Bentham’s Dream – Two

Everything about the interior that I was led through was also generic, so bland that we might have been in an ordinary office building. Even the carpeting underfoot was the heavy-duty, no-nonsense kind that said no money was being wasted on luxuries. Presumably, that wouldn’t be true of the technology.

Right from the first, this place was intended never to succumb to obsolescence. We knew that much. It had been built with the most advanced technologies of the time, with the intention of updating to keep the prison at the forefront of penal institutions. That it continued to function after almost a half century without the slightest hint of any significant problems, said a lot about its planners and builders. And also about the level of security that kept every advance a dark secret. How the hell they’d managed that, decade after decade, was something that I sincerely wanted to know. If there had been problems, would the news ever have leaked out? I suspected it would be one of the things I wouldn’t learn.

The man that stood up when we entered his office was almost as ordinary looking as Feldman, but I sensed a presence. I know that sounds crazy, but there aren’t that many men who can impress me without saying a word, and this one cranked up my nerves an extra notch. The warden of any supermax prison carries an extra burden, but Westminster is the only one where every prisoner is in solitary confinement for the remainder of his life. So many ethical questions still swirl around solitary; the idea of using it as a lifetime punishment — that’s still beyond the pale as far as a lot of people are concerned. That was the crux of it, really. Out where I normally worked, it was still a volatile issue, even when it’s temporary, even when it’s been modified to acknowledge its terrible mental effects. But it was the entire reason why this prison existed. And the first few seconds of being in this man’s presence told me that he was up to the job. More, he wasn’t someone I wanted to piss off.

“Mr. Stanton.” Chandler gave me a small nod and an even smaller smile, and reached across the desk. He was observing me, and I found that vaguely unsettling. I expected this assignment could be an unpleasant one, but I wasn’t prepared to be examined as if I was an entering prisoner. But I damn well wasn’t going to let the man intimidate me. I smiled back and shook his hand.

Chandler turned his attention to his deputy. “Mr. Feldman, please inform me when the new prisoner arrives.” And that was it. He came around the desk and took off without another word. He apparently took it for granted that I would follow him.
“We’ll start with the maintenance areas, Mr. Stanton. Then we will proceed to the cells and tower. That should give you the basis you need to understand the intake procedure you’ll be seeing afterwards. You will be recording audio throughout?”

Taking a deep, silent breath, I said, “Yes, I will. I’ll also be making text notes.” I pulled a slate out of my jacket. “If you and Mr. Feldman wish to review the material before I leave, I’m willing to wait. And you can download your own copy.”

A committee member had suggested that I record video or at least take photos, but that had been shot down by the chairman without comment. I’d been sure it would be. For a couple of seconds, I’d even debated with myself about the man’s intelligence. So, when it came time to sign the non-disclosure agreement, I wasn’t at all surprised that it was the strictest I’d ever seen. I couldn’t even make sketches  from memory, after leaving the prison. I’d thought about dashing off a couple of rough ones, just to have a memento, until I read the agreement. I wasn’t a fool. Even if I hadn’t been legally bound, I realized that even something so innocent could risk the security of the prison if they were ever found.

My inspections had always included tours that the administrators set up, hoping that I wouldn’t look any further or ask any uncomfortable questiosn. This one was impressive, strictly on point, without personal chatter or any sign that Chandler would welcome frivolous questions. And he sure as heck wasn’t the slightest bit interested in me. The man was all business, and if he was cooperating only because he didn’t have any choice, he kept his feelings about it well out of sight. He spouted statistics, and pointed out details that I might not have noticed on my own, with an assurance that said this was a man who stayed on top, always in control. It was reassuring, but in a way that gave me a chill. The prison would be run exactly as mandated, but it made me wonder how that translated to the inmates. Were they humans to this man, or just warm bodies to be managed? Maybe, during the course of the day, Chandler would reveal his humanity, but for the first part of the tour, he did a very good impression of an extemely well-designed and intelligent robot. But if he thought I was going to be distracted from my own goals, he was mistaken. I took it for granted that he was covering up something. And I took it for granted that, whatever it was, I would find it.

Our first stop was the kitchen, maybe to impress on me just how different this place was from a normal prison. Well, it did. It was antiseptically clean, with every surface, and every pot and pan sparkling. The odors coming from the huge pots on the stove, in preparation for lunch, were tantalizing enough to remind me that I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning. One of the cooks, with a nod from Chandler, offered me a taste of a vegetable stew. It was delicious, and Chandler allowed himself a tiny smile that I was beginning to think of as a patented mask, at my surprise.

Given what I knew about the average diet and the quality of the food that prisoners were usually subjected to, my question was inevitable. “Is this how the prisoners normally eat?” There was every possibility that it was all theater, for my benefit. That’s why my normal inspections were always unannounced. There were wardens who hated my guts. They couldn’t tidy up the disgusting conditions before I saw them and they couldn’t bribe me to look the other way.

“Staff and prisoners eat the same food,” Chandler said, without seeming to grasp the implication of the question or taking it as an insult. “Proper nourishment contributes to good health and extends the lifetime. You might say it is part of the punishment.”

Was that official prison policy or Warden Chandler’s personal philosophy in action? Or an example of extremely dry humor? Whichever it was, it put me a little off-balance. There might be some interesting twists in this investigation. If Chandler had a philosophy at all, it probably wasn’t going to be like anything I was used to hearing about.

The statistics kept piling up as we walked through the laundry, the clothing depot, the housekeeping area, and a mobile medical dispensary. Chandler answered my questions concisely and briefly, but with a promise that I’d be able to quiz him in more depth after the tour. I resigned myself, making brief text notes, and marking the most important ones for priority in case the warden cut me off at some point. What I was most curious about at the moment was why there seemed to be no infirmary, just the mobile unit. But the recitation of facts went on, and didn’t give me much of a chance to break in with questions. Had he actually memorized a script for the entire tour?

“Westminster has 32 support staff and a rota of 21 guards…”

I broke in right there because I couldn’t let it go by. “How is that possible? You have… what? Some six or seven hundred prisoners! 21 guards for three shifts? I don’t understand.” His numbers had to be off somehow. Maybe his definition of “support staff” accounted for it.

“Since the inmates never leave their cells for any reason, the prison is designed to provide all services as efficiently as possible. That includes the number of personnel. All services are conducted in the prisoners’ cells, under conditions that require a minimum number of supervisory officers.”

The inmates never leave their cells! I stopped dead for a few seconds and had to catch up with him, jolted by that casual bit of information. It was a detail that no one knew about. And it immediately raised all kinds of questions about how this place was run.
“Mr. Chandler! What do you mean, they don’t leave their cells at all? Ever?”

Chandler stopped and turned when he realized that I’d fallen behind. “I mean exactly what I said, Mr. Stanton. Once a man enters his cell, the only way he leaves it is when life has left him. Oh, there is one exception. If there are any problems with the cell or its equipment that would make it difficult or impossible for the prisoner to remain in it, he will be transferred to another cell.”

“But that’s impossible! The effects of prolonged solitary confinement have been known for more than a  century. Not even the most despicable criminals deserve that. You’ve been allowed to operate without any outside oversight, but this…” My disbelief and indignation were in danger of carrying me away when Chandler raised his hand in a sharp gesture.

“I know what you are thinking, Mr. Stanton, but I assure you that your experience with solitary confinement has no relationship to what goes on here. Please have the courtesy not to judge until you see and understand how we deal with our prisoners.”

My face burned at being so openly chastised. And what the hell was I thinking, anyway, to criticise with so few of the facts in hand? If I blew this chance, it was unlikely that it would come again until a new warden took Chandler’s place. I didn’t even want to think about what such a serious mistake would do to my career.

It galled me, but I had to back off and apologize. There was every reason to expect that what went on here would be different, and there had been plenty of brainstorming about what that might mean. Now it looked like we’d all suffered a failure of imagination. “You’re quite right, Mr. Chandler, and I apologize. I assure you it won’t happen again. It’s just… It took me by surprise.”

“Yes, I suppose it would. I’m well acquainted with the methods of penal systems out there. Ours are quite different, as you’ll see.”

The warden’s expression was cool, but I didn’t detect any sign of anger. Either the man was just a cold SOB who didn’t let himself be affected by what anyone else thought, or he’d prepared himself for criticism. Was the smooth delivery of his patter rehearsed, as I’d thought, or was he one of those people who always have every detail at their finger tips? It wasn’t as if he was going to make a habit of giving tours. Why go to that kind of trouble for one intruder in his domain?

He went on with a recitation of the kinds of support staff employed by the prison, so an explanation of total seclusion was apparently going to come in its own good time. Or his good time. I kept part of my attention on the spiel, and the rest on trying to reconcile the small staff with the new knowledge. That would certainly allow a reduction in the number of guards needed, but even so, only 21 in three shifts of seven? That would mean a level of control I’d never encountered before, even in the most draconian supermax prisons. It had to be based on something more than just 24/7 cell restriction, which wasn’t that uncommon in high-security prisons. There must be other precautions. And for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what they would be.

But the thought of anyone, even the worst of criminals, being condemned to solitary for the rest of their life, sent a pang of empathetic pain through me. Such extreme isolation had to lead to madness. I knew all too well what supermax conditions were like, and the statistics for mental breakdowns and suicides in their prisoner populations. I forced myself to abandon the problem for the time being. There was too much I didn’t know. Hell, I didn’t really know anything. At least, if Chandler had already revealed that much, he probably wasn’t going to evade a thorough explanation.

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