Law/Justice

Prison Without Punishment

The Germans are adopting a model of prison reform that ARV-ATS has advocated for 15 years.

By Maurice Chammah

Vice

Inmates attending a yoga class at Heidering prison, on the outskirts of Berlin. Photos by Julian Röder

Published in partnership with the Marshall Project

This article appears in VICE magazine’s upcoming Prison Issue, which will go online Monday, October 5

Last year, Gregg Marcantel, the secretary of New Mexico’s Corrections Department, voluntarily placed himself in solitary confinement for 48 hours. He was one of a rare few who could choose to do such a thing, and it was a very Gregg thing to do—dramatic, physically demanding, good for a story. Since taking the job a few years before, Marcantel had worked to reduce the number of prisoners held in their cells for 23 hours a day, and he wanted to better understand what these prisoners actually experienced. He told a reporter, “There are just things sometimes that you gotta feel, you gotta taste, and you gotta hear, and you gotta smell.”

The video footage of his two days in a 12-by-7-foot cell has an eerie intimacy. Wearing standard-issue yellow scrubs and a bright orange beanie, Marcantel, a former cop who resembles a bodybuilder, looms around the cell. He listens to the shouting and clanging outside his door, writes in a notebook, and picks at some rubbery breakfast meat. His face alternates between boredom and curiosity. He reads Night, the Holocaust memoir by Elie Wiesel, and a business book called Boundaries for Leaders.

The stunt was not Marcantel’s only effort to address solitary confinement, though it was the most public. Working with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization based in New York, his staff was implementing a program called Restoration to Population, which would allow inmates affiliated with prison gangs to renounce their membership and earn their way out of solitary confinement through good behavior. Another program would allow inmates who had been held in solitary for their own protection—informants and the young and weak—to live together in regular housing. The number of New Mexico state prisoners in solitary dropped from 10.1 percent in late 2013 to 6.9 percent in June 2015.

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