The severity of policies at Arkansas’s Supermax can be seen in prisoners’ wounds
[private]Damien Echols lifts the white pant’s leg of his prison uniform to show a visitor his sock. Even through the glass that separates them, the visitor can see that the sock is stained by fresh red. Echols stretches out his arms, exposing his wrists, which are circled by deep impressions from the handcuffs his guards just removed.
Echols knows that he risks retaliation for showing a reporter this evidence of his treatment. He doesn’t care. “There’s a general level of abuse that exists here all the time,” he says. “But then, there are particular guards who hate—hate—to see any attention shown to this case whatsoever. Those are the ones who apply extra pressure just to show me I’m not special.”
When Echols was sentenced to death in 1994, he did not get an Arkansas Department of Correction number as Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., did when they too entered the state’s prison system. Baldwin is ADC 103335, Misskelley ADC 103072. Echols is SK 931. The SK stands for “safe-keeping,” the idea being that the men on Death Row were never sentenced to prison, like the 16,000-some other state inmates. The prison system is just supposed to be holding him in “safe-keeping” until his real sentence—death—is carried out.
“Safe” is not a word that Echols would ever have used to describe life on Death Row, but he and others there report that conditions have worsened considerably since a change of wardens about a year ago. The blood on Echols’s ankle and the impressions left on his wrists are but the latest of the physical insults he has suffered as a prisoner. They are the result of a new regimen at the state’s Supermax Unit for transporting Death Row inmates whenever they’re outside of their cells.
It used to be that men to be taken out would back up to the door of their cells and extend their wrists through a slot so that a guard on the other side could handcuff them for the walk—usually to the visitation room. Once there, while the inmate’s visitor watched from across the glass, the inmate would step into the visitation cell, the guard would close and lock the barred door, and the cuffs would be removed.
In the past year, however, that process has gradually changed. In addition to the handcuffs, guards began shackling Death Row inmates. That is, placing around their ankles cuffs connected by a short chain or strap that permits only a hobbling walk. On top of that, wardens have also imposed an additional restraint: a leather strap that connects the handcuffs to the shackles. What prompted such Hannibal-Lecterish measures is unclear. Echols and others say that they don’t know what led to the change. Nor has the ADC reported any violence from Death Row inmates—a population that has long been regarded as one of the least troublesome in the system.
Walking while shackled is difficult, but Echols says guards go out of their way—at least with him—to apply the shackles and cuffs so tightly that they leave marks and/or draw blood. He recently reported by mail that, because of the bleeding problem, guards are now locking the shackles over the prisoner’s pant legs, so that metal does not touch skin. Despite that, he says, walking in the restraints remains painful.
The date of this visit is Nov. 30, 2010. Just a few weeks earlier, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered that an evidentiary hearing be held in the cases of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, to determine whether the three deserved new trials. Echols says that things started getting especially bad for him a month before that ruling, when the supreme court held televised oral arguments in his case. He believes that some of his jailers watched the proceedings on TV.
“After it was over, four or five guards came into my cell and trashed it,” Echols says. “They took all of my books, my journals, my personal writings and sketches. They threw family photos on the floor and walked on them. They just seemed kind of pissed off. Sullen.
“They never said why they were doing it. They don’t tell me anything. To these people, I’m not even human. They don’t owe me an explanation. I remember one did say, ‘We’re going to help you do a little house-cleaning.’”
Echols estimates that that “house-cleaning” session lasted about 45 minutes. Then it happened again.
“It was a day or two before Veterans’ Day,” Echols says. “Guards I’d never seen before came in. There were three guards doing it and one watching. This time it lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. They threw everything on the floor and kicked it around. Then they took my bowl.”
Prisoners are allowed to have a small plastic bowl they can buy from the commissary. They use it to save food from their food trays for later, or to rehydrate items such as ramen noodles that they can buy from the commissary.
After those incidents, when a CNN reporter asked Echols about letters he’d received from John Mark Byers, Echols had to say he no longer had them, that they’d been taken by the guards. “It seemed to me they were gathering as much stuff as they could,” he reflects, “to look through at their leisure—or to be used by the attorney general.
“All I know is I’ll never get it back.”[/private]