A Protester’s Guide to the Hennepin County Workhouse- Men’s Straight-time Unit
By Steve Clemens May 25,2002
There are two ways of arriving here- being brought here in ‘cuffs with an escort by the Sheriff’s Dept., usually after a guilty plea or a guilty verdict by a Judge or Jury, or the easier route when offered, self-reporting. I was given the luxury of the latter with a date and time to report set by the Judge.
The neighborhood of the workhouse is suburban. A big Home Depot store dominates the exit for Hwy. 6 off of I-494 in Plymouth. As you drive west on 6, you see large homes and Parker Lake on the left. Immediately after Parker Lake is a road to the south with a sign “Adult Correctional Unit” pointing in that direction. As you travel down Shenandoah Lane, the first buildings on your right are the Women’s Unit and the Men’s Work Release Unit.. Next is another correctional office building that looks somewhat like a church followed by the drive for visitors to the Workhouse. The main entrance is the second drive. A 3 story brick building with a tower in front looks like an older office building until you notice the 12’high chain link fence topped with concertina razor wire coiled at the top on the north side, behind the façade. It marks the outdoor recreation yard area.
The entrance leads into a waiting area with wooden benches on the perimeter. I checked in on a Sunday afternoon so the room was filled with friends and family who had come to visit. There is a sign telling me to push the button next to the iron-barred gate for reporting in. I pushed the button and said goodbye to my sons who has dropped me off. A guard took my paperwork from the court and gave me a pencil and a form to fill out asking for name, address, contact name and address, … After filling it out and waiting for the gate to be unlocked, I entered my new “home” for the week. I inquired about my release date so I knew when I needed to be picked up and was told one automatically gets 1/3 off the sentence for “good time”, subject to it being revoked if “written up” by a guard for a variety of offences. I will be released at 6 AM on the 7th day of my 10-day sentence. (Note: when released on weekdays, there is a “Huber” bus that drops people off in downtown Minneapolis that leave the Workhouse about 6:15 AM. On weekends, you need to get your own transportation from there.)
As I am brought into the booking area, I am asked if I am carrying any weapons. I use the question as an opportunity to tell the office that I am there for protesting weapons, I don’t carry them. I am asked to empty all my pockets and place everything in them and whatever I am carrying on a table in front of the officer. He pats me down to be certain I’ve removed everything and then goes through my stuff. The court provided me with a handout of items I could bring: toothbrush, tube toothpaste, a Bible and/or prayer book, cash (for the “canteen”), a writing tablet, pencil, deodorant, shampoo (in a clear bottle), and prescription drugs. You can’t bring in books or magazines, over-the-counter drugs, or retractable ball point pens. I was able to keep a Bic stick pen. The office took all my retractable pens even though they were plastic. I was able to keep the 3 wooden pencils I brought. (Make sure they have good erasers if you plan to give them away to others when you leave,) I surrendered my watch, my Driver’s License, and the cash I was carrying and was given a receipt for those items. My Rx items were placed in a bag to go to the medical office with my name and cell # on it. I am told I am lucky to be arriving now because the jail is almost filled to capacity. So I will be placed in the A cellblock for at least the first night. The A cellblock is primarily for those who are working while incarcerated there at jobs within the prison or outside. Because it contains workers, it is reputed to be quieter at night than B block. Because I entered on a weekend, I will need to wait until Monday morning for my orientation.
I am given a brass circle with a number stamped on it to give to the “clothes officer” when I surrender my street clothes. I am asked to stand behind a line and hold a piece of paper under my chin with my name and new ID number on it. I am told to “smile’ as the digital camera takes my picture. Later, at orientation I am given a plastic badge with my color photo laminated inside. A sticker is attached with any special dietary or medical conditions you may have.
On to the next holding area to wait for another officer. After about ½ hour, he arrives in the adjoining room and instructs me to come in with my possessions. He dumps out all my stuff from my paper bag and again sorts through it to tell me what I can keep. In the “not” pile this time is my prayer icon of ML King, Jr. even though I’ve identified it as such and was OK’d by the first officer. It gets placed in my clothing bag. After stripping and placing all my clothes on the desk (except my sneakers which he checks as well but I am able to keep), I am told to stand on a line, “open your mouth, lift your tongue, roll up each of your lips, turn my head so he can see behind each ear, lift your arms, spread your legs, lift your penis, lift your nuts, turn around, lift each foot and show my the bottom, spread your legs, bend over and cough.” Thus, the dehumanizing (for him and me) strip search. All my clothes are identified and valued and I must sign the slip and am given a copy.
Next is the shower but the officer is in a hurry and tells me to just get my hair wet and run my fingers through it and towel off. He hands me my bedroll of a blanket, 2 sheets, and a pillow case, socks, underwear briefs, and a set of blue scrubs like are worn in some hospitals only these are stamped “Adult Corrections”. I can take the now wet towel with me and was led out of the room.
Next stop is the medical office where a nurse has you fill out a questionnaire and asks you questions about any medical problems. I hand her a letter from my physician documenting my need for ibuprophen for lower back pain but since the letter was not printed on the Heath Partners stationary and is only signed by her, she won’t accept it without a phone call the next working day to the office to confirm it. I strongly recommend you have a physician document if you are a vegetarian in this letter because all the non-breakfast meals are heavily oriented toward meat. I don’t know how they’ll respond if you have such a letter requesting meal options but it is worth a try. Also state in the letter that you need to be issued a foam pad for your bed if you have back pain like I have. Otherwise you will have to send a note to see the jail doctor and you will be billed $3. for any visit. Anyone staying 7 days or longer is given a stick prick test for TB and needs to report back in 3 days to get it read. I am told I need to pick up my meds before breakfast, after lunch, before supper, and at 9:30 PM. If you haven’t brought your own prescriptions with you, the charge for meds is $3. (I think per day), taken out of your canteen account. A guard is usually present when you get your meds and some medical staff want to see you swallow it before you leave the dispensing window. The scuttlebutt at meals is that the dentist only comes once a month and is more interested in pulling teeth than repairing them. If you have medical insurance, you will be billed for any medical care. As you leave the medical interview, you are issued a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste, enough for a week.
During recreation time in the evening or during shower time in the afternoon, you can use the library. It is stocked by Hennepin County Library Outreach dept. It is downstairs, below Cellblock A, and is preceded with a longer room which has telephones mounted on the walls for collect calls ($1.64 for 10 minutes I am told). The library itself is about 15’ x 20’ with books along one wall. There is a reasonable selection of fiction & non-fiction books in both paperback and hardcover, including a “classics” shelf that has Crime & Punishment as well as Catch 22. A table has magazines, some only a week or two old that are replenished on Tuesdays when the librarian is there from the county. There is also a reference section with several encyclopedia sets. There is no sign-out for the books there, just take them to your cell. There is a drop box for requests for books that the librarian picks up every Tuesday and brings them the following Tuesday. When she is there she can look up titles for you. You can keep these books for 2 weeks. There is a special drop-box for these books ordered from the outside. If you don’t have any books you want to request, be creative and order Bonhoffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison, Jack Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, or maybe something from Mumia Abu-Jamal or prison reflections from Dan or Phil Berrigan. You have to be there more than 7 days to be able to take advantage of this.
There are 2 cellblocks, A & B, plus separation and segregation units for discipline purposes. Each cellblock is 3 tiered with 4 sections for each tier. The cells are back-to-back with 3 walls of concrete and the fourth wall is primarily iron bars spaced about 3 inches apart, including the door to one’s cell that slides side-to-side, connected to the mechanical control at the guard station. There is a guard station on both the north and south sides of each tier right in the middle so it overlooks the 16-18 cells in each section. A circular stairwell in the guard station lets the officer go up or down to let out each tier at meal times, etc. At some hours or shifts, there might be 2-3 guards on each side of the tiers, other times there is only one guard per side. The guards walk the walkway outside the cells at least hourly.
The cells are 68” wide and 94” deep. There is a single bulb, 4’ florescent light fixture mounted to the ceiling with a pull switch to turn it on/off. On the rear wall of the cell is a porcelain wall-mounted toilet (without a seat) and a sink with warm and cold water. The sink is designed to also project a stream of water upward to serve as a water fountain. You can get bars of soap at the guard station. The bed is a steel bunk with raised edges to confine the “mattress”- NOT a “Serta Sleeper” or a “Sleep Number” design. It is about 2 ½” thick and covered with a plastic cover- kind of like sleeping on a folded woolen army blanket folded up- quite unforgiving. If you are lucky, there is still a plastic-covered “pillow” left in your cell. It too feels like it was constructed of the same material as the mattress only not as thick. If not issued one, you can ask when you get to use the shower room if they have one they can give you. (The shower room is also the place where they can issue you a tee shirt if they have one your size.) Under your bunk is mounted a metal basket 18” x 18” lined with galvanized metal to keep your “stuff”. (A padlock to secure it from being raided by others is available for purchase from the canteen for $7. Canteen day for cellblock A is on Wednesday afternoon during shower-time). Opposite the bunk are two wall-mounted rolled-edge steel shelves that serve as a “desk” and “bench”. They are each 12” x 18” so you can sit and write. It is designed so one’s back is facing the steel bars, not a position one would wish to be in if one is concerned for his safety. However, my week-long experience was that it did not appear to be a major concern because there is not a lot of traffic in the hallway and it is usually supervised when guys are being let out of their cells. The only people usually walking up and down the cellblock are officers and the inmates whose work assignment is to sweep and clean the walkways. There is also a shelf mounted 6’ high, close to the door of the cell that can be used to store books and papers. It is 8” x 24” and some, unlike mine, have intact hooks so you could hang clothing or towels from it. There is a metal “mirror” mounted on the wall above the sink. There is little floor space in the cell where one could exercise. The cell door opens to a 4’ walkway bordered with a metal railing which overlooks an open space which goes the height of a 3 tiers. There are some heating units mounted in this space but most areas are open so there is a lot of books, magazines, and other trash or towels, etc. that get thrown from the third tier down on to the main hallway on the first level. Every morning there is a lot of trash to walk past on the way to breakfast that has been thrown there at night. Since the cells are back-to-back and side-to-side, you can’t see into another cell from yours.
A kite is a request/complaint slip which you fill out to request to attend classes (GED, computer training, Driver’s Ed for DWI offenders, …) or meetings (AA, NA, Chemical Dependency, Prison Fellowship, Bible Study, Islam or Native American religious groups, or Positive Thinking). These forms are available in the dining room with a drop basket there. They can also be left for pick-up on the bars of your cell when mail is delivered at 10:30 PM. Lists are then posted everyday at breakfast time in the cellblock and dining room for scheduled sessions until 4 PM when another list is posted for the evening classes/meetings. If your name isn’t posted, you are not allowed to attend. I requested to attend 2 meetings but never received a response so my name was not on the list and I couldn’t attend. Maybe it was because I was there for only a short period or because the meetings were “full”. Most of the meetings are held in the “chapel” in the upstairs program area where the case worker offices are as well.
On the first weekday after your arrival, you are scheduled for an orientation session which happens at 8:30 AM. Mine, scheduled for a Monday morning, included guys who had arrived later on Friday, or Saturday, or Sunday. There were about 25 guys in my session. We fill out a form/questionnaire asking about our use/abuse of alcohol/drugs, do we have a job on the outside, do we need job training, and are we willing to “work a productive day” while incarcerated. (If you are not willing to work or have been convicted of crimes of assault, you will likely be assigned to cellblock B. Even if you are willing to work, you are assigned a classification level which designates whether you can work inside only, in the “industry” at the jail, or outside, working with a landscaping crew. Wages are paid, up to $5./day for some of the 7-hour jobs. Many are hard-to-get and the office where one signs up for a job was open only 1 of the seven days I was there. It is located up the stairs in the rear of the dining room. Inmates assigned to work in industry or outside are issued aqua tee-shirts to designate their status.)
When the session starts, we are handed a yellow “rules” booklet as well as a blue “general info” booklet which explains some of the schedules, procedures, expectations, etc. The senior officer leading the orientation uses the F word almost as much as some of the inmates, claiming that he is “tough, but fair”. It is ironic that one of the first rules in the book include the amount of good time we can lose if written up for “swearing” (0-10 days) or you can be sent to the “hole” (separation or segregation) for 10-30 days. Most of these rules are a joke- they just give an officer ammo when they want to throw the book at you. Rule #31 is “disturbing others”- “creating noises that interfere with the … peaceful functioning of the facility. … making sounds that adversely affect the living conditions of other residents…” (0-20 days in the hole and/or up to 10 days good time lost). Every night there are guys shouting, swearing, rapping at the top of their lungs and this rule is not enforced even though it prevents many of us from sleeping for hours on end. We are told to check the daily postings for meetings to see when we are to meet our case worked assigned to each one. We are called “residents” here rather than inmates or cons. The guards are “officers” rather than “boss-man” or “screws”. We are detained in this “facility” but it clearly is a jail or prison. We are issued our identity badges and then are addressed by the Chaplain. He comes across as somewhat of a no-nonsense kind of guy but definitely warmer than the senior officer. He is from Kenya and one of the inmates asks (based on his experience with Somali kids) whether he will treat African-Americans with respect. He responds that the guy asking should schedule a meeting with him. He says he sees God within the eyes of each of us and wants to be our “friend” but not our “buddy”.
(This is based on the schedule of Cellblock A. I’ve been told that A has more opportunities for getting out of the cells more than B but don’t know any details of the differences.) Meals are staggered so one cellblock eats, followed by the other. Since A block has the workers, we eat breakfast first at about 7:10 AM. Some workers eat ½ hour before us, depending on their assignments. The menu for that day is posted on the wall of the hall where you line up to go through the meal line. You pick up a plastic molded tray and a heavy plastic “spork” and go through the line where residents assigned to work in the kitchen give you a portion of whatever is being served. Although you can decline anything you don’t want, it is best to take everything and share what you don’t want with others who often will eat whatever they can get. The portions are usually adequate- especially for those of us sitting or laying around all day, although they are heavily oriented to meat and canned vegetables or fruit. We did have a few raw veggies one meal and an orange one breakfast. You get 3 slices of white bread with virtually every meal. Coffee is served with every meal and you get a small carton of 2% milk at breakfast and most lunches. There is Kool-Aid or water for supper. We get a good variety in the meals- my week included eggs and sausage, French toast, eggs and corned beef hash, meat gravy on toast, and pancakes, with cold cereal at most of the breakfasts. Lunches and diners included a canned veggie with hot dogs & baked beans, veal parmesan with spaghetti, roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, chicken breast with rice, tuna noodle casserole, beef stroganoff, … and occasionally you get ice cream, jell-o, or canned fruit as a dessert. There is a “count” during every meal where you are required to remain seated while the # of inmates are counted. Often there needs to be a re-count so this can take several minutes. The meal-time is usually about ½ hour.
After returning from breakfast, if you don’t have a job, you might have 15-20 minutes to clean your cell before you are locked down. (This happened only once during the week I was there but I wasn’t in the cellblock 3 of the mornings.) You can get liquid soap, comet cleanser, plastic disposable gloves, a broom, mop, etc. from the guard station. Otherwise you are locked down in your cell until 11:15 AM when lunch is scheduled. This period of time in the AM is the best time to read, write, and/or meditate because it is the quietest time in the day. This is due to the fact that about ½ of the guys are working and another group is in classes. Many others who didn’t sleep well the night before use this time to nap.
Following lunch is lockdown again until 1:30 when we get out for 45 minutes for a shower and a change of clothes or to use the library or make phone calls. A guard is on-duty outside the shower area and he usually restricts access to about 10-15 residents at a time. You can grab a small bar of soap and you get a towel to dry off that you can take back to your cell. Lockdown follows shower-time until supper. The supper hour is about 5:20 for one cellblock until about 6 for one cellblock followed by supper for the other cellblock. This time alternates each day between A & B. One evening we were allowed outdoors for 1 hour of rec time after supper where we could play volleyball, basketball, horseshoes, sit at picnic tables, or use the phones. We were then locked down for an hours and then given another hour of rec time in the library or dining hall. A lot of the guys play cards in either place or watch TV (there are 3 TVs in the dining room but the noise level is so great one can hardly hear the TV), play dominoes, ping pong, or just talk. The tables with their fixed stools are not built for comfort! You get recreation every other night, alternated with the other cellblock. On rec nights when you are not allowed outside, rec time is from 7-9:45 PM. There is also a separate room with 6 telephones off the dining room that can be used then. When the other cellblock has rec time at night, you are locked down from after supper until breakfast unless you have a visit.
Visiting hours are 6:30-9:45 PM on Tuesday and Thursday, and 12:30-3:30 PM on Wednesday and Saturday (last name A-L) or Sunday (M-Z). You can receive only 1 visit per day and a maximum of 2 persons per visit. Anyone can come, there is no visiting list but each visitor must have a picture ID and kids must be accompanied by a parent. Visiting takes place in a long room with 16 telephones mounted on a Plexiglas divider. The resident sits in a small carrol opposite the chair of his visitor. There is no privacy but most people are concentrating on their own visit rather than listening to your own conversation. Visits are timed to last 20-30 minutes, depending on how many others are waiting. Visitors sometimes wait 30-45 minutes before a station is free for their visit. Visitors can leave money for the resident’s canteen account.
The canteen is the in-house commissary where you can purchase items for your personal use. You may go 1 day per week with a spending limit of $50. per visit. Order forms are available from the hallway officer and there are pencils available to fill them out. One can purchase stamped envelopes (letter-size and 9 x 11), writing tablets, greeting cards, pencils or pens, colored pencils and drawing paper, hair products and shampoo, combs and picks, chips, popcorn, and candy bars. Walkman-style radios are $25. and earphones are $4. Batteries can be purchased only when dead batteries are exchanged. One resident told me, “Snickers are like money here.” You can trade them to another resident for some of their food at meals, they are used for bets in card games, …
It appears that about 70% of the residents are men of color while less than 20% of the officers are people of color. About one in 4 or 5 guards are women. The female officers are assigned to all areas and duties including walking the cellblocks, although I suspect they aren’t assigned to the shower area. Most of the population is under 30 years old although there are a few “gray-hairs” mixed in. I noticed two flamboyantly gay men this week and both were African-American. There seems to be a lot of verbal homophobia but I didn’t see these men get physically harassed. There are significant populations of African-Americans and Caucasians, with smaller groups of Native Americans, Hmong, Latinos, and recent immigrant men, mostly Somali. With the exception of some of the verbal shouting & taunts at night and quite explicit language, most of the time is hassle-free if you keep to yourself and don’t mouth off. The noise level and the poor sleeping conditions are the most difficult aspects for me. There are a few clocks around so telling time is almost impossible within this jail except for the scheduled meals, meetings, … unless one listens to the radio. Fortunately, my cell was on the second tier and faced slightly to the east so I could help determine the time from the sunrise.
When you are scheduled to be released, you will be awakened before 5 PM and instructed to take everything from your cell except the mattress and pillow. After dropping off your linens and trash, you are taken to booking and surrender your badge. You sign for your clothes bag and change into your civilian clothes and wait for the booking officer. Shortly before 6 AM he calls you in to return your personal ID, any jewelry taken, or other items you brought that you couldn’t have inside. Newspaper clippings or other contraband included in mail you received. (Again, it is ironic that one can subscribe to a newspaper inside, but you can’t receive news clippings in the mail!). You should have your gold copy of the booking form with you. If released on a weekday, there is a Huber bus that leaves about 6:15 AM to go to downtown Minneapolis. No bus is available on weekends or holidays and you must secure your own rides those days.
This is an experience you won’t forget for a while. Use the time to educate yourself about the realities of living in this American empire and as a time to listen and hear the voices of those “in the belly of the beast”.