Video: Behind the walls of Unit G, where inmates are locked down for 23 hours a day
For 23 hours a day, the most dangerous and notorious inmates — including Keith Luke — are clamped down in Plymouth County’s ‘jail within a jail’
John Hickey peers from the darkened second-floor post overlooking Unit G, the maximum security unit at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility.
There the Plymouth County sheriff’s department captain has a clear view of the four, two-tiered cellblock clusters.
Up to 117 prisoners are locked away 23 hours a day in this unit, some so dangerous they must be shackled each time they leave a cell.
Some are in protective custody. Some did something wrong in another jail unit. Some are just too dangerous or infamous to be anywhere else.
“It is a jail within a jail,” Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph D. McDonald Jr. said.
It is here, in this wagon-wheel like section, officially called the “special management unit,” that Keith Luke, the Brockton man accused of going on a deadly rampage in January, is held.
Prisoners wind up here in one of two ways — they do something wrong in the general population unit or, while awaiting trial, they need to be watched closely because someone may hurt them or they may hurt someone else.
Every Tuesday, a board reviews the prisoner’s cases to decide if they could — or should — be moved out.
Some of the prisoners share a cell. Others, like Luke, are alone.
Luke, accused of killing two people and critically wounding a third, spends 23 hours a day, in an 8-by-12-foot cell in Unit G. A camera monitors his moves, minute by minute. He sleeps nightly on a 41/2-inch thick, rubber-covered mattress on a metal slab. The toilet is stainless steel.
He changes his orange prison uniform Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He is given a disposal razor for 15 to 20 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to shave.
When he is let out to shower or exercise, he is shackled and escorted by two guards.
A swastika is now etched on his forehead. Authorities believe he may have carved it at night, while feigning sleep, perhaps with a staple pulled from legal paperwork. His head is now shaved. He has lost about 60 pounds.
Luke, who spent hours at Brockton gyms, leg pressing up to 600 pounds, now does pushups in his cell — when he isn’t peering out a small Plexiglas window.
When he showers, he sticks his hands through an opening in a cell-like shower stall door for the handcuffs to be briefly removed. Some prisoners share a cell. Luke does not.
The unit is housed on the second floor in the southwest section of the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, down a hallway about the length of two football fields.
There is a small area where inmates can talk with visitors via phone while separated by a Plexiglas partition.
It is the last, alphabetically listed unit in the jail.
“We’re in our own little world,” said Hickey, who is in charge of the unit.
Two officers watch the unit from a second-floor metal grate platform. Four monitors display surveillance images from the cellblocks.
On the first floor, two other officers stand guard outside the four locked cellblock clusters.
The officers guarding the prisoners do not routinely use the radio system connecting other sections of the jail. They call, instead, to each other through the grate floor.
There’s a reason for that.
“If there is any type of disturbance here, we don’t want inmates in other units to know,” Hickey said. “The prisoners will stand next to the officers sometimes and listen to what is being said on the radio.”
Sometimes officers are forced to use one of the “restraint chairs” tucked away in a side office. A hair net-like hat that covers an inmate’s face is used to stop spittle from striking officers. These chairs are often used to when inmates act up, sometimes tossing items at officers.
Sometimes the inmates have weapons.
“Lately the weapon of choice has been feces,” said Hickey, a corrections officer since 1993 and in charge of the unit for two years.
Nationally, more than 2.3 million people are held in federal or state prisons or in local jails and nearly all have some type of special management unit such as the one in Plymouth.
In Massachusetts, about 10,000 people are in state prison. Of that number, on any given day, about 500 are in segregation units. As in the Plymouth County jail, the state inmates eat in their cells.
They shower three times a week, exercise for an hour five days a week and are allowed out-of-cell visits with family and friends, medical and mental health appointments and attorney visits.
They are also escorted out for court and, depending on the prison, religious and other programs.
Prisoners are held in the Plymouth County jail unit when they pose a danger to guards, when they pose a danger to other prisoners or as punishment for doing something wrong.
Prisoners in high-profile cases are also often held in the unit for their protection or for the protection of other inmates.
“They are the most difficult inmates, no question,” Hickey said.
Richard Hatch, who won $1 million in the debut season of the reality show “Survivor” and failed to pay taxes on the cash, wound up in the unit while awaiting trial.
Convicted spree killer Gary Sampson, now on federal death row, also spent time there. So did Richard Reid of shoe bomber fame.
And there’s been a host of New England mobsters, such as Stephen J. “The Rifleman” Flemmi and Frank “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, who spent more than a few nights in Unit G.
Luke’s lawyer, Joseph Krowski Jr., tried unsuccessfully this week to get his client transferred to the Bridgewater State Hospital after the accused killer came to court sporting a swastika carved on his forehead.
“When you see something like that obviously it lends itself to some concern,” he said.
Krowski said the isolation of the unit is taking a toll on his client’s mental health and the jail isn’t equipped to deal with it.
“I don’t think Plymouth is the appropriate place for my client right now,” Krowski said.
Plymouth County officials are trying to learn what Luke used to carve the swastika. They ruled out the razor he is given and now believe it could have been a staple from legal work or another small, sharp object.
Plymouth County jail officials say Luke is watched closely and treated no differently given the circumstances.
Those in the unit are placed there for a reason.
“We don’t look at what they’re charged with,” Hickey said. “We look at the most appropriate place they should be.”
Maureen Boyle can be reached at email@example.com.