Hard-Cell Tactics

Critics charge that overcrowding and understaffing in the city's prisons puts the lives of inmates and staff at risk.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 3, 2005

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Photographs by Jeff Fusco


"I walk past a pile of old office desks and, by necessity, into the men's room. It smells like an outhouse. I sit down, for the second time this morning. Every morning is like this, and it is for the other new guys, too: Your stomach lets you know, just before the shift starts, what it thinks of this job."

-Ted Conover in Newjack, a book about a year the author spent working as a corrections officer in New York's Sing Sing penitentiary


When Annamarie Powell saw the sergeant arrive, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. He was trailed by 20 to 25 new recruits from the prison's training academy, and he was clearly about to conduct a shakedown, searching every cell on the block for contraband.

Powell had served nearly 14 years as a corrections officer (CO) in the Philadelphia prison system. She'd seen her share of shakedowns. But a lot had transpired in recent days.

The inmates on cellblock D-2 Pod 4 of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) were in something of a celebratory mood. The letter-writing campaign they'd mounted had sparked interest on the outside and received some media play.

The inmates had complained for more than a year about being on "lockdown"-often confined to their cells for 20 hours or more a day. In a June 22 PW story inmates predicted a riot if they didn't get more time out of their cells.

In the days that followed, COs and inmates report prison officials authorized more overtime. The feeling of relief was palpable. "We weren't happy for them," says Powell of her fellow officers. "We were happy for ourselves. We'd been talking for months about how there was going to be trouble."

Now two days later, with the shakedown about to start, inmates began hollering to Powell: "You know what this is about! You know why they're here!"

The shakedown seemed out of the blue. There had been no assaults and no reports of prisoners with cell phones-both typical search triggers. The sergeant could just be "tossing cells" as a training exercise for new recruits, but selecting this prison block just seemed too coincidental. Roy Young, the only inmate identified in the article, resided on D-2, as did many of the other inmates who had contacted PW.

The search itself, once underway, created its share of stressful moments.

When male inmates were strip-searched in front of female recruits, it provoked more shouting.

"That's against protocol," says Powell. "I asked the females to move away from the cell doors."

The trainees recovered contraband, including a handful of shaving razors and a shank. Each time a new discovery was made the sergeant turned to Powell and addressed the recruits. "The only reason you're going to find these things," he said, "is because of lazy COs."

Powell began to think the shakedown might be personal.

"A lot of us had encouraged the inmates to go to the media," she says. "They had filed grievances, and that hadn't done any good, so we told them, 'Write letters.' I thought maybe this was payback."

That night she went home and told her husband to watch his back. James Powell worked for Aramark food services in the CFCF kitchen. He'd been on the job just 45 days, and couldn't see how trouble could come to him. "I'm ARA," he said. "Not a CO."

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