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Lockup: Indiana State Prison

Indiana State Prison was built during the Civil War to house prisoners of war. Today, three out of four inmates are in for murder, making it is one of the most dangerous prisons in the country. Documentary producer Hillary Heath took a camera crew inside this "city behind walls" to find out about life on death row, the tough officers that risk their lives keeping order amongst some of the country's most violent criminals and the high level of security needed to protect chaplains from prisoners.

Indiana State Prison was built during the Civil War to house prisoners of war. Today, three out of four inmates are in for murder, making it is one of the most dangerous prisons in the country.

Documentary producer Hillary Heath took a camera crew inside this "city behind walls" to find out about life on death row, the high level of security needed to protect chaplains from prisoners and to talk to the tough officers that risk their lives keeping order amongst some of the country's most violent criminals.

The Doc Block staff asked documentary producer Hillary Heath via e-mail about filming “LOCKUP: Indiana State."

Doc Block: Indiana State Prison, ISP, is the oldest maximum security facility in Indiana.  What was your first impression of it?

Hillary Heath, LOCKUP producer:
The first thing I noticed was the massive wall fortressing the entire prison.  You can’t see in, and there is no way the inmates can see out.  ISP is truly its own city behind walls.

I was also overwhelmed by the various security checkpoints and procedures required to enter the prison. We always carry a lot of gear: camera, lights, cables, batteries, sound equipment, loads of tapes and paperwork.  Every time we entered the prison, our bags were x-rayed, hand-checked and each one of us was frisked. After the first checkpoint, there are five or six more gates.  Only one gate is opened at a time and all eyes were on us as we entered or exited.  It has a highly complex maze of bars, locks and protocol.

Doc Block: Did your impression change over time as you shot your documentary?

Heath: Well, there is clearly a reason for all this security. Indiana’s most dangerous inmates are housed at ISP, many of them for taking the life of another person.  The majority of these guys are also serving lengthy sentences and some will die there, so security is critical. I have to say, I never got used to all the security and the high walls and was always thankful to go back to the hotel at the end of the day.

Doc Block: Since the administration is dealing with such a violent population, what systems are in place to keep the place safe?

Heath: Although ISP is a very old prison, it is also highly functional. Most noticeable are all the low-tech security devices still in place. There are very few automatic locks, and an old lock and key system for most gates.  So you’ll see officers carrying giant rings with dozens of antiquated keys.  I still don’t understand how they keep track.

Another fascinating device is the giant roll bar, designed to secure an entire 25-30 cell tier at one time. The nightly "rolling of the bar" is a highly coordinated event, beginning with a call-in, a bed check and the final securing of the bar itself.

I did see an extremely high-tech system used to secure inmates in several of the segregated units: Death Row and I-Detention Unit (IDU).  Each cell door is equipped with a sensor, and all locks are controlled from one main control panel. Whenever a cell door is opened, cameras monitor the inmate’s every move. There is even a sensor on each toilet to indicate when an inmate may be trying to flood his own cell. In any of the Seg Units, flooding is one way to get attention. If needed, the entire water system can be turned off with the push of a button. 

Doc Block: What about the policies for handling violent offenders?

Heath: At ISP, there appears to be a real zero-tolerance policy for inmates who break the rules.  If you are caught committing a violent act, you wind up in IDU, period.  IDU is literally the prison within a prison. Any time spent in IDU is no fun.  It’s loud, the cells are small, there is minimal recreation time, and almost no contact with other inmates. Most privileges are revoked.

Doc Block: Was it unnerving to see that the volunteer chaplain, who routinely visits offenders in Administrative Segregation (AdSeg), wears a protective vest at all times?

Heath: AdSeg is where some of the most dangerous prisoners are housed. Unlike other Seg Units I have been to at other facilities, there are no solid doors, only the old-fashioned bars. In AdSeg, stabbings are a reality, so protective stab vests are required by all visitors.

On our first visit to Adseg, I immediately noticed a very slight, elderly man wearing a stab vest on one of the upper tiers. As we approached him, I also noticed he was wearing a priest’s collar. As a retired Catholic priest, he is one of ISP’s volunteer chaplains and devotes several hours a week to the men in Adseg. As he walked along the tier, he greeted each and every inmate, stopping to talk to some and occasionally reaching out a hand in prayer. From a massive book bag, the chaplain presented complimentary greeting cards, magazines and books, and he always seemed to provide a parting joke.

The men in AdSeg are not only isolated from the general prison population, many are cut off from their families.  Regardless of the inmates’ crimes or religious beliefs, the chaplain showed an enormous amount of compassion for these men. In his interview, he repeatedly stressed the importance of reaching out to these inmates.

Doc Block: In stories and movies, child molesters are portrayed as the bottom of the heap in prison and are potential targets. Give us a reality check.

Heath: Prison can be a very violent place for anyone. While plenty of offenders do manage to keep a low profile, it became clear that many young and recently arrived inmates target child molesters as a way of making a name for themselves inside prison. In particular, several of the self-proclaimed white supremacists I spoke with told me they believed child molestation should be punishable by death. One landed in AdSeg for attacking another inmate convicted of child molestation.

Doc Block: You’re a woman who covers a pretty rough beat inside these prisons.  What did you think of Officer Karen Talley who was just back to work after being brutally beaten by an inmate?

Heath: Before I left for ISP, associate producer Ray Haimes suggested I look into the attack on Officer Karen Talley.  After reading several articles, I asked myself, “Would I go back to work after such a horrendous beating?  Why not just go out and get a regular 9-to-5?” When I finally met Officer Talley I was amazed that she was, without hesitation, so willing to share her entire story with us.  Officer Talley had only recently returned to work and was still dealing with the effects of the near fatal beating.  I can, at times, be a fairly emotional person, and I think journalists can, and should, show their emotions.  After all, we are professional storytellers.  But there was nothing more embarrassing than breaking into tears during the interview. As Officer Talley began to re-live the horror of the attack, I could feel my eyes welling up with tears.

I am most moved by the fact that, like many of the female officers I met at ISP, not only is Talley a working mother of two young children, she also takes tremendous pride in her job. Before the attack, she spent nine years working the cellblocks without any major incident. As Officer Talley explained it, why should she let the violent impulse of one inmate ruin her life and her career? Going back to work, and proving to herself, and others, that she is a survivor meant everything.

Doc Block: You filmed in “c-cell house,” the largest cell house in Indiana and the second largest in the nation with 386 offenders housed there.  What was it like?

Heath: Entering C-cell house is really like something you would see in an old prison movie. This cell house is awesome in size. It is five stories high, and spans 30 cells across, with two separate wings, all of it enclosed.

C-cell house is also extremely clean, and very orderly. The lieutenant in charge runs a very tight ship. Most of the men who live there have jobs or participate in the educational programs offered, meaning they have something to do and somewhere to go nearly every single day.

Doc Block: ISP has an intensive Department of Internal Affairs (IA), which investigates all criminal activity behind bars. What was it like to see things through their eyes?  

Heath: I spent years working on cop shows, so Internal Affairs is a world I am very familiar with and will always be fascinated by.  These guys are essentially the detectives of ISP. They also act as the prison’s eyes and ears.  It seems that everywhere we turned, there they were. The tools they use to catch the bad guys are impressive: surveillance cameras, phone monitoring, sting operations and good old-fashioned police work.

Contraband is a big problem at ISP.   It’s amazing the things these guys in IA manage to uncover; everything from weapons to drugs, cell phones and even a home-rigged power drill that was apparently made by an inmate preparing an escape.  His plan was to drill through his cell wall.

Doc Block: One of the most surprising stories in “LOCKUP: Inside Indiana State” is about Reverend Martin Thomas, serving a 50-year sentence for murder.  Even though he’s committed a grave sin, he still preaches.  What was it like to interview him?

Heath: The Reverend told me that before his incarceration he led a successful congregation in Kansas City for more than 20 years.  He described himself as a devoted family man and seemed to have everything going for him.  But he chose to retire from the church in order to manage his sons’ music group.  Within just a short time of his retirement, he made one very bad, and deadly decision—he murdered a man.

The Reverend appeared brutally honest in the interview and also on the pulpit. His sermon spoke to the harsh realities of prison life, crimes committed and the impact these very bad life choices have on other people. His delivery was powerful, and most of the inmates in the audience seemed to hang on every word.  I was told that as many as one quarter of the entire prison population shows up to church on Sunday.  Due to prison rules, we were not allowed to shoot on Sunday. So even though the sequence you see in the documentary took place on a Saturday, there were still several hundred inmates in attendance.

Attending chapel turned into a very reflective moment for all of us.  If you were incarcerated, how would you choose to spend your time?

Doc Block:  Did anything surprise you about filming on Death Row?

Heath: Death Row is surprisingly one of the most sedate areas of the prison. These men are segregated from the rest of the population and for the most part, each other. They live in large single-man cells, and due to the seriousness of their sentences, and higher propensity for depression and suicide, they require more attention than the inmates in general population.

Several Death Row inmates agreed to speak with us on the condition that we would not discuss the details of their cases, which are still under appeal.  This is always frustrating when you are trying to get to the essence of who these men are and what landed them there.

What they did share with us was how they cope in the highly solitary environment knowing that they will most likely be executed. Pen pals and letters to the outside act as a lifeline. One inmate had a cat, another was a prolific writer, and artwork hangs everywhere. I also noticed a carefully cultivated seedling sitting in a small patch of sun.

It takes a special breed to work in this area of the prison. This requires understanding and endless patience.  Most of these men feel like they are fighting for their lives, and essentially they are.  Once the appeals process has been exhausted, execution is inevitable. I imagine this is a very heavy load to carry day in and day out.