Stillwater policy enables prisoner ‘fight clubs’

(Photo courtesy of Urban News Service)

In a memo issued to incarcerated people in Stillwater prison in September, the prison administrative team admitted to knowingly creating unsafe conditions in the cell blocks. They apparently have no plans to change their practices.

During a meeting with prison administrators, a prisoner asked, “Why do those who go to segregation for fighting end up living in the same cell block with those whom they fought against? This causes repeat fights and unnecessary lockdowns.”

In a memo dated September 17, prison administrators responded in writing. “Incarcerated people have the responsibility to report any safety concerns to staff immediately so those concerns can be properly handled. While on the surface [forcing prisoners to live in the same cell block after they’ve fought each other] seems to be preventable, this does become a big volume to manage due to the number of fights that happen in the facility. 

“Staff does look at placement and why someone was in segregation prior to moving out of segregation,” the memo continued. “However, sometimes options are limited due to bed space.”

The idea that it’s prisoners’ responsibility to alert staff about prisoners living in the cell block together after fighting each other is ridiculous. This is asking prisoners to tell staff what they already know and is already documented.

The excuse that there isn’t enough bed space (cells) in the prison to separate individuals who assaulted each other speaks volumes about the need to reduce the prison population and utilize alternative tactics to address crime, such as restorative justice practices. 

It also speaks to the need for the prison itself to utilize restorative justice practices to help prisoners resolve conflicts rather than the sensory deprivation punishment of segregation.

A survey by The Prison Mirror newspaper (July 2020 issue) revealed how segregation can exacerbate violence. Some of the responses by Stillwater prisoners included: “It just makes me mad at the world and toy with the thought of suicide;” “I only think of retaliation. In here there is nothing to do but plot my next attack;” and “It makes me think of more violence and makes me worse.” Only a few prisoners surveyed said segregation was a helpful experience for them.

A couple of weeks after the administrative team’s memo was posted, a fight involving multiple prisoners erupted in the A-East cell block. It involved known rivals who had previously been in altercations with one another. 

During the chaotic scene, groups of men ran through the cell block hunting for their “ops,” which is street slang for “opposition” or perceived enemies. Once staff regained control, the cell block was placed on a 24-hour lockdown for several days, disrupting the opportunity for some prisoners who are trying to make their time inside constructive by attending college classes.

A few of the men involved in that melee were recently placed back in the same cell block after being released from segregation. As a result, the tension boils in the air.

The DOC lists safety as its primary value. According to the agency, this is done by “supporting a safety-conscious environment for staff and offenders.”

Fight club environments hinder and endanger prisoners, including those trying to do their time constructively. This problem will not be addressed just because a prisoner asked for increased access to restorative justice processes and reductions in the prison population to facilitate separating prisoners when necessary.

The public can voice their concerns to the DOC Central Office at 651-361-7200 and to the Stillwater prison administration at 651-779-2700.

Jeffrey Young writes for the Stillwater Prison Mirror and resides at MCF-Stillwater.