The Oklahoma State Penitentiary can be a very dark place.
Many of the 751 inmates incarcerated in this supermax prison in McAlester are facing extremely long sentences, often life sentences, in prison. Most have spent the majority of their lives in prison already, and most have histories of violent or disruptive behavior at other facilities in the Oklahoma prison system, leading them to their lives inside the walls at OSP.
It is the end of the line here.
The inmates spend 23 hours a day in a small cell. For recreation, they get an hour a day in a cage. It is a place where hopelessness, anger and sadness are as common as steel and concrete.
But in the face of such darkness there are rays of light. Behind the scenes at OSP, employees do their best to protect the public while simultaneously offering compassion and some sense of hope for the hopeless.
The D and E Units house the mental health pods of the prison.During a recent tour of the prison an inmate who suffered a mental health breakdown was observed being escorted to the infirmary by two corrections officers. The goal was treatment and protection of the inmate from himself.
This type of a scenario is a regular occurrence in the D and E Units.
Warden Terry Royal said the prison has a full staff of mental health professionals employed to help find treatment for those deemed a danger to themselves or others.
"You have people who have to be protected from themselves…you have some who are a harm to others, and some who simply can’t even care for themselves, the basics,” Royal said.
Bruce White and Steve Long are both psychological clinicians who work in the D and E units at the prison.
“Most of those housed (in the mental health units) are facing depression, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia,” White said.
Long and White said the entire staff is committed to inmate safety and well-being. They also rely on other inmates who have earned enhanced privileges to work to identify inmates who are struggling and who may be a threat to themselves or others. There is lots of work done to identify the suffering and to find the appropriate treatment — whether it be medication or other measures.
"You have to have compassion for these guys and there is a lot of things they do — you can’t take it personally,” Long said. "You get stuff thrown at you, threatened, but it is just part of the job.
"When they are here, we try to take care of them the best we can,” Long said. "The guys I’ve got here — most of them are schizophrenic or bipolar disorder. They are extremely mentally ill and many need medication support. It is a challenge.”
Many have the misconception that those incarcerated at OSP will never get out, but many do including those in the mental health units of the prison.
"We do have quite a few discharges and one of the problems we have is there are not as much mental health treatment on the streets as needed,” White said. "Their need doesn’t stop when they leave here. We have people who get out of here and do all right and then we have others on the other side — who need to be in a mental health hospital for the rest of their life. As long as they are incarcerated, they do not leave the mental health unit because they will not get better.
"We manage their symptoms as best as possible and try to create better living conditions for them,” White said.
Rozina Newby has a background in social work and human resources. Every day she walks into the Oklahoma State Penitentiary with the goal of teaching inmates the skills that will provide for a better future — namely, social skills allowing them to move to a lower security facility or, in the best case scenario, the outside world with skills that will help them live a better life.
"What we are teaching are skills that help inmates get along better with each other and authority figures,” Newby said. "These skills can be transferred to other security levels as well as into the community. That is our hope, that we are teaching them skills that basically are life skills, social skills, problem solving skills."
Newby is an offender program coordinator and offers classes featuring curriculum that is cognitive and behavioral based.
"Is what I’m thinking rational and how do we determine that?” Newby said. "We are trying to prepare them to move to lower-security facilities or into the community and not to recidivate. We want them to leave here, be successful and never come back.”
In the program there are a list of rules participating inmates are held accountable to beyond the basic rules of the penitentiary.
“They are to act like gentlemen,” Newby said. “They are to demonstrate pro-social behavior everywhere, in the classroom, on the pod, in their cell with their cellmate. Demonstrate all the skills we are teaching in class. Social skills, problem solving skills, cognitive self change, helping them refrain from negative thinking patterns so they can produce better outcomes.”
Newby acknowledged that inmates, from the outside, are labeled the worst of the worst given the security level of the prison and the notorious histories of many incarcerated. But Newby also said she has daily experiences teaching the inmates reminding her that behind the ultra-tough facades are human beings like you and me.
“I came into this thinking they were these horrible people who were going to be difficult to manage and difficult to teach in a structured learning environment,” Newby said. “I have found it is totally the opposite…I’m dealing with inmates who are termed ‘the worst of the worst’…but I look at them as individuals. They do have that past, so I try to look at them as people who are in this class because they want to change and they want to be taught a better way. I see a lot of it and we measure success by them demonstrating those positive behaviors.”
'We have to watch everything we do’
Shawn Horvat is a man who pays attention to detail.
He is a corrections lieutenant who, almost every day, is supervising a unit filled with violent offenders at OSP. He also is responsible for making sure cadets are paired with more experienced officers, and that inmates are housed accordingly. He said paying attention to detail and making sure staff are appropriately trained are critical components of a safe prison where staff, the public and inmates are protected.
"Every one of these offenders are restrained, strip searched, double checked when we move them,” Horvat said. “It's a constant. Every single time you take them out. Same procedure for shower — pull them out, lock the shower. Take the restraints off, strip search, make sure they don’t have anything.
"They get dressed, restrain them…and you escort them every step of the way,” Horvat said. "Very time consuming, and if they (the officers) don’t follow some of the mundane little things, and get complacent, someone can get hurt.”
Horvat said the job is a high-pressure one given staffing levels and the inmates the officers are dealing with. Many inmates affiliate with gangs and are intent on killing other inmates in rival gangs if given the chance.
“The officers are under a lot of pressure to make sure they are restraining them right, checking, searching, no intermingling,” Horvat said. “We also head off things simply by observing offender behavior.”
Horvat and Assistant Warden Maurice Warrior said a huge improvement at the understaffed prison has been a change in shift schedules. Officers were often working repeated 16-hour shifts, leaving them exhausted and taxed to the limit. Under new Warden Terry Royal officers are now working five 12-hour shifts.
“A huge lift for morale,” Horvat said. “They know when they are going to work and they are able to go home and spend time with their families. We have a lot of good people here. We work together as a team. It becomes a brotherhood, sisterhood..when you come inside the fence, we keep each other safe.”
Carolyn Mancilla is a 13-year corrections veteran at OSP. She takes pride in her job and doing it right.
“You want to think you are doing good for the society you live in and we do our part,” she said. “This prison is super important to our community. We are paid to do a job and that’s what we come and do here every day.”
Assistant Warden Warrior said the public should know the staff at OSP is filled with top-notch, high-quality people who are committed to protecting the public.
" I think we’ve done a lot of good here and I’m really looking forward to the things that are going to happen under the leadership of Warden Royal and the new director,” Warrior said. “It has almost done a 180. It was looking kind of gloomy but now it has done a 180 and I’m loving it. We are restoring the staff and working on the property and restoring programs.”