Letter from the Towers at South Bay Prison

My name is Walter Covington and I am currently incarcerated at the Suffolk County House of Correction.  I’ve been in and out of different county and state institutions since 1981.  I am not proud of this but must say that I’ve learned quite a bit over the years.  As I’ve gotten older I haven’t had any choice but to seek intelligent answers to some of the problems inmates are facing. 

In this jail there are four units on the 8th and 9th floors of Building 1, which are referred to as the ‘Towers’.  I cannot understand why there hasn’t been grave concern about the conditions and policies now in effect in these four units.  Being confined to units 1-9-1,1-9-2, 1-8-1 and 1-8-2 in the ‘Towers’ has got to be the most blatant exercise any county jail has ever devised for corrupting, institutionalizing, and creating recidivism in inmates, especially the younger ones.  What they go through up there on a daily basis amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. 

Prison administrators show almost no sensitivity and must be made to implement better techniques in these four units to encourage real rehabilitation and self-improvement.  This will enable all county jails and state prisons across Massachusetts to lower their recidivism rates.  It’s imperative that an investigation be conducted in the immediate future and that something is done about the shortsighted and irrational policies now in affect up there.  Each inmate placed in these four units is ultimately stripped of his dignity and mentally abused in the worst way.

 Ever since this jail was first opened up thousands of inmates have been forced after completing their isolation sanctions down in the 1-3-1 and 1-3-2 solitary confinement units into these units, where no real rehabilitation is offered to them.  Once they’ve completed their isolation time in the hole they’re moved to units 1-4-1 and 1-4-2 to await classification.  Most of them are held in these two units for over a month before they are finally brought in front of a classification board.  They’re then sent to the ‘Towers’ with no real justification at all and forced to go through what amounts to illegal long-term disciplinary and segregated confinement again that can damage their personalities forever.

What goes on up there causes serious psychological harm when you take into consideration that some inmates end up doing their complete sentences in the ‘Towers’ or in isolation.  In units 1-9-1 and 1-9-2 they’re only allowed out of their two man cells from 9 to 11 each morning and from 7 to 9 at night.  They’re allowed on what is referred to as a ‘rec deck’ for one hour each morning and half an hour at night.  This ‘rec deck’ measures 46 feet by 12.5 feet and is enclosed by mostly steel and concrete.  A basketball hoop has been erected on it and inmates have been seriously injured during the pick up games played there.  The metal stairs that you have to use to come down on to the deck have busted many inmates’ heads.  All year long the conditions on it are atrocious, and it should be considered an improper recreational facility.  Most mornings when inmates are let out onto it there is spit and urine all over it where certain guards have urinated on it at night. 

During the summer months inmates can’t help but to spit all over it because of the almost suffocating atmosphere.  The basketball is constantly dribbled in the expectorate and accumulates germs.  Inmates run the real risk of contact with diseases on a daily basis.  This same ‘rec deck’ is used systematically by all four units on both floors and is absolutely disgusting once the jail gets locked down for the night.

 As I touched on earlier some inmates travel repeatedly back and forth from the isolation units to the ‘Towers’ because of their frustrations.  One must consider that most of these young men have just started serving time in prison and have had traumatizing childhoods.  The communities that they come from are rough and they’ve had no choice but to go through the cycle of poverty and crime at a young age.  Some can’t help but to feed into all the negativity around them, especially when certain incompetent and hostile staff members have it out for them. 

We know that America’s prisons today are crammed with young black men, Hispanics, the poor, the uneducated, and so many that were jobless at the time of their arrest.  Reaching out to the young men in the ‘Towers’ and helping them in an intelligent way makes real sense.  They’re the ones between 18 and 24 years of age or so and will become your next real menaces to society.  Prison officials must do everything in their power to prevent these young men from continuing in a negative criminal lifestyle before it’s too late.  I’ve had to watch over the last few years many of the men in the ‘Towers’ get frustrated to the point that all they want to do is hate and fight amongst each other.  The mental, psychological, and physical abuse they’re experiencing must be stopped or society will continue to see the catastrophes it’s been witnessing.

When inmates are brought to the chow hall for meals they’re not given enough time to eat and their arms and backs are almost touching the inmates sitting next to them.  This causes many arguments, which sometimes end in fights.  Many of these inmates are functionally illiterate and aren’t being educated in any way up there.  Most of them quit school and have never received their high school diploma. 

Humiliation, chaos, and contradictions defines most  of their school life on the streets.  They must be given the same opportunities as those inmates in general population to change.  If the present policies remain the same it reflects an attitude and determination on the part of the prison officials to declare them beyond redemption.  Classifying them as incorrigibles at this stage is inappropriate.  What needs to be asked is, “What does it take to steer them away from street crime and violence and towards college or job training?”  Especially up in the ‘Towers’ it is critical that the proper educational and addiction programming be put in place.  Many of the inmates released from this jail that spend most of their time up there are returning to prison with serious criminal charges, including murder cases.  This is the perfect place for the administration here to make a real difference in the lives of society’s most troublesome younger inmates.  A lot of them feel that they have no other alternative but to go back to their gang affiliations, violence, and other negative activities after coming out of that kind of environment.  It makes sense to address this problem with all the Latinos being arrested.  The caseworkers that are assigned to work in these units hardly ever come into their offices. 

With the exception of a few, the ones I’ve seen working with inmates display extreme incompetence.  Inmates can’t get or trust them to do certain things that they’re supposed to help them with.  Some have such nasty attitudes and are so hostile that a lot of the aggressive guys won’t even sit down and talk to them.

 If the guys on the 9th floor of the ‘Towers’ are lucky enough to not receive a disciplinary report for a month or so they are then classified down to the 8th floor.  In those two 8th floor units there are mostly men still waiting to resolve Superior court cases.  Most of them are facing serious drug, robbery, and murder charges.  What happens to a young inmate who knows relatively nothing about jail once he is placed in that type of environment?  He cannot help but to get worse because of all of the negative influences.  One has to wonder how these young men’s parents would react if they really knew that their tax dollars are being spent to turn their sons into hardened convicts up there. 

There’s no question in my mind that this is one of societies most important issues and that it is seriously affecting the Massachusetts criminal justice system as a whole.  When I had to spend time in MCI Walpole’s segregation unit there was a little law library set up for just the inmates in those units.  It is imperative that a little law library be implemented in the ‘Towers’ in the near future for inmates with Superior court cases.  On both floors there are rooms large enough to be turned into a small law library with law books, typewriters, and a copy machine.  Right now the institution’s policy is that in order for inmates up there to be brought to the law library in population they must first be places on a list.  When their name comes up they’re then eligible to use it two times a week for one hour a day.  As I said earlier most of these men are pretrial detainee’s that have been confined up in those two 8th floor units for sometimes years at a time.  If they’re unfortunate enough to get into any type of conflict and receive a disciplinary report, their law library privileges are suspended for a period of thirty days. 

It’s unfair that they continue to come face to face with a brick wall when they follow all the procedures by way of caseworkers and the legal services department in trying to obtain the gravely needed case law, motions, and other legal materials they need in preparing their cases.  There should also be an additional secondary list of names as alternatives that are designated to replace the men on the list that have either moved on to populations, finished their sentence, or have been sentenced to state prison.  Inmates may need law library access to do essential research for upcoming court appearances.  Many times court dates come up before an inmate’s name appears on the list and therefore, they lose their privileges.  Inmates in units 1-8-1 and 1-8-2 are given a little more time out of their cells.  They’re let out from 9:00 to 11:00 in the morning and 1:00 to 2:30 in the afternoon and 3:30 until dinner is served and them from 7:30 to 10:00 at night.  Even though this is the mandated schedule set forth, certain guards make their own rules up on a daily basis and purposely don’t let inmates out on time for their recreation period.  Although there is supposed to be a mandatory clean uniform exchange procedure most weeks no clean uniforms are given to inmates after the first ones are issued.  These dirty, dingy, and stained uniforms are also used for visits, court date appearances, and wherever else they may have to go.

 I’ve always envisioned a day when inmates in all county jails received real rehabilitation.  These men must be given the proper reading material as far as books they can relate to and that are interesting.  The books that do make it up to the ‘Towers’ aren’t being read by the young men up there.  Most of them get thrown away after a unit is shaken down.  It’s a fact that illiteracy often leads and contributes to other problems.  It makes perfect sense to set up a rolling book cart that could be pushed around to each unit.  This book cart would offer these inmates good books with knowledge that is relevant to them.  You would first have to have them sign a form called a ‘BOOK BORROWING CONTRACT’.  In it they would have to agree to accept full responsibility for all books borrowed from the ‘Towers’ rolling book cart and promise to pay for any which are lost or damaged while in their possession.  Furthermore, they would promise to return all borrowed books to the book cart worker by their specified return date and understand that any incurred charges will be deducted from their account with the institution.  They would also be aware that failure to adhere to these policies may result in suspension of book borrowing privileges.  Once they read and fully understand the agreement their I.D. number, unit and cell number, the name of the book and the date it was borrowed can be filed for records.  On each book there would have to be a clearly visible stamp of some kind for officers to see that the book was from the ‘Towers’ book cart.  Officers would have a list of what books are in their units so that none are thrown away or taken by inmates when they leave the units.  Reading is the single most important activity for building knowledge required for eventual success in the real world. 

This ‘lock-em down first, education last’ strategy has contributed to the pathetic behavior we’ve been seeing grow among out young inmates.  Now is the time to think about how to take different tactics, different strategies that will be more effective.  The so-called high-risk inmates in the ‘Towers’ must be provided one-on-one services, tutoring, and what ever else so that they learn about the merits of dedication, discipline, determination, and hard work.  The conditions these men live under daily breeds bitterness, which invariable gets expressed.  The administration here has a duty to prevent these young men from continuing in a negative criminal way.  Rehabilitating them now will stop a lot of the violence and crime from happening on the streets in the future.  They say the surge of violence has sent government officials into a frenzy over how to curb the trend, which some say has skyrocketed since the release of career criminals behind bars over the past decade.  I hope the issues that I have brought to your attention will challenge your conscience and influence what you do in the future.  I pray that you can see that what I have written about points to unsafe and unsound thinking on the part of the administration here.

 Thank you for taking time to read this letter.  I look forward to your reply as soon as you get the time.

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