Prison life seen through the eyes of a priest

God's mission leads to burnout in isolation 'box' in New York

April 30, 2000|By Paul Grondahl, | Paul Grondahl,,ALBANY TIMES UNION

COXSACKIE, N.Y. -- The Rev. Joe Romano could detect it first in the eyes of inmates.

It might take a few weeks or a few months, but there was a defining moment when the mostly youthful prisoners in isolation units regressed into something less than human.

"The light went out in their eyes," said Romano, a retired Roman Catholic prison chaplain. "They became like zombies. I'd talk to them through the food slot, and all I got back was a blank stare."

For a few hours each day at New York state's Greene Correctional Facility, Romano pushed a cart with rosaries, books and spiritual reading material.

He would go from cell to cell in the special housing unit (SHU), where 200 inmates are confined two per cell. The SHU, which inmates call The Box, was added to the prison in the spring of 1998, replacing a 15-cell isolation unit.

What Romano witnessed among these young men -- more than half of the 1,700 inmates at Greene, a medium-security prison in Coxsackie in Greene County, are between the ages of 16 and 19 -- caused the cleric deep despair. Ultimately, he said, it hastened his retirement last November after 15 years of prison work.

On rare occasions, Romano grimly watched the prison's response team storm the SHU in "uniforms like Darth Vader," led by correction officers who "got their jollies by beating guys."

The drill was known as "breaking a cell." It was used on prisoners who -- in protest or because of loss of mental reasoning -- refused to come out of their cell at the end of their SHU sentence.

Occasionally, Romano was successful in talking an inmate into coming out voluntarily just before the response team prepared to swarm the tight confines in riot gear while lobbing tear gas into the cell.

More commonly, Romano's were the broad shoulders these young felons cried upon. "Please tell my family where I am," was a typical tearful plea, Romano said.

Since they were denied access to a phone, computer or other instant communications (letters are permitted), it often fell to Romano to break the news of deaths or family emergencies to the inmates in The Box.

"I spent a lot of time trying to console scared kids who cried and cried," Romano said.

Romano sometimes tried to intervene and demand reassignments for young prisoners who complained to the priest of being sexually abused by "booty bandits" -- bigger, older men who acted as sexual predators against weaker cellmates.

"Everyday experience in the SHU was pretty awful for these kids," Romano said.

Among the things he saw:

* Attempted suicides.

* Sexual assaults.

* Inmate self-mutilation with names, swastikas and other symbols carved into their bodies.

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