Stephen Reid's 10 toughest prisons in North America
Macleans.ca excerpt: The Book of Lists
DAVID WALLECHINSY, AMY WALLACE, IRA BASEN, and JANE FARROW | Dec 27, 2005
1. Alcatraz(Northern California)
Any list of tough prisons has to begin with the Granddaddy of them all—The Rock. I did time with the last man to escape from Alcatraz. He made it to shore, but was so exhausted from swimming the treacherous channel that he passed out on the rocks and was reported to the local sheriff's deputies by a young boy who thought he had found a drowned body. The prison was mostly closed down by 1960, but Alcatraz remains the original supermax and a true American legend.
2. USP Marion(Illinois)
Located in the bottom lands of Illinois, in the middle of an insect sanctuary, Marion took the place of Alcatraz as America's toughest pen. The tower guards wear helmets and flak jackets and carry handheld rocket launchers to combat helicopter escapes. In the mid-'70s, a Canadian was the last to successfully escape, by devising a remote control that opened all the electronic barriers up to and including the front gate. I spent four years there in the early '80s after it became a lockdown joint, a place where we went to the showers wearing handcuffs. The mainline numbered less than 200, and I never once heard a heated argument between two prisoners—because an argument didn't have time to develop before someone was stabbed. Two guards were killed in H Unit on the same day in 1984, and one of the killers, Tommy Silverstein, lives to this day with a no-human-contact order, inside a Plexiglas cage in the basement of Leavenworth. Marion remains locked down.
3. Kingston Penitentiary(Ontario)
Built in 1835, Kingston Pen is one of the oldest penitentiaries in North America, but the bloody riot of April 1971 forever altered the course of KP. After the riot, it became a reception centre for the Ontario Region, then in 1978 it was transformed into a protective custody institute. Before the riot, old Kingston at times housed up to 1,000 of the toughest cons in the country. The last escape from the old pen was in 1954, when Nick Minelli and Mickey MacDonald climbed the wall behind the East Cell Block. Nick was recaptured days later in Ottawa, but Mickey MacDonald's name is still on the count board in the Keepers Hall, next to the words "At Large." Kingston Penitentiary was known for its harsh environment and strict discipline. Cramped cells, rats in the toilet, steel trays, tin cups, mailbag repair workshops, 4:30 smoke-ups, the silent system and the strap stayed legal and in regular use until 1970. It was a place feared and revered by crooks far and wide. I once got talking with an old swamp convict in Pensecola, Florida, and he went all wide-eyed at the mention of Kingston Penitentiary, saying to me, "You did time in that place?"
4. The Haven(Kingston, Ontario)
Millhaven Institution opened prematurely in 1971 to accommodate the aftermath of the KP riot. The guards formed a gauntlet all the way down T-Passage, and as each busload of prisoners arrived they were beaten with oak batons all the way to their cells. No one was spared. The joint went in the crapper on opening day and stayed there. A Native prisoner from the nearby area told me that the prison was built on an Indian burial ground and was therefore cursed to forever remain a place of deep and abiding human misery. I did nine years in Millhaven, and nothing in my experience ever contradicted that theory.
5. Maricopa County Jail(Arizona)
I didn't know there were this many ugly people in Arizona. I slept on a concrete floor for 11 days in a bullpen with one open toilet for 60 people. We were given a white bread pimento sandwich and a warm Tetra Pak of milk twice a day. I wanted to hang myself, but I never saw a sheet or blanket for my whole time there.
6. Terre Haute(Indiana)
I spent a record-hot summer locked down in what is known as I-Up, a long range of cells in a tin-roofed building well segregated from the mainline. I-Up houses all the bad actors and potential escape risks in transit from all over America. Three men to a cell, walking up and down in the yard every second day for 30 minutes in a dog run with a rusted corrugated cover. Indiana in the summertime, inside an airless concrete box. It didn't surprise me that Terre Haute is where they eventually built a death house and sent Timothy McVeigh to his own hell.
7. San Quentin(California)
Never been there, but I've walked the big yard with too many who have. Quentin has to be mentioned because any joint with a death row is a tough joint, and plenty of state joints have them. But San Quentin is the West Coast Big House, and the birthplace of the dominant prison gangs that have spread into the federal system. Quentin in the '70s was famous for the phrase "DA Rejects," which meant that the State Attorney's Office refused to prosecute cases of prisoner-on-prisoner homicides. Imagine how that policy played out in the gang-ridden, racially divided 2 acres of dirt and concrete that held 5,000 of the most violent men in the state of California.
Corn cereal, corn mush, cornmeal, cornbread, corn on the cob, corn ad nauseam. Who knew you could make so many dishes from the golden kernel? And all shoved through our food slots by a shift of blond giants who looked like the practice squad for the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team. These Oklahoma farm boys moonlighting as prison guards made it abundantly clear they didn't like us come-from-away city types. If you didn't like corn, they didn't want to see the leftovers. I learned to speak in a drawl and never to deign to rise above two syllables in the same word.
The Louisiana State Prison has to be named because it has a death house and an annual rodeo in which prisoners are routinely injured and killed for the pleasure of the spectators. It is where you can find the best prison magazine in the U.S., where the solitary confinement huts are known as the Red Hats for the colour of their little roofs, and where the warden for some 30 years is named Burl Cain. Both he and his institution look like stereotypes from a bad prison movie.
10. Florence ADX(Colorado), Pelican Bay(California), Tamms(Illinois)et al.
These are the new breed of supermax prisons. Hundreds are being built by federal and state governments at breakneck speeds across the length and breadth of America. Canada has not yet been caught up in the frenzy of prison building and privatization of the industry that is taking place south of the 49th parallel. The new supermax model is a bloodless, antiseptic and remote-monitored environment. The cells are prefab, the furnishings fixed, moulded and as cold and lifeless as their designers. Many of the newer prisons are literally buried beneath the ground, saving the prisoner the imaginative leap to understanding the metaphor. A farmer standing within the vicinity of Tamms, Illinois, describes the bone-chilling cries he hears coming across his fields on some nights. Perhaps, when a more compassionate age dawns upon us, the new supermaxes will be kept as museums of man's inhumanity to man. Until then, the unfortunate souls who remain imprisoned inside these sterile tombs will continue to howl as they descend into their madness, void of witnesses, void of human contact.
Excerpted from The Book of Lists, The Canadian Edition by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, Ira Basen and Jane Farrow Copyright © 2005 by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, Ira Basen and Jane Farrow. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
David Wallechinsky is the author of numerous books including The People's Almanac Presents the Twentieth Century: History with the Boring Parts Left Out and The Complete Book of the Olympics.
Amy Wallace is the co-author of four previous volumes of The Book of Lists, as well as several other popular reference books. She also wrote the bestselling memoir Sorcerer's Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda.
Ira Basen is a long-time CBC Radio producer. He worked together with Jane on Workology, and has also produced This Morning, Quirks & Quarks and Sunday Morning. His book Spin will be published by Penguin Books in 2006.
Jane Farrow is the author of Wanted Words and Wanted Words 2. She has hosted the CBC Radio One programs The Omnivore, Home and Workology.