Featured Story, Prison Stories

Inside a SHU Cell

Shu CellThe dimensions of the cells in the Special Housing Unit at FCC Forrest City in Arkansas, a low security facility in the Bureau of Prisons Southwest Region are approximately 6-foot-by-9. The walls are painted off white and covered with gang graffiti of the prisoners who previously occupied the cell- LA from SURCO, El Cuate from the Border Brothers, Mudo from the Aztecas- and just like gang graffiti on the street, the previous occupant’s gang signs are X’d out when possible. But with limited writing materials in the SHU the gangbangers mark out what they can with what they have. It’s not the most ideal conditions for gang graffiti, but with nothing but time on their hands, prisoners can be innovative.

The floor of the cell is concrete and there are two windows to peer out at the world. One is a 24-by-6 inch slot in the cell door which gives prisoners a view of the SHU hallway and other cell doors. The window has a bar on the outside to reinforce it in case a prisoner feels like trying to smash out the glass, which happens a lot in “the hole.”

A second window looks out onto the institution grounds; it’s bigger, about 4-by-2 feet. There are three thick metal bars in front of the window and a black screen made of mesh-like material on the outside that lets light in, but obscures vision, so prisoners can’t exactly make out what is going on outside their window. They can see bodies and shapes, but no detail due to the screen.

The cell door is metal and has the aforementioned window slot and a food slot about midway down that the guards unlock and open to put in food trays, mail, hygiene items, clothing changes, cleaning supplies and reading material. When a prisoner is in SHU that slot is their gateway to the world. Any movement or anything that comes into the cell enters through that slot.

The cell door remains locked at all times, except when prisoners or their bunkie are taken out of the cell. And anytime the door is unlocked both prisoners are handcuffed through the door slot. Security is a constant in SHU. Prisoners are treated as if they are Hannibal Lector at all times. Staff works in duo’s and anytime a door is cracked the door to the range must be locked.

There is a metal bunk bed bolted to the wall, a shower with a stainless steel enclosure and a stainless steel sink and toilet apparatus. Everything is securely fastened to the walls with no wiggle room or crevices to hide or stash stuff. The sink, toilet and shower have metal buttons to push to flush or make water come out. The water comes out for maybe 10 seconds and shuts off. There is a button for cold and a button for hot water on the sink and the shower has only hot water. But for real it’s not that hot, only lukewarm. The amenities in the SHU are not favorable.

The hole at FCC Forrest City isn’t that bad in that regard, because I have been in some before where the shower water is cold as ice. The water in this one is not real hot, but it works. The shower is kind of cramped, but you get used to it. You have to keep pushing the button every 10 seconds to keep the water flowing. That can be a drag, but being in the hole basically sucks. It is not a desirable location to live in on the compound.

The toilets flush powerfully and all prisoners hear in SHU all day are the toilets flushing and the showers running. There is a shower curtain on the shower, but it only covers prisoners from the waist down, so when staff walk by they can look in the little window slot and see the top half of a prisoner who is in the shower. No privacy, no communication, no movement- the hole is very restrictive.

There is a light fixture bolted to the wall with a metal enclosure. It keeps the cell lit up brightly all day and the light switch is outside the cell. The light is real bright. It is turned on daily at 6 a.m. and turned off at 10 p.m. by the guards. The C/O’s control everything in SHU. It is a completely restricted and controlled environment. There are two vents, one above the toilet by the light fixture for incoming air- either heat or air conditioning- and an exhaust one that sucks air out by the floor next to the toilet. Like everything else in SHU the vents are exploited.

Prisoners can lower a line through the vents to pass messages or commissary items like batteries or chocolate bars. Prisoners also make lines to shoot stuff like magazines, books, kytes or newspapers from cell to cell, under the cracks at the bottom of the doors. There are several inches of space between the bottom of the door and the concrete floor. Prisoners have perfected the art of line fishing and getting things from one cell to another through these means. It is possible for prisoners to send a kyte from the far end of the second tier to the other end of the first tier using these line fishing methods.

There is a metal mirror that is bolted to the wall. But it is very hard to see yourself in it. Prisoners are expected to use this mirror to shave. There is also an emergency button to push for whatever reason prisoners might have. Push the button and the cops will come running to the cell. Emergencies include a prisoner getting beat up or raped by his cellie, having a heart attack or just being frustrated with being in the hole. Prisoners like to cuss out the cops, because for real, what can they do?

Everything in SHU is controlled, restricted and monitored. Prisoners are issued one set of clothing, usually bright orange, twice a week- boxers, t-shirts, socks and pants- it’s all bright orange for some reason. Prisoners have to give up the set they are wearing to get a new clean set. Razors and other hygiene items are issued twice a week. To get a new roll of toilet paper prisoners have to give up the cardboard spool to show they are out, if they don’t have it they don’t get any more toilet paper.

Toothpaste, toothbrushes and soap items are exchanged the same way on a one for one basis. Prisoners give up the empty container or used item to get a new one. The SHU staff makes sure prisoners won’t be stockpiling hygiene items. Razors are given out and collected back a couple of hours later, so when you get it you need to shave pronto. Sheets, towels and blankets are changed once a week and they are orange also.

Commissary is once a week and prisoners are limited to buying items like stamps, aspirin, paper, envelopes, candy bars, shampoo, deodorant or a radio. The book cart comes once a week and prisoners are allowed to request two books and have only those two books in their possession. It’s like they are trying to kill you with boredom.

SHU inmates are fed three times a day, allowed one hour of recreation in a dog kennel-type cage five days a week and allowed to receive a visit for one hour on Monday through a video chatting system like Skype. The only writing instruments prisoners are given are rubber pencils that are about as big as your index finger and are extremely difficult to write with.

Whenever prisoners leave the cell to go to rec or any place else the C/O opens the slot on their door and both cellies cuff up behind their back, before the C/O unlocks the door of the cell. The C/O then grabs a hold of a prisoner’s arm as he backs him out of the cell like he’s Charlie Manson or the Unabomber. C/O’s escort prisoners through SHU like that. They are very security conscious. Prisoners are handcuffed at all times unless they are in their cell, put in the rec cage or the law library, which prisoners can go to once every two weeks.

Prisoners are allowed limited personal property in SHU consisting of one radio with earbuds, one pack of batteries, one pair of shower shoes, any prescribed medication, five letters or personal correspondences, five photos and any legal work approved by their unit team. No personal magazines or books are allowed to be sent to prisoners through the mail. SHU C/O’s provide all reading material from the book cart.

If prisoners receive any magazines or books in the mail they are put in their property in the SHU property room. Prisoners are also only allowed to receive personal mail size letters, any priority mail or large manila sized envelopes are put in their property also. Newspapers are allowed, but you can’t have more than one in your possession at a time.

Prisoners don’t really sleep in the hole; they spend the night half-awake drifting in and out of sleep as other prisoners holler to one another, bang on the doors and flush the toilets. Prisoners try not to hear, to let the empty minutes pass them over, but the days are long and boring in SHU. Restricted mail and correspondence, restricted movement, restricted privileges and communication. Being in SHU is all about restriction and control.

Prisoners are placed in SHU even when they haven’t been found guilty of doing anything wrong. As they await a disciplinary hearing to determine guilt or for any type of administrative reason prison officials can come up with, like an investigation, protective custody, disciplinary or administrative transfer. Prisoners are confined in SHU for a variety of reasons, both justified and ridiculous.

It’s all about limiting a prisoner’s contact, communications and movement. It’s all about the institution showing who the boss is. It’s more of a power trip than anything. It should be declared cruel and unusual punishment and only be used in the most extreme circumstances, not as a knee jerk reaction to show who is in charge. But that is how prison officials use “the hole.”