America’s Hardest Prisons

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC – Thursday 15 April, 8.30pm

Nuevo Laredo lies a few miles south of the US-Mexico border, across the Rio Grande from Texas. It’s a hot spot in the drug war – a border town known for its chilling violence and rampant corruption. And it’s the perfect home for a notoriously violent Mexican prison known as Cedes. In 2005, two American brothers jailed on homicide charges were stabbed to death in their cells. Only a month before that, a gang shootout on a basketball court left one inmate dead and several injured. The next day, two other inmates were stabbed to death and one was shot, caught in a barrage of 30 bullets. Guards later recovered six pistols and an AK-47 in inmate cells. Many of the inmates here are members of drug cartels and gangs like the Mexican Mafia. At Cedes, nobody ever talks ‘politics’ or about violence behind bars. To do so would be to risk reprisals. A substantial number of prisoners here have served time in both American and Mexican prisons and many prefer life at Cedes, largely because of the astonishing amount of

freedom they are given. The novel visitation policy allows inmates to meet loved ones in an open picnic area from 9am to 5pm, six days a week. In some cases conjugal visits are allowed in private rooms. Officers believe such perks reduce tension inside the prison but, as the warden and officers reveal, along with these freedoms comes constant danger. Keeping Cedes under control, even on a good day, is no easy task.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC – Thursday 8 April, 8.30pm

Some of the most violent criminals in Colorado have a new home. And they seem to love it. Ten years ago, Colorado opened a massive new penitentiary called Sterling Correctional Facility (SCF) and poured more than 2,000 inmates into it, including some of the toughest and most disruptive felons in the state. To contain all these dangerous felons, Colorado constructed a high-voltage electric fence around Sterling – the first ever in the state. So far, no inmates have escaped. Behind the big electric fence, the inmates have resorted to classic convict behaviour. Gangs flourish here – powerful Latin gangs like the Surenos and brutal homegrown white gangs like the openly racist ‘211’. Two of 211’s gang leaders were recently convicted on charges of attempted murder and racketeering while behind bars. Find out, from 211’s top dogs how the gangs operate behind bars. Sterling also extensively uses isolation – or administrative segregation, as it’s known here. Enter ad-seg to hear from inmates confined there for weeks, months, even years at a time. Hear from the officers who run the place and find out how some inmates still manage to do all kinds of damage while isolated all day, every day. At the same time, Intel officers reveal how they track gang and other illegal activities at Sterling – and how they keep the lid on tight.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC – Thursday 1 April, 8.30pm

Forget Midwestern hospitality at the St Louis County Jail. Built in 1998 and rededicated in 2004, this downtown facility processes over 30,000 arrestees each year. From drunk drivers and drug dealers to petty thieves and killers, they all pass through this municipal high-rise on their way to facing a judge. For the officers on the ground, that means seeing approximately 600 people each week – many of whom are inebriated and angry when they first arrive. Jail is the last place they want to be and they are not shy about sharing that information. Some of them even try to confront the officers. That’s a mistake they’ll soon regret. Still, these angry and often difficult prisoners must be booked, interviewed, strip-searched and processed. Some are middle class, some are poor, some are thugs and some appear to be crazy. Yet they’re all held together in an open central booking area until they are assigned a cell. It’s highly dangerous for officers, especially without the help of shackles and bars. All hope to go free soon but, for many, that’s just an illusion. Find out how tough it is to do time in America’s heartland as these prisoners make their way through County Jail without getting hurt or hurting anybody else – inmate or officer.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC – Thursday 5 March, 8.30pm

Acting as a cross between the juvenile system and a penitentiary, Colorado’s Youthful Offender System (YOS) aims to break down criminal habits and gang mentalities, while supporting reintegration into society. They call the first day Hell Day, and appropriately so. The immediate barrage of insults and gruelling demands delivers a brutal dose of what lies ahead. As with similar training programs, the new recruits endure very hard times, but this is not a typical boot camp. Rather than patriotic men and women ready to serve their country, they are underage, violent felons who are anything but eager to be here. From first-time convicts to young, street-savvy veterans, this group walks the thin line between delinquency and prison.