal desk bolted to the wall. Two hubcap-sized seats pull out from beneath the desk on metal swing arms.

Next to the desk in the far corner is the shower, a stainless steel triangular unit with no faucets and no curtain. The water's temperature and force are controlled electronically by the console officer.

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