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American Impressions, Chapter 29: Tennessee
Our Archipelago

Fear? No. Not even chills or apprehension. But what you do sense is the absurdity of the situation as you stand in an overheated kitchen no larger than a boiler room and no less crammed with scalding metal while the convicted murderer on death row fills your aluminum tray with lusty portions of mashed potatoes, gravy, turnip greens, corn bread and apple cobbler, apologizing profusely for the chicken patties not being quite cooked yet.

I was nearing the end of a long day touring Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Prison after having spent the previous day touring one of Nashville’s jails, a privately run, medium-security operation that was as much about profit as punishment—an absurdity in its own right.

We don’t have gulags, but the proliferation of our jails and prisons forms an archipelago of punishment more vast and more costly than any in history, anywhere. With almost 2 million people locked up (and 5.5 million under some form of judicial supervision), America’s rate of imprisonment outstrips even Russia’s and is four times that of its next-of-lock in the Western world (Canada). Our legacy of racism aside, the enormity of our prison system is the most persistent discredit to American ideals. I wanted to see it first-hand.

I chose Tennessee for my prison-hopping because, as the latest brand of reforms go, Tennessee is home to the latest pioneer. The Corrections Corporation of America has turned private prisons from the wishful theories of venture capitalists to a routine combination of for-profit lock-ups and investor dividends. There were a couple of private lock-ups in the country in 1984. As of July 7, there were 185 private jails and prisons guarding 132,500 beds. CCA controls 56 percent of the market. It was due to open a 1,000-bed jail in Polk County this year until the county opted to buy the facility.

I had no intention of judging private versus government-run facilities, which would be as silly as judging whether Sodom or Gomorrah most belong on a Best Places To Sin list. I went in just to look at what has become one of the nation’s biggest and most sordid sub-cultures. The receptionist’s walls at Nashville’s Metro-Davidson Detention Facility are decorated with motivational pictures from that ubiquitous series that has been nailed to corporate walls recently. PERSEVERANCE, one says. Another: NEW BEGINNINGS. Another: PURPOSE. The waiting room has for decoration only a list of behavioral rules. As I begin to read (“Shorts, halters, mini-skirts, mesh and/or see-through clothing and tank tops are not permitted . . .”) a door cracks open, a voice booms in my direction: “Come on in, sir!” It’s an order, not a welcome. But Warden Tim Wilkinson is all courtesy and good humor after that. “Welcome to the wonderful world of penitentiaries,” he says as we walk to his office, past IMAGINATION and RISK.

Wilkinson is almost bald, 43, trim, charismatic, unwavering of voice or certainties. His Texan looks and bearings recall a young Robert Duvall, hands on hips, surveying the next beach to storm. He’s a product of 15 years as an officer and field captain in Texas corrections, where he’s guarded the mildest to the meanest inmates. Never lounge, never relax, his demeanor says, although he likes to joke, and he loves to say “10-4” (Texanly pronounced ten-foe) instead of “OK” whenever he addresses his staff, or signals the end of a conversation.

He’s all CCA—has been since the corporation plucked him out of Texarkana, Texas, in 1995. Like the pictures on the walls, he talks in terms of missions and goals, and of making money. “That’s what the United States was raised on, free enterprise, wasn’t it? As long as I’m not abusing the inmates and I’m not cutting the services, I don’t see a moral issue to it.” The motivational backdrops in his office say LEADERS and TEAMWORK.

We walk large parts of the jail’s 210,000 square feet. Inmates are loading their lunch trays with fries and sloppy joes. They then walk, single file, back to their pods. “Tuck in your shirt when you’re in the hallway!” Wilkinson orders one inmate, and in the same breath asks another, buddy-like, “What’s up?” The more we walk, the more energetic Wilkinson becomes, the happier, the busier. He can’t stand still. “The concept of walking and talking to inmates—that came out of Texas. You can’t run a facility sitting in an office,” he says. By then he’s no longer Robert Duvall but Joe Clark, the New Jersey high school principal who walked his halls with a baseball bat and a bull-horn, except that Wilkinson needs neither. He has his officers, who seem to revere him.

We reach the jail’s vast, grassy rec yard. About 50 female inmates are having their annual party for participating in Chances, CCA’s addiction-busting program. It’s a beach party without the beach, a barbecue picnic with razor-wire for a picket fence. Huge speakers boom with the sounds of Kiss-FM. Dancing women, tattoos glittering under the sun.

Later, with Lane Blair, the assistant warden, we visit the pod where the Chances women are gathered. They sleep in a dorm-style hall rather than in cells, next to another hall for their meetings and their daily activities. The room is painted in bright colors and drawings you’d see in an elementary school, the 12-step mantras of “PROMISES,” “CHOICES,” “HONESTY,” “SPIRITUALITY,” “RECOVERY” and the rest of them pasted in a series on a partition wall. They strike me as an echo of the motivational pictures on the corporate end of the compound.

We pass the jail’s segregation pods, its two-men cells, its wall-to-wall wards of endless boredom where inmates don’t have the privilege of jobs or rehab programs or education. In the Lifeline pod, the men’s equivalent of Chances, sexism rules: Instead of bright primary colors, the pod is a blend of bluish and green hues with a bend more sinister than soothing. Instead of child-like drawings around the large square room, which is rimmed by a double-deck of 64 cells, messages fit for an Orwellian re-education camp hang from the walls: “Nothing is permanent except change.” “Here is a test to find if your mission on earth is finished. If you’re alive, it isn’t.” “The person who won’t stand for something will fall for anything.” A dozen chairs face the wall at even intervals under signs that read “RECOMMITMENT” and “PROSPECT CHAIR.” In other words: time-out. Men are sitting at each chair. They’ve broken the rules, which could have been anything from smoking to gambling to letting their libido loose. An inmate could be condemned to one of those chairs for days, from first light to lights out.

I’m introduced to Leonard Minter, an inmate who’s made his way up the ranks of ingratiation with his jailers. He is part of the chain of command that organizes the program, an “intern,” a well-behaved convict. He is older than most, in his mid-40s, and he sums up the program in three words: “Rules, rules, rules.” He sounds as if he’s found his niche, his home in the program’s rigid structures, cozy once you submit to them. He’s been institutionalized.

Bob Kennington, the program’s director, tells me: “For the clientele we’re working with, it works. We break down some barriers.” His program replaces drug and alcohol addiction with addiction to rules. I picture Minter as a free man, unmoored from his beloved rules that had become his faith, and the picture does not look reassuring.

Back in Wilkinson’s office at the end of the day, he offers me a CCA cap, shakes hands with me several times and invites me to visit again, quite sincerely, and if not, to go fishing with him one day. Only once the whole day was Wilkinson stumped. I’d asked him how he explained to his two boys, ages 13 and 14, why the prison business—his business—was booming, with no bust in sight.

Wilkinson paused. Paused. Thought. Went “hmmm.” Looked about. Then he said, haltingly, still unsure: “Religion, I believe, plays a big part in it. Society as a whole has lost, to a degree, I don’t know, I guess - I don’t know how to put that, a degree of dignity? Society seems to overlook more things than it used to, and that’s probably because of the sheer population . . . I don’t know whether it has anything to do with the laws, whether leniency has a part in the demise. I’m not sure.”

But Wilkinson was sure of one thing above all: “Do I consider this as my home? Yes, I do. This is my house. This is my house.”

PRIDE. PROFITS. DIVIDENDS.

With its stone walls on either side of the road and flower beds arranged with garden-club care, the gate off Cockrill Bend Industrial Road in a west Nashville suburb looks like the entrance to a subdivision or an upstart liberal arts college, except that the engravings on the stone walls say: RIVERBEND MAXIMUM SECURITY INSTITUTION. Inside, it’s an entirely different setting from CCA’s corporate shrill. No boosterism here, no pictures on the walls, although more flowers in pots line the visitors’ entrance (below a surveillance camera). It is all double-rowed razor-fences, steel doors, .223 rifles (a mini M-16) and sensors that can detect a rabbit’s heartbeat 100 feet away.

I’m met by Cpl. Gregory Valdez, a friendly, fast-talking man in his late 30s, and Pam Hobbins, the Department of Corrections’ PR director and an ex-schoolteacher. She immediately takes to me as she would a student in desperate need of orientation. The prison is her campus. Built in 1990 for $31 million, it is made up of six cell blocks, more gently called “units.” Unit 6 is the Club-Med of the compound, relatively speaking. It’s where all inmates aspire to be, where they have privileges like jobs, classes, walking on the grass. Unit 2 is death row. Unit 5 is medium security. Unit 1, 3 and 4 are maximum security, bad men, many of them lifers or trouble-makers who must be kept isolated and in lockdown 23 hours a day, their hands and feet shackled for the one hour they get outside their cell, in a concrete-floored cage.

We head to the death watch cells. There are four cells, ready for a serial execution night. “There is no stipulation in Tennessee law that we can’t execute more than one at once,” Hobbins says. “We have done three at once, and we have done two. So we have to be prepared.”

No one has been executed in Tennessee since William Tines was electrocuted Nov. 7, 1960, for rape and murder. But a man is scheduled to die on Sept. 16. He will be brought to one of these cells, then taken to the death chamber 72 hours later.

Hobbins continues explaining the history of the chair like an old habitue of Tennessee executions to come. The Tennessee Legislature has just adopted lethal injection as the execution method, but those convicted to die before January 1999 will have a choice between electrocution and lethal injection. That’s why Old Sparky will remain at the prison long enough to live up to its name.

The room, a little smaller than the average suburban garage, is square, floored by the same sparkling white linoleum that carpets the rest of the prison. It is lit by four white fluorescent panels, the type used in offices. A simple gurney with four gray straps across it—for inmates who’ll die by lethal injection—is locked to the floor. The electric chair is bolted to the middle of the room. “Old Sparky” is fresh off the assembly line, its dark-wood finish shiny and its brass leg cusps, which will conduct as much current as the head gear, still darkly golden. The metal will blacken with each execution.

Behind a window are 15 chairs for the witnesses—seven members of the media, the sheriff from the county where the condemned was convicted, members of the inmate’s family, and possibly a few other witnesses chosen a-la-carte. Family members of the inmate’s victim(s) are welcome to watch the execution, too, but not in the witness room, to avoid run-ins with the inmate’s family. They can watch from another room, on closed-circuit television. The process—from death watch to the death chamber—will take about 15 minutes. The inmate will be asked if he has anything to say. Then the switches will be thrown. That will take up to 90 seconds, barring any Florida-like execution nightmares. Many reporters calling Hobbins about the chair have asked whether the manufacturer has taken measures to avoid disasters. She has reassured them: It’s top of the line. Made in America, of course.

The sterility of the place and the ceremonial sanctimony of the procedure only underscored its barbarism. In death watch and the death chamber, I’d seen the hardware, the lay of the ritual, but it was all a void. When we got to Unit 2, here were the men who would keep it in business. Its 104 clients. Here was Don Johnson, who was serving me dinner, asking me if I was thirsty, and talking about the 15-minute weekly radio ministry he tapes from his cell for broadcast on Nashville’s WNAH, 1360 AM every Sunday morning. He calls it “Moments of Visitation Prison Ministry,” a running commentary on the Bible. “Small sermons, mini-sermons,” he says, “but I have no theological training or anything like that.” He’s been locked up since 1984, a de-facto monk. The Bible is every prison’s bestseller, and on death row, it’s the eternal blockbuster.

Outside the kitchen, two other death row inmates—Kevin Burns, 32, on death row for 3 ½ years, and Pervis Payne, 30, on death row since he was 18 and serving two death sentences—are milling about, wondering who the visitor is. I introduce myself, they introduce themselves, we shake hands, but then what do you say? The usual conversation starters are conversation killers here, although it is probably the only place outside of a philosophy seminar where asking “What do you do?” has as oppressive an existential dimension.

Like Johnson, Burns is all Bible: He’s read it so many times that he knows virtually the whole book by heart, rabbi-style. “It’s alive, it’s living, it’s not like a memory,” Burns says. “Words enter you and they’re alive in you.” I ask him if one book in the Bible speaks to him in particular. Immediately he says the Book of John (my mother’s favorite, too, I think to myself, ashamed of the shudder that accompanies the thought), chapter 14. I ask him how he deals with his eventual execution. “I get peace by meditating on the word of God. I deal with it through what God is telling me.” In my hotel room later that night I open the Gideons Bible to John 14. No wonder: “Let not your heart be troubled . . . I go to prepare a place for you.”

The day’s absurdities had been plenty, down to the insane pleasure I got later that evening from walking through doors so freely. Incarceration through the centuries is a grim, predictable story of booms of cruelty and busts of reform that have yet to negate the one truism that ought to hang above all prison entrances: They are cruel, they are wasteful, they are unjust, and we cannot do without them. It’s the ultimate absurdity that a nation that sees itself as the keeper of liberty should be the world’s leading breeder of wardens.

By the time I was reading John, I was in a room in Alabama, late that night. At midnight, anticipating a final absurdity, I half expected my bedside lamp to flicker, since an inmate at the Alabama state penitentiary was scheduled to be electrocuted at 12:01 a.m. But no flickers. It had nothing to do with the circuits. Pernell Ford, who was to have been the 559 th inmate put to death since capital punishment was re-instituted in 1976, had won a last-minute reprieve. It was his lawyer’s doing. Ford had wanted to die. And for the first time in my long abhorrence of capital punishment, I could sympathize.


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TENNESSEE IN BRIEF

Total area: 42,146 sq. miles (rank: 36)

Population (1997): 5,368,198 (rank: 17)

State capital: Nashville

Economy: Manufacturing, trade, tourism, insurance.

Nickname & Motto: Volunteer State; Agriculture and commerce.

Entered union: June 1, 1796 (16 th).

Notable facts: The Corrections Corporation of America still dominates the market for private prisons and jails, but its Wall Street honeymoon is over. Its stock is trading at around $10 a share, down from $30 a year ago. The company’s image has been damaged by a 60 Minutes report in May focusing on a brutal inmate death at CCA’s Youngstown, Ohio jail, last year’s escape of six prisoners there, and reports of poorly trained guards. But the private-prison market continues to grow, doubling in size since 1995.

Tennessee in quotes: “Just think, if Elvis recorded ‘Jailhouse Rock’ today, the public would stay away in droves and victims’ rights groups would picket theaters and probably even Graceland. Col. Tom Parker would be selling insurance and Elvis would be a mere footnote in future history books. Likewise, Paul Newman would be ostracized for his role in ‘Cool Hand Luke’ . . . But one thing I do know: there’s got to be a better way and a brighter way, ‘cause what we’re doing now just isn’t working as is evidenced by the past year. After passing all the new ‘get-tough’ laws that were supposed to have a chilling effect on crime, Nashville’s murder rate hit a record high. Makes you go ‘Hmmmm,’ doesn’t it?”—From “All Sentences Are Life Sentences,” a column by Woody Eargle, published in Riverbend’s monthly magazine, The Maximum Times, in 1998. (Eargle, who had published articles in mainstream magazines frequently as a convict, was released from Riverbend in July 7, 1997. He died five months later in a car accident.)

RESOURCES

Books:
The most comprehensive, recent reference work on prisons is “The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society,” edited by Norval Morris and David Rothman (Oxford University Press, 1996).
Lawrence Friedman’s “Crime and Punishment in American History” (Basic Books, 1993) is a readable, sometimes entertaining take on the subject.
And “After the Madness: A Judge’s Own Prison Memoir,” by Sol Wachtler (Random House, 1997) is a moving account of prison life written by a man who, in one year, “fell from the top of New York’s legal establishment to the very bottom of the criminal justice system—locked up in solitary confinement at a federal prison,” and sometimes coming face to face with men whose sentences his own decisions from the bench had affected.

Web sites:

* Corrections Corporation of America: www.correctionscorp.com/

* Tennessee Department of Correction: www.state.tn.us/correction/

* Private Corrections Project at the University of Florida: web.crim.ufl.edu/pcp/

* Bureau of Justice Statistics: www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/correct.htm

* Death Penalty Information Center: www.essential.org/dpic/

* Tennessee tourism: www.state.tn.us/

 

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