A Kansas professor took his political science students on visits to a state correctional facility and a local county jail, and discovered that for all the criticism about American prisons, jail inmates suffer even harsher conditions—aggravated by the lack of oversight and transparency.
Before I had thought much about the distinction between jails and prisons, a local prosecutor suggested that I take my political science students to El Dorado Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison located about 45 minutes northeast of Wichita.
We applied to the Kansas Department of Corrections and toured the facility in April 2016.
I initially thought that the experience of going behind the concertina wire might help students understand the severity of conditions in American prisons. Instead, we were more impressed by the truth of something we had been told at the local county jail.
During three separate visits to Cowley County Jail in November 2014, October 2015, and November 2016, we were told that jail time is “hard time” in comparison to incarceration in a state prison.
It hardly seemed possible.
But county jails have less bureaucratic oversight, smaller numbers of offenders and closer supervision of them, fewer programs, and less connection to the outside through contact visitations.
Jails acclimate inmates to incarceration, which explains the need for some disciplinary harshness; however, there is little incentive for short-timers to comply with the rules. (The last point is made by the Sheriff’s assistant in New Orleans. I spoke to him about the jail in September, 2016.)
An examination of prison and jail conditions has become even more imperative in recent days in Kansas. Since we visited El Dorado, its staff turnover rate has been the highest of all facilities within the state’s correctional system. According to reporting by the Topeka Capital-Journal, El Dorado’s staff turnover rate from summer 2016 to summer 2017 is an astonishing 46 percent.
The prison had several inmate disturbances in May-June 2017, resulting in a prolonged lockdown; the facility is double-bunked, and some wings are over capacity; the staff has been working 12-hour shifts since July under a declared staffing emergency; and its warden has been transferred.
El Dorado prison. Photo courtesy Kansas Dept of Corrections
Our visit to El Dorado uncovered some of the causes of this summer’s disturbances. Our jail visits also revealed subtle problems with the incarceration of those awaiting trial or serving short sentences. It is crucial for the public to be familiar with these problems, and useful to pinpoint some of the ways in which even modern, well-run jails make incarceration feel like “hard time.”
Eight Points of Comparison
El Dorado Correction Facility, Kansas. Photo by Chris Barker
The first appearance of El Dorado is daunting. Tower 1, located in the visitor parking lot, provides a commanding view of vehicular traffic. In the interior yard, tumbleweed-like loops of wire are piled up higher than one’s head.
This mile-long “Israeli” fence was built by guards working alongside inmates after a 2007 prison break, when two inmates escaped with the help of an ex-officer. Five pounds of pressure on the wire sets off an alarm, and a few more pounds of pressure detaches the wire, which wraps around any object—say, a hand or foot―making contact with it.
Cowley County Jail. Courtesy Cowley County
Opened in 2008, Cowley County’s jail is an expensive new-generation jail that boasts increased interaction between inmates and staff. (On one visit, we spent several minutes watching as a guard deliberately engaged in conversation with several offenders, individually and in small groups, in one of the pods.) The jail houses between 80-100 inmates, with a capacity of 220, in seven pods. The population varies, depending in part on whether offenders from other counties are housed.
Most astonishing to us is that the jail does not have an outdoor yard. During exercise time, which is one hour per week, inmates use an empty pod, equipped with a basketball hoop raised two feet above standard to discourage dunking and hard fouls.
There is no exercise equipment. The pod has a garage door-type wall above the hoop that can be raised to let in indirect light and some outside air. But it is hardly enough air or light. To be fair, it is even more claustrophobic inside the panoptical guard tower, a one-room glassed-in control room that serves as the central nervous system of the different pods.
In this respect, El Dorado is completely different. The prison has an indoor gym with weights and a basketball court (although the ball is not fully inflated); ironically, inmates occupied the gym during the summer’s uprising. We were told on our visit that offenders have been allowed to play softball and soccer on the “back forty” since 2001, but I was more recently told that housing reconfigurations have ended these usages.
El Dorado’s medium-security U-dorm houses 116 model inmates in an open-concept room divided into cubicles rather than cells. Offenders in U-dorm have jobs and no disciplinary reports within the prior year. (Minimum security offenders awaiting transfer are also temporarily housed here.) When offenders are accepted into U-dorm, they begin in four-man cubicle areas and graduate to two-man bunking areas.
U-dorm is air-conditioned (with very loud blowers) and heated, and offenders have access to extended day room hours and the yard, plus perks such as microwaves. The cell block that we visit offers a sharp contrast: traditional cells, double-celled, which are 81 square feet, hot (see below), and cramped.
The jail offers no housing options. Everyone is housed in cells on the far end of the pods from the control room.
My students are divided about housing. Some strongly prefer the privacy and relative protection of the cells, where one can lay in all day if they want. Other students far prefer the openness of U-dorm.
Inside the prison, there are over 600 cameras. In conjunction with the fence, the ability to watch offenders means that direct control needs only to be asserted at the entrance doors. Our group passes through the metal detector, and we are given temporary stamps on our wrists that glow under blacklight. We are then allowed into the prison.
The lack of direct supervision produces a strangely free atmosphere, quite unlike the panoptical prison devised by Jeremy Bentham and influentially described by Michel Foucault in his famous book, Discipline and Punish.
As C. Fred Alford, a critic of Foucault, concluded from his study of Lorton Penitentiary, a federal facility that closed in 2001, “When you control the entrances and exits, you do not have to look. It is that terribly simple…”
Inside El Dorado, only one guard watched approximately 200 inmates in two connected pods. Offenders are permitted to move freely between the two pods, but are not permitted inside another offender’s cell.
Order, we were told during our visit, is maintained by controlling small deviations in behavior. Incidents of major violence are rare in Kansas’s correctional facilities, and offenders of different races play basketball and talk together in the yard unless a fight occurs.
Officers in the prison described the methods of soft power at their disposal: Slowing down the line during what they call the “running of the bulls” (running to meals through the yard in the rain), imposing water restrictions in cells (“a flush every four hours”), and singling out inmates for the way their shoelaces are tied and for the fit of their jeans.
At the jail, there are 74 stationary cameras, and staff members wear body cameras. Since offenders are confined to the common room and cells in their pods (except for the porters), it feels as if everything can be seen from the control room in the middle of the pods.
As we watched, a jail inmate who leans against a communal table in a pod’s common area is told to wipe it down. He does not, but his convoluted explanation distracts and amuses everyone.
Around the perimeter of each pod in the jail is a red line that the inmates are not supposed to cross. Two of the young men manically powerwalk the line. I don’t time their circuit, but it can’t allow more than about 50 paces. The jail feels subterranean and enclosed—certainly no fault of its administrators, but an avoidable feature of its architecture and layout.
Programs at the county jail—GED equivalency, religious services, alcoholics and narcotics anonymous, a work release program with its own housing area—are very minimal.
At El Dorado, there are several facilities to support inmates. A large (27,000 square foot), $1 million Spiritual Life Center provides support for practitioners of the 27 religions that Kansas recognizes. There are outdoor religious worship areas for everyone from Asatru practitioners (“white supremacists”), and Native American Church members to Wiccans.
There is vocational training in masonry, electricity, and construction, and sentence reductions for those who complete their training. Inmates can send monitored emails to people on the outside, and they have limited access to the internet for job sites.
Offenders do not have to work, as they do at the federal level, but they can work, which beats county, which had a limited number of porter jobs (paid at $5/hour, with extra food and forgiven court costs) to keep offenders occupied. About 60 percent of the inmates work at El Dorado. Pay ranges from 60 cents a day for new arrivals to $1.05 cents a day.
Some food services inmates at El Dorado make 25 cents an hour, and a very few hold minimum wage jobs. Extra money (up to $400/month) can be sent back to family. Money also provides access to perks. For example, it cost offenders $200 to buy a 13” television set; the high price is explained by the need to make everything inmate-proof.
We visited a small room where offenders work for a balloon-making company for minimum wage. They were listening to the radio and working together quietly.
These minimum wage earners subsidize their own detention by “paying rent”—40 percent of their gross income, which includes 25 percent for room and board.
With respect to mental health, there are problems of diagnosis and treatment in both the jail and the prison. The long process of classifying offenders at RDU (see below) allows mental health testing to be done. But we are told that “a lot” of El Dorado inmates are on anti-psychotics.
Those who seem “BSC” (bat-shit crazy) are left with “Fred” for company. (Fred is the fluorescent light in RDU’s segregation cell.) State offenders are also provided with a variety of classes: group substance abuse, and mental health classes on substance abuse.
At the jail, the medical officer estimates that 15 percent of inmates suffer from some form of mental illness.
More troubling, we are told by the jail administrator that no one is dispensed any drug treatment for drug addiction except in cases where death can result from withdrawal—which, they say, is only true for delirium tremens. Offenders already on methadone are able to maintain their prescription, but otherwise addicts are not given direct treatment.
Walnut River, just outside the El Dorado facility. Photo by Chris Barker
This may explain the agitation and haggardness we see in the jail’s pods. At the jail, those who act out are left in holding’s poured concrete segregation cell to sleep off their illness, in their own vomit, if need be, for as long as a week.
In the segregation cell in holding, they are issued a mattress between the hours of 11 pm and 8 am, if their conduct permits it. (In holding, no one except inmates serving “quick dips” automatically gets a mattress.) As we watched, several young men in holding were sleeping on the concrete floor under their blankets.
All adult male felony offenders in Kansas are processed at El Dorado’s Reception and Diagnostic Unit. This is a long, thorough process that results in assignments to specific housing.
Individualization is needed for incarceration to be proportional and not overly punitive, and proper classification is important to match inmates with the proper conditions of incarceration. Having said this, there is an argument to be made for treating all offenders the same.
Offenders, we are told, treat those convicted of child molestation and crimes against women harshly. But one of our guides at El Dorado says that their job is to provide a safe and secure environment rather than a punitive environment. The head of El Dorado’s U-dorm says that the answer will vary by staff member, but he personally does not treat inmates more severely because of their crime.
El Dorado’s special management units include offenders in disciplinary segregation, long-term administrative segregation (e.g., for those such as BTK), and Kansas’s death row inmates. Special management has its own yard, which offenders do not use. We were allowed to look into it but not enter. Some special management offenders have spent years in solitary confinement on 23 hour a day lockdown. (One man, we were told, was recently released after serving 30 years of his 50-year sentence in solitary confinement.)
Special management offenders get one hour of yard a day, five days a week, and their exercise area is a concrete enclosure, partially open to the sky, which contains a metal frame for dips.
Special management inmates are permitted a ten-minute shower every other day, and are subject to strip search (during which they spread their cheeks and squat) every time they leave and return to their cells. Walking in the general population yard, we encountered one of the special management inmates being transported by two special security officers. He had a belly chain around his waist, and his wrists were cuffed.
“See you in 2052,” he called out to the young women in our group.
He is eligible for release in another 36 years.
Jail, of course, has the advantage in that it does not employ long-term administrative segregation. One pod is typically set aside for sex offenders, who cannot safely be housed with other offenders; two for women; and one for Sedgwick County’s overflow offenders. The other three pods are for all other offenders or pre-trial detainees.
7. Crowding and Temperature
El Dorado has an overcrowding problem. When we visited in 2016, they had 1,573 inmates. (They currently house over 1,900.) Transferring inmates to county jails costs the state $45-$50 a day. Understaffing is blamed for the June, 2017 disturbance at El Dorado, but further stress has been created by high volumes of transfers, especially transfers from Lansing, where a new facility is to be built, and from Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, which is being reclassified as a medium security facility.
Likely as a result of these difficulties, James Heimgartner, El Dorado’s warden since 2011, left his position this summer.
There is no air conditioning in some of the cell blocks, and, despite the fact that we are told of statutory requirements to keep temperatures within a certain range (about 68-78 degrees), one of our guides told us that he personally recorded highs of 116 degrees, and 90 degree temperatures at 6 am.
For what it’s worth, inmates can buy small fans for $40 for some relief.
Kansas Corrections’ current policy requires thermostats to be set “not higher than 68 degrees” during the winter and “not lower than 78 degrees” during the summer, “where tempered air is available.” At El Dorado, both of our guides did not apologize about the summer heat that they also work in. They said that the coolers cost $10,000 a day to run, and they aren’t turned on until a few consecutive days of temperatures in the 90s. In the summer of 2017, excessive heat was blamed for at least some of El Dorado’s inmate disturbances.
The jail, in contrast, is air-conditioned. The staff tries to keep the temperature between 70-72 degrees, depending on the season.
Visitation conditions are strikingly different at the jail and prison.
Visitations at the jail are no-contact visits where offenders and visitors communicate by using a video terminal. At the prison, the options range from a large, open visitation room with contact visits (but not conjugal visits); non-contact visitation rooms for sex offenders and for those who have received disciplinary reports for possessing contraband in the facility; and, at the most restrictive end, a video unit with a phone for those in special management.
Thus, visitation conditions for the general population of the jail, including those held prior to conviction, approximate the visitation conditions of those in the most restrictive classifications in the prison.
Our guide estimated that 85 percent of El Dorado’s contraband comes through the visitation room (and the rest from staff), but no one disputed that contact visitations are crucial for the inmates’ well-being.
In contrast, we were told that some offenders in the county jail are held for a year and a half, which is a very long time to be held without contact visits. When NPR reported on the move towards video visitation made by some jails, they quoted a New Hampshire sheriff, who called the lack of contact visits a “difficult sanction” and “hard time.”
Better, Not Bitter
“Better, not bitter” is the unofficial motto of Kansas corrections. This motto offers a compelling standard by which to evaluate incarceration in jails and prisons.
County jails perform several different tasks: They hold suspected offenders for trial; prepare offenders for long-term incarceration in prison; provide space for convicted offenders to serve misdemeanor sentences, or for “quick dip” probation and parole violation sanctions, mostly through drug court; and prepare offenders to re-enter society.
These are very different tasks. Moreover, county jails have the same, limited resources to serve all of those ends. Limited resources make the physical experience of incarceration in jail feel harsh in spite of the good intentions of the staff we meet.
In particular, the limitations on visitation and the lack of a yard seem to fail the “better, not bitter” maxim.
The prison, in contrast, takes advantage of economies of scale: more resources, more equipment, more programs, and more bureaucratic protections of inmates. The result is an ironically more humane experience, albeit one where inmates settle into a routine under long-term custodial supervision.
Prison inmates have access to outdoor areas, greater freedom of movement, more and more varied jobs, and a degree of housing options. There are problems: overcrowding, understaffing, out-of-control temperatures, double-bunking/double-celling, and extended and frequent lockdowns.
But these problems are not specific to prisons.
At both institutions, the well-intentioned attempt to treat all offenders equally is also a source of harshness in punishment.
Thus, while it seems appropriate to treat each offender the same, no matter their crime, individualization requires that offenders in prisons and jails should be able to:
- Choose to have contact visitations at anything below the highest classification levels;
- Access a variety of physical environments, including an outdoor yard with sufficient space and equipment to work large muscle groups;
- Choose between dormitory housing and cells wherever feasible;
- Work if they choose to do so, both to develop individual responsibility and to defray some of the costs of incarceration. (El Dorado spends approximately $32,000 per year per inmate. Cowley County spends about $25-40 per inmate per day, depending on the year and population);
- Expect facilities that are safe, properly staffed, not overcrowded, not overly hot or cold, and not too far from their homes; and to have exit rights to transfer to a more congenial facility if those conditions are not met.
As El Dorado’s website makes clear, “offenders are sentenced to incarceration as punishment, not for punishment.”
Chris Barker, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. He welcomes comments from readers.