Bringing the microphone inside Stillwater Prison

Today, All Things Considered will broadcast a story recorded inside Stillwater Prison, Minnesota’s fabled prison that houses 1,500 Level 4 offenders (not quite the worst).

MPR News was able to record 15 men in a far-ranging conversation about their lives, their families, their communities and their crimes.

This unusual assignment originated from some reporting during the state government shutdown when prison visits were cancelled. That meant the non-profit group Amicus, which has befriended inmates for 45 years, wouldn’t be able to send in its volunteers for visits, or hold group meetings like the Connections group that meets monthly in Stillwater.

Amicus Senior V.P. Russel Balenger was disappointed. He couldn’t remember a time when Amicus couldn’t go in. He told me when the shutdown was over, I should come to the Connections group. He didn’t have to offer twice.

I’d never been inside Stillwater Prison. The security screening’s tougher than going to the airport. A guard searched the inside of my shoes with her latex-gloved hand before we were allowed in. Even the Department of Corrections communications staffer had to be searched.

Once inside the clanking gates, an inmate in one of the cell blocks waved to Balenger.

We walked down the hall to a room that could have been a college seminar room, except it had a window for a guard to keep an eye on us. I waited with Balenger, Amicus volunteer Steve Linney, MPR photographer Jeffrey Thompson, and Sarah Russell from DOC for the men to arrive.

We’d be outnumbered by the inmates. How long would it take for the guard to intervene if there was a problem? I was nervous.

The men arrived, seeming relaxed and happy. They’d clearly been looking forward to their monthly break from the cell block. They explained that they live in different areas of the prison so it’s a chance to see friends they don’t normally get to see. This is a place where they can, in the words of inmate David Islam, in for murder since 1993, “tell it like it is.”

The tables were arranged in a square. I climbed into the middle so I could wheel around to record each of them as they spoke. At one point, as they were talking, I thought, “I’m in a circle of murderers. And I’m not scared.”

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Today’s story focuses on the men’s connections with the outside world. New unpublished research from the Department of Corrections found having visitors reduces the likelihood of re-offending. Amicus works to foster positive social relationships for inmates who might otherwise have no one.

Most of these men will get out. One’s already gotten out since I recorded the group Sept.13. They’re planning for that day. Will they be ready to remake their lives?

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