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Warden: Inmates ‘lie’ about ISP conditions

July 1, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY – After protesters gathered outside the Indiana State Prison on June 23 to demand improved living conditions for inmates, ISP officials said this week their demands are unjustified.

Prior to the protest, a group called IDOC Watch issued a statement detailing complaints about prison food, pest control, health care and aging structures; policies regarding mail, shakedowns and strip searches; visitation and filing grievances; and an inmate who burned to death in his cell in 2017.

They also call for the immediate termination of Deputy Warden George Payne.

“It’s unfortunate that a few offenders who convinced their families to hold this protest exaggerated – or simply lied in some cases – about conditions of confinement, which the family members believed,” Warden Ron Neal said Wednesday.

“If they would have simply taken the time to inquire about those allegations, some simple communication about the facts would have alleviated their concerns; and a positive result, rather than a protest, would have been gained.”

According to Pam James, prison public information officer, ISP is obligated to abide by more than 500 conditions of confinement set by the Indiana Department of Correction and the American Correctional Association.

She said the prison is inspected annually to ensure compliance, and passed its most recent inspection last September.

James said because of litigation pending against ISP, the prison cannot respond to allegations about the April 2017 death of Joshua Devine, who reportedly burned to death in a fire inside his cell.

However, she offered in a written response, “Our mental health staff met with numerous offenders after the fire/death, and provided counseling services. They also walked the cell house for weeks on a regular basis talking with offenders at their cell fronts just to be sure that there weren’t others who needed or wanted counseling or treatment.”

Another IDOC Watch allegation over which pending litigation exists is the prison’s practice of photocopying all personal mail received by inmates. James explained prisoners receive the copies, and the originals are shredded after 10 days because sometimes the letters or photos have been sprayed with or soaked in synthetic marijuana, or K2.

IDOC Watch alleges the practice is “censorship, surveillance and harassment;” but James said it’s a safety and security measure for both inmates and prison staff.

Prisoners continue to receive original copies of all legal mail, he said.

Neal said 10 percent of the prison population is subjected to random drug testing each month, based on a list of names from IDOC, in addition to inmates who are tested as a result of probable cause, such as a past failed drug test.

Because a significant number of those tested continue to fail, Neal said the prison has turned to more aggressive drug trafficking interdiction – practices like photocopied mail, more frequent random shakedowns and no-contact visitation.

The latter is of major concern to IDOC Watch, which claims not allowing inmates to have physical contact with visitors denies them the basic human need of personal touch.

“Due to the continued trafficking of illicit drugs, cell phones and other contraband within our facility, staff must maintain active and robust trafficking interdiction practices,” James said.

“The trafficking of drugs like suboxone, meth, heroin and other opioids, as well as cell phones, severely undermines the safety and security of offender and staff alike. It should be noted that a majority of trafficking arrests involved offender family members and loved ones who attempt to pass drugs during their visits.”

Further, IDOC Watch claims ISP eliminated the grievance process for inmates, making it impossible for them to file lawsuits when their rights have been violated by prison staff.

According to James, however, the grievance process still exists, but requires inmates to try to resolve issues in an informal setting before filing a formal grievance.

As for the remaining allegations – regarding the quality of prison facilities, food and medical care, James said all meet or exceed IDOC and ACA standards.

When asked why the deputy warden has been singled out for firing, Neal said he’s simply a scapegoat.

“George (Payne) was transferred to the Indiana State Prison from Westville during a time when a lot of changes were already pending. We were beginning to copy mail, for instance,” Neal said.

“… Some of the changes came from (IDOC in) Indianapolis, some were by me. And George, as the new guy, wanted to make some changes as well. He kind of took the blame from the offender population.”