A Bleak Peek at Hard T...

A Bleak Peek at Hard Time - Wired

Julia Scheeres 09.24.03

The camera pans around the stark cell, zooming in on the narrow bunk, the metal toilet, the heavy black bars. The only way out of these cramped confines is a trip next door, to the inevitable appointment with "Old Sparky" or the lethal-injection gurney.

Welcome to the virtual tour of Tennessee's Deathwatch ward, where prisoners are transferred three days before they are executed. Feel free to wander about the other wings of the state's maximum security prison, including the isolation cells on death row and the gloomy recreation yard. Note the five coils of razor wire topping the fences along the prison's perimeter and how difficult it would be to escape. Feel relieved that this is merely a virtual visit, and resolve never, ever, to do anything that could result in a real-life stay.

That's the message prison officials in Tennessee and other states are sending out as they launch Internet tours of their hard-core penal institutions in hopes of dissuading youngsters from choosing a life of crime.

The behind-the-bars glimpses don't show any prisoners in their state-mandated habitats, but do feature the inmates' sparse accommodations.

"I think this (virtual tour) serves as a great example to young people who may be on the verge of traveling down the wrong path," said Tennessee Correction Commissioner Quenton White. "Everyone should see inside of a prison at least once. It's an image you'll never forget."

The Florida Department of Corrections website tour features a typical 6-by-9 cell on death row -- with the standard accoutrements of metal bunk, toilet and sink -- and views of an open dormitory and prison compound at unnamed facilities.

Visitors can peruse photos of the 366 individuals on Florida's death row roster and read the inmates' criminal histories, including that of 23-year-old Rossiny St. Clair, who was only 17 when he was convicted for fatally shooting a man in a gang-related crime.

The site includes high-resolution images of the state's new electric chair and lethal-injection system. Other pages are designed to dispel common misconceptions about prison life, including rumors that inmates lounge around in air-conditioned cells watching cable television.

"It is another way to get the message out to people that this is someplace they do not want to be," Spencer Mann, a state investigator, told the local press shortly after the virtual tour was launched.

The homepage of Georgia's Department of Corrections urges visitors to "See our 360 (degree) virtual prison tour now!" and includes a slamming cell-door sound effect, as well as panoramic peeks inside the inmates' communal shower area and the prison kitchen.

The inside of Virginia's "super maximum security prison" looks unsurprisingly similar to the other state facilities: lots of walls, bars and uncomfortable-looking furniture, and not a lot of windows.

The site for Texas -- another state with a robust prison population, including 448 people waiting to be executed -- does not include a virtual prison tour, but does include condemned inmates' last statements and final meal requests. (One inmate asked for -- and was given -- "Six pieces of French toast with syrup, jelly, butter, six barbecued spare ribs, six pieces of well burned bacon, four scrambled eggs, five well-cooked sausage patties, french fries with catsup, three slices of cheese, two pieces of yellow cake with chocolate fudge icing, and four cartons of milk.")

Other random tidbits of interest on the Texas site include the chemical composition of an $86 lethal injection and an online catalog of inmate-manufactured products ranging from men's underwear to leather belts.

Although there's no way to determine if young people are indeed logging onto the prison sites and consequently swearing off a life of crime, the virtual tours do have a following among some inmates' friends and family.

"I have looked at the virtual tour many times to try and capture what my loved one goes through," said Bella, a frequent poster at Prison Talk Online, whose husband is serving a seven-year sentence for burglary at Florida's Hardee Correctional Institution.

Other posters to the 8,000-member Internet support group for the partners and friends of prisoners suggested that adolescents would best be deterred from making unlawful choices by watching one of the scores of documentaries that feature the crude reality of life behind bars.

"How can a sanitized tour of an 'empty' prison achieve what these films haven't?" wrote Rose Hall, whose fiancé was convicted of murder in 1984 and is serving a life sentence at the Menard Correctional Center in Illinois. "It seems more like a PR job for prisons to me."

http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2003/09/60542