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Pen Pen: Another Day in Prison Begins

I received a letter “Mailed from a South Dakota Correctional Facility” a few days ago. Two small pieces of tape held the envelope shut; the hand-printed black-inked words on three yellow sheets inside had been reviewed by more eyes than the sender’s.

The author, Shane Bell, is spending the rest of his life in the State Penitentiary for second-degree murder. On a cold December night in 2008, he killed Bobbi McClure and wounded her sister Tammy Anderson in Spearfish.

Bell has written letters to other editors. In this first letter to Dakota Free Press, Bell writes simply to establish some context. Here’s how his days begin:

Another Day in Prison Begins

It is 6:30 a.m. again, time for breakfast. The cell door opens, lights turned on, and another day begins here at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, Jameson Annex.

I walk down the cold hallway to the chowhall like everyone else. I get in line wondering what poor quality meal they have for us today. I usually don’t eat much of it and give it to others who are hungry, been here ten years with the food getting worse.

I see what is on the tray of other prisoners. It looks like a biscuit with brown gravy on it, oatmeal in a bowl, a dab of butter on the tray, and a milk.

I don’t like this meal and ask others how it tastes. “It is cold” comes the reply, which is typical here. I ask if anyone wants more and after a few prisoners say no, a person at the next table says he will take it. The only thing I take is the milk and give the whole tray to him and leave the chowhall after I drink the milk.

Down the cold hallway back to my cell I go. I get to my cell and wait for my celly to return maybe 5 minutes later and shut the cell door. I now just wait for 7 a.m. standing count, so another day serving my life sentence begins again, 10 years in and the rest of my life to go.

Shane Bell #10443, South Dakota State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls, SD, 2018.12.27.
Shane Bell #10443, South Dakota State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls, SD, 2018.12.27.

My lunch break is almost done. I’ll step outside, buzz back up the street to work, clock in, and then choose the course of my afternoon from a variety of tasks that need to get done to keep my organization humming. Then I’ll come home, walk my dog, choose my supper, and go to bed when I feel like it.

I’ll also check my mail for more views from elsewhere.

27 Comments

  1. Debbo 2019-01-10

    Grim.

    Is that what he wanted, to tell what prison is like?

  2. happy camper 2019-01-10

    Finished watching “Women Behind Bars” a series on Netflix the backstory behind the crimes is amazing, the huge variance in sentencing and prison conditions, and how often inmates would say a program like training dogs brought meaning back to their lives and others.

  3. Ben Cerwinske 2019-01-10

    Thanks for sharing Shane. I haven’t kept up with it, but there’s a podcast called Ear Hustle. It’s put on by the inmates of San Quentin prison.

  4. Donald Pay 2019-01-10

    Yes, it is grim. Killing a person has grim consequences all around. I feel for him, but if eating oatmeal is the worst treatment he has, after killing his girlfriend, he has it pretty good.

    Oatmeal might not be my favorite either, but it does have nutritional value. I’m not sure you can say the same for the biscuit and gravy, whether served hot or cold. Food is supposed to be served at a proper temperature for safety. No fruit? Is this right, State of South Dakota? Is the food getting worse, or is it getting more nutritious? Hard to tell.

    I realize prison food won’t be gourmet quality, but it should be nutritious, safe and edible. My feeling is it should also lift the spirits. On the other hand, complaining because you get oatmeal as a choice seems rather picky.

    As a way to discourage someone from having a prison food experience, this might do some good, unless, you love oatmeal.

  5. Roger Cornelius 2019-01-10

    For a number of years I catered the food services to the Pine Ridge and Kyle jails on the Oglala Sioux reservation.
    The challenge was to develop well balanced and wholesome meals that met government specifications and could all be eaten with a spoon, utensils do limit menu choices.
    Two things I learned quickly was that it didn’t take a whole lot of effort to make a decent meal as opposed to a bad one. The second thing was that because someone was in jail didn’t mean that they should not eat healthy meals.

  6. Porter Lansing 2019-01-10

    Life imprisonment in Sweden is a jail sentence of indeterminate length. Swedish law states that the most severe punishment is “prison for 10 (18 in the case of murder) years or life.” However, a prisoner may apply to the government for clemency, have their life sentence commuted to a set number of years then standard Swedish parole regulations follow. Offenders under the age of 21 on the day the crime was committed can not be sentenced to life imprisonment.
    In Nordic countries like Sweden, which have far lower incarceration and crime rates, prison is about rehabilitation. And it works far more effectively.
    https://mic.com/articles/109138/sweden-has-done-for-its-prisoners-what-the-u-s-won-t#.GPOJd3AYH

  7. RICHARD SCHRIEVER 2019-01-10

    Over the Winter of 1981, I was living in a farm house – with no work (think about what was going on in the economy at that time – interest rates around 20% – I had owned a construction business for 8 years – then…..). I had no income or savings with which to fix my broken down pickup. My only source of revenue of any kind were the food $78 in stamps that arrived in the mailbox once a month. It was 6 miles to the nearest place that would take food stamps – and I walked there and back about once a week. Lucky for me I had a fireplace a wood burning stove and a pile of wood. I also had a piano and plenty of notebooks for writing in. I spent my days and nights either chopping or carrying wood – melting snow to drink, composing some songs, figuring out how to make that food stamp food last and writing down pretty much everything that came to my mind. I resolved to start with the first memory I could think of, and try to recall as much detail of my life as I could – in as minute detail as I could recall. I also kept a journal of my daily activities that read in a way not too dissimilar to Mr. Bell’s recounting his day. Difference was – I had no one to do anything for me – no cook, no “cell mate” etc. I have a fairly large cardboard box full of notebooks. Maybe some day, I will attempt to digitize and maybe edit them.

  8. RICHARD SCHRIEVER 2019-01-10

    PS – No electricity, no running water, no telephone.

  9. RJ 2019-01-10

    Generally, I lean on the liberal side of inmate treatment, but here’s the thing. Many of the patients I see in home health receive meals on wheels I think it’s a great service, but these men and women, who are home bound due to age/disability haven’t murdered someone and they get a hard bun, 1/4 cup vegetables and maybe 2 oz. of some funky looking meat. I guess my empathy doesn’t extend to inmates not liking quality of food at the penitentiary.

  10. Donald Pay 2019-01-10

    Here’s an idea for Mr. Bell. Rather than bitch, ask to pitch in to create a better menu. I mean, don’t ask for surf and turf, but if you’ve got ideas, why not bitch to the right people in a constructive way. Is there a rule that prisoners can’t grow some of their own food in a garden? Maybe they could have some laying hens and they could collect eggs and make a souffle now and then. Maybe inmates could plan some meals themselves. Maybe they could get favorite recipes for their favorite meals made by Momma or wife and then have that food on their birthdays. I think the prison should try to lift people’s spirits, and food is one way to do that.

  11. grudznick 2019-01-10

    This fellow gets gravy on his biscuit for breakfast and it’s free. Some can only wish for such a blessing.

  12. Thought police 2019-01-10

    Very interesting letter and discussion. Interesting in that several, generally very compassionate people, were quick to be critical of a letter that asked nothing of anyone. He didnt ask for better or different food, just mentioned that the meal was not one he preferred, nor was the food generally good. He did not mention his crime or victims, for better or worse, just described the mundane monotony that is the rest of his life.

    I do not think inmates deserve gourmet meals, or even anything better than what they currently have, but I think they deserve to be heard, to let it be known that they dont like their meal, even if that can never result in the meal getting better. I think that is part of the very core of humanity. If you believe the inmates have no human worth or dignity because of their crimes, and they should be put to death, then this position is consistent, but as long as you maintain that their life has inherent value, you have to then grant it that value, which includes the simple right to be heard.

    Donald – to answer your question about outside the box meal planning and preparation, I would venture that in the maximum and high security facilities, (like Jameson Annex, mentioned in the letter) the likelihood of anything resembling this is zero. In the minimum security units like yankton and redfield this may be more of an option but my immediate fear is putting inmates to work in the fields for their food only perpetuates the already near slave labor problem the prison system currently has, again with the humanity thing that keeps getting me, and if they can raise their own food, maybe they can raise a little for the state to sell?(most inmates are currently required to do manual labor jobs for the state for .25/hour)

    I would love to hear everyone’s viewpoint on what the “point” or goal of prison should be. It seems as though the general consensus is that it should be miserable and unquestionably a punishment, which I agree wholeheartedly with. But should it be so bad that every inmate is always worse off than every non incarcerated person? And, if not, well they can just pipe down and consider themselves lucky that they have it so good?

  13. RJ 2019-01-10

    Thought Police: I think that our justice system is horribly flawed. There are many individuals who have committed crimes, victimless crimes who are incarcerated and if given a hand might be able to turn their lives around. I think everyone deserves to have a voice, including Shane Bell. I’m not in a position to judge or deal out punishment. But when it comes to feeding those that are hungry and those that are desperate and hopeless, I will care for those who didn’t shoot someone.

  14. happy camper 2019-01-11

    So by punishing people we think they’re gonna come out better? I’m reminded of a tiny cage and other torture devices (like the stretching machine) at the Tower of London. It’s barbaric how we warehouse prisoners but oh we love our vengeance there’s an extra puritan streak in South Dakota reflected even on this progressive blog Porter is right there is a place for rehabilitation the United States has the highest incarceration rate and more black prisoners than were slaves. We ain’t doing something right in fact terribly wrong history will not look back at us kindly.

  15. Donald Pay 2019-01-11

    Thanks, Thought police, for your post.

    I’ve never understood bitching without trying to make positive change. Venting has a value, but actually working toward a goal of getting better food might be even better than venting. I’m not suggesting a chain gang. I’m suggesting more like a garden the inmates run for themselves. I like good, healthy, fresh food, so I plant and tend a garden and harvest that food. I’m not sure why prisoners can’t do that. I wouldn’t make it mandatory, nor would I pay anyone a dime for their work. I don’t get paid a dime for my produce. I eat it. I suppose there would be people who might create a prison black market in foodstuffs. I’m sure it would create some additional problems for managing the prison.

    I think work is great, but they should be paid a fair wage, which could go to restitution or child support or savings.

  16. Eve Fisher 2019-01-11

    I volunteer at the prison on a regular basis. All the food is contracted out. The prison has no garden (and prisoners have asked – repeatedly). Yes, there are three meals a day. They’re awful. I know, I’ve eaten a lot of them. (We don’t go out for meals during a weekend workshop.) They get no fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, or red meat. (The exceptions: once a day they get canned corn or canned green beans or lettuce or raw carrots.) There are a lot of carbs, which is why, even if you don’t have diabetes before you go into the pen, there’s a good chance you’ll develop it before you go. (Nationally, 21% of inmates have diabetes.)

    If you want constant punishment for prisoners, they get it. The average prison cell is 6 x 8 feet, and it’s generally shared by 2-3 inmates. The toilet is open, right in the front, by the door, so that literally everyone can see them doing their business. That’s for security, of course. Yes, prisoners are allowed to have a TV – if they can afford it. (No, they’re not free.) This is also a security measure, believe it or not. Unless they have a job (and as many as half the prisoners don’t), they’re locked down, in their 6×8 cell 23/24. If they weren’t given something to do… well, you can figure it out. BTW, most jobs pay 25 cents an hour.

    These conditions apply to all prisoners, no matter what their crime. Here are (imho) two important questions:
    (1) Is there really such a thing as repentance and transformation?
    (2) Does it matter?
    First one: Can people really repent, change, transform? You would think that everyone who claims to be Christian would say yes. However, after years working in the judicial system, I can tell you that most people don’t believe it, at least not for certain crimes and certainly not for some people.
    Life is much easier when you maintain the “once a ___, always a ___” attitude.
    But okay, say we do believe that people change. Comes the second question, does it matter? In other words, what is punishment really about? I’ve read that it’s a three-fold concept, incorporating retribution and/or incapacitation (as in Old Testament/Sharia law); deterrence (although there have been studies that prove people aren’t deterred by the severity of punishment; certainly in Restoration/ Victorian England, where people were hanged for stealing a handkerchief, there were still plenty of thieves because poverty was so endemic); and
    rehabilitation.

    Rehabilitation is the interesting one: if rehabilitation (i.e., transformation) is the goal, and if people are capable of rehabilitation, does that mean we still execute them and/or keep them incarcerated for life? And if they are rehabilitated/ transformed, shouldn’t we let them out, to try again, to live again? Or is rehabilitation, while a sweet dream, an ideal outcome, irrelevant to punishment as a debt that must be paid, using time instead of money?

    (Although, speaking of debts, we all know, don’t we, that prison is extremely expensive? Which is part of the push towards private prisons which, frankly, scare the hell out of me, because private prisons have quotas for occupancy… And then there’s the whole thing of trying to pry all the costs for our court system out of the accused and arrested – whether or not they are found innocent. And then there’s the infamous case of the woman who died in jail because her children skipped school and someone had to pay the truancy fines and they didn’t have the money, so she got to go to the equivalent of debtors’ prison in Pennsylvania.)

    All things to think about. There but for the grace of God…

  17. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-11

    Every inmate receives the Inmate Living Guide, which says the following about meals:

    You are allowed a minimum of three nutritional meals each day. Meals are served at designated times. Medical orders for special medical or dental diets/meals are handled by health services. Requests for a religious tray or alternative diet must be directed to the Cultural Activities Coordinator. You are responsible for all rules and procedures that apply to meals, including medical, religious or alternative diets and the responsibilities and obligations that apply. See DOC policy 1.5.F.2 Inmate Religious and Alternative Diets for more information.

    You are expected to wash your hands before meals and have clean hygiene. Dress and behaviors while eating meals shall be appropriate and consistent with the expectations set by the institution. Inmate apparel worn in the dining area shall not be torn, soiled, odorous or wet. Appropriate footwear is required. Food may not be removed from the dining area. Some institutions have assigned seating in the dining area. Your status may dictate you eat your meals in your cell. In such cases, meals will be delivered to you [South Dakota Department of Corrections, “Inmate Living Guide, revised Nov 2018, p. 10].

    I’m looking for the actual nutritional standards.

  18. bearcreekbat 2019-01-11

    Eve’s comment is worth reading twice or more. Thanks Eve for sharing your experience and raising important legimate issues regarding the purpose of our prisons.

    My own view is that for most prisoners the purpose has devolved into mere vengence. As you point out, deterrence is a joke and we make little, if any, efforts for rehabilitation. As for incapacitation, that seems a necessary objective for only a small percentage of those currently incarcerated, but obviously not for non-violent offences that neither pick our pockets or break our legs, as Thomas Jefferson might opine.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comment!

  19. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-12

    I’m thinking about Eve’s comment….

    “Life is much easier when you maintain the ‘once a ___, always a ___’ attitude.”—That could explain a lot about conservatives. It’s harder to make sense of a changing world. If things would just stay the same as they used to be, we wouldn’t have to think as hard. If everything were still like Leave It to Beaver, if men were still boss, if racial minorities weren’t becoming a majority, if women and brown people just did what they were told, if we could still joke about the secretary’s body and get big laughs from everyone, if oil were cheap and infinite and the climate were changing, if the whole world would look at our huge phallic missiles and get down on its knees before us, it would be a lot easier to enjoy our privilege.

    No fruits or vegetables in prison? I’d like to thing fruits and vegetables aren’t a luxury but a basic nutritional requirement. Apples are relatively cheap; is there too much of a risk that inmates could throw apples at each other?

  20. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-12

    From the Prison Policy Initiative:

    The downturn in prison food quality can be blamed on larger trends toward industrialization and privatization. Industrialization, as exemplified by Washington state prisons, replaces cooking from scratch with processed foods that may only require reheating before serving. “When the Department of Corrections turned over responsibility for food services to Correctional Industries…, it substituted 95% industrialized, plastic-wrapped, sugar-filled ‘food products’ for locally prepared healthy food.”

    Highly processed and hastily prepared food is typical of privatized food service as well. Nationally, much of prison food is outsourced to two large private corporations, Aramark Correctional Services and Trinity Services Group, the targets of increasing numbers of inmate grievances and embarrassing lawsuits [Wendy Sawyer, “Food for Thought: Prison Food Is a Public Health Problem,” Prison Policy Initiative, 2017.03.03].

    Sawyer goes on to note that, before privatization, we used prisoners to prepare meals in house. We’ve traded giving prisoners a chance to do meaningful work that could translate into employability when they get out, plus a chance to participate meaningfully in their own daily welfare, for up-front state savings and private profit.

    Making inmates serve KP doesn’t seem like a luxury; it could as easily be interpreted as part of proper punishment, making them do chores and be responsible.

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-12

    No politico is going to campaign for better food for prisoners. It’s easier for an idiot to get elected by talking “tough on crime” (Jason Ravnsborg) than for an intelligent public servant to get elected by talking about intelligent prison policy.

    But spend more on food, spend less on prisoner health care:

    Food costs are also dwarfed by healthcare costs in prisons, so improving the nutritional quality of prison food would be a cost-effective way to improve inmate health. In our recent analysis of criminal justice costs, we found that correctional agencies spend almost six times more on health care than on food. Prison Voice Washington found that food costs make up less than 4% of the daily cost of incarcerating a prisoner — compared with healthcare, which accounts for 19% of the cost.

    As the Washington authors note, even doubling the state food budget wouldn’t cost very much for the total budget and would be well worth it considering the additional healthcare costs related to chronic illness. The American Diabetes Association, for example, estimates that healthcare costs are 2.3 times higher for incarcerated people with diabetes. And overall, 86% of healthcare spending is for people with at least one chronic condition. As Prison Voice Washington concludes, “In the short run, healthy food does cost a little more — but unhealthy people cost a great deal more” [Sawyer, 2017.03.03].

    An apple a day keeps the doctor away… and the budget down.

    Governor Daugaard’s FY2020 budget proposal estimates we’ll spend an average of $6,341 per each inmate in the average daily count of 3,995 inmates in DOC. I don’t know how to calculate how much X investment in healthier food leads to Y decrease in health care costs. But with lifers in particular, if we took the approach that, “O.K., we’re going to be taking care of these cons until they die. We need to keep them in good shape so they don’t end up spending the last twenty years on expensive meds,” suppose we increased food spending per inmate by $1,000 per year to get fresh fruit and veggies. $1,000 a year: roughly $2.75 a day: an apple, an orange, a banana, couple carrots…? Spend more on quality food, how much less might we spend in health care?

    I can’t calculate the trade-off, but insurers can. One estimate says that every dollar spent on wellness programs for the general population (your mileage may very in the Pen) saves $3.27 in health care costs.

    So if I were a legislator, I’d float a bill that takes the $833K Gov. Daugaard proposed adding to the Corrections health care budget in FY2020, divide if by $3.27, and propose spending $254K instead on in-house food prep of less processed food and more fresh food. And I’d take one of the four new FTEs Daugaard proposed for Correctional health care and hire a nutritionist to pick the foods.

  22. Eve Fisher 2019-01-12

    Here in SD the food service has been privatized for at least the last 8 years, which is how long I’ve been volunteering there. And it is primarily pre-packaged, processed foods, based on carbs, which are filling, and provide the sufficient “calorie count”, which I think is what they go by. And by doing that, yeah, the inmates have lost the opportunity – the rehabilitative opportunity – to learn a skill, like actual cooking (instead of just heating up what they’ve been sent).

    There’s one more issue that I have to bring up about our current incarceration practices, both locally and nationally: we’re incarcerating the mentally ill. The statistics by Kaiser Health News say that 73% of women and 55% of men in state prisons have at least one mental health problem; it’s 61% of women and 44% of men in federal prisons; and 75% of women and 63% of men in local jails. Those are pretty horrendous statistics. But they’re about right, from what I’ve seen. Even worse, we’ve criminalized the mentally disabled, lumping them in with the mentally ill, which they’re not. For one thing, there is no pill or therapy that will ever make the mentally disabled “normal.”

    I did a blogpost of my own on SleuthSayers called “Of Mice and Men Again” about the “Lennies” in prison – the mentally handicapped/disabled who are mentally say, 10 years old – and will never get older. There are Lennies who know what they’re accused of, but swear they didn’t do it. (Which is possible – they make very good scapegoats.) There are Lennies who don’t understand what he was actually convicted of. There are also Lennies who couldn’t explain why they were there, and Lennies who had no idea at all why they were there – just that something bad had happened, and they were locked up.

    I don’t know which of these is worse. What I do know is that putting a Lennie in prison doesn’t do any kind of good, unless the idea is for them to be assaulted, robbed, humiliated, raped, and/or killed. Again, there are no medications that will make Lennie more than 10 years old. He will never get “better”. He will never “learn his lesson,” “pay his debt to society” or “grow up” because he can’t, and there isn’t a damn thing that can ever be done to make that happen.

    So what do you do with Lennie? In my perfect world, Lennie would be in a group home, where he can be given care in a safe, structured, respectful environment where adults will let him play games. But putting Lennie in prison is as cruel as taking your 10 year old child, or grandchild – no matter what they did – and putting that child in prison and saying, “Well, that’s the way the justice system works”. Or, “Yes, a group home would be better, but we just don’t have the resources for it.” If that’s our justice system, it sucks so much swamp water, we’ve got alligators.

    Just another thing to think about…

  23. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-12

    Richard, if you do digitize that journal, I’ll be happy to feature it here as an account of survival in hard times in South Dakota.

  24. Eve Fisher 2019-01-12

    RJ – I’ve heard that before, the equivalent of “they’re prisoners, they deserve what they get.” But they didn’t all shoot someone. There are the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, the 17 year old meth heads, the guys with one too many DUIs, the embezzlers (with or without gambling problems), and the unbelievable number of people who are addicts and need treatment but don’t have – and probably will never have – the insurance coverage to get treatment. It would be nice if they were as healthy when they leave as they were when they arrived.

  25. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-12

    Straight calorie count? I bought a pack of squishy cherry candies last night. Each little red slice is 50 calories. I thought, gee, if I packed those for camping, 60 candies would give me a good day’s worth of calories!

    Straight calorie count is an insufficient standard.

    Thinking about what Thought Police asked, on the point of prison…. Yes, punishment is part of the goal. We achieve that punishment by denying liberty. You live behind bars. The state dictates your location, your movements, your schedule, your labor, your meals. I think that’s enough.

    We also rehabilitate, and we can debate the proper methods and potential effectiveness.

    But even for the incorrigibles, we have an obligation to do no harm… or perhaps do no more harm than required by the loss of liberty, in case of riot, the restoration of order within the walls. We can argue about just how much effort we should make to help prisoners better themselves, but I can see a clearer argument that we should do nothing that makes a prisoner’s physical or mental health worse.

    SDCL 24-2-9 prohibits corporal punishment of prisoners. Corporal, of the body… could we offer a legal argument that a demonstrably unhealthy diet, undermining an inmate’s physical health, violates SDCL 24-2-9?

  26. bearcreekbat 2019-01-12

    Blaming private entities for supplying unhealthy food seems morally appropriate, but it also seems like passing the buck. These companies are in business to make a profit and typically will act in the manner most economically advantageous to the business that maximizes profit.

    A greater problem is, as Cory and Eve, suggest, a lack of appropriate government standards for meals, coupled with neglect or inadequate government oversight of any private entity that contracts to provide meals. If the so-called standards are lax, or worse yet vague, then is it any surprise that a business for profit is going to take the cheapest route allowed?

    In my view, culpability starts with the legislature or we the people, followed by the Governor, followed by prison administration officials, followed by the private for profit contractor. If the legsilature will enact, or if the people by initiative will enact, clear, appropriate and mandatory legal standards for the quality and/or makeup of meals (as well as other aspects of prisoner care) which are in fact actually enforced by the executive branch, private provider problems would soon dissipate.

    But eliminating private providers and substituting a public entity does absolutely nothing to solve the problem absent appropriate standards that are actually enforced. Blaming “private industry” seems as much as a mistake as anti-government advocates blaming “the government” for perceived failings. Lazy thinking fails to recognize that both private enterprises and public entities are run by fallable human beings. Moving a human from public to private or vice versa doesn’t make that human any more or less competent to carry out an assigned task.

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