Return of the Madhouse

Supermax prisons are becoming the high-tech
equivalent of the nineteenth-century snake pit

by Sasha Abramsky

The American Prospect magazine, February 11, 2002


Last summer, some 600 inmates in the notorious supermaximum-security unit at California's Pelican Bay State Prison stopped eating. They were protesting the conditions in which the state says it must hold its most difficult prisoners: locked up for 23 hours out of every 24 in a barren concrete cell measuring 71/2 by 11 feet. One wall of these cells is perforated steel; inmates can squint out through the holes, but there's nothing to see outside either. In Pelican Bay's supermax unit, as in most supermax prisons around the country, the cells are arranged in lines radiating out like spokes from a control hub, so that no prisoner can see another human being-except for those who are double-bunked. Last year, the average population of the Pelican Bay supermax unit was 1,200 inmates, and on average, 288 men shared their tiny space with a "cellie." Since 1995, 12 double-bunked prisoners in the Pelican Bay supermax unit have been murdered by their cell mates. But near-total isolation is the more typical condition.

Meals are slid to the inmates through a slot in the steel wall. Some prisoners are kept in isolation even for the one hour per day that they're allowed out to exercise; all are shackled whenever they are taken out of their cells. And many are forced to live this way for years on end.

Such extreme deprivation, the food strikers said, literally drives people crazy. Many experts agree. But the protest died out after two weeks, according to the jailhouse lawyer who organized it; and though a state senator promised that he would look into the strikers' complaints, so far conditions at Pelican Bay remain unchanged.

All told, more than 8,000 prisoners in California and at least 42,000 around the country, by the conservative estimate of the Corrections Yearbook, are currently held in similar conditions of extreme confinement. As of 2000, Texas alone boasted 16 supermax prisons and supermax units, housing some 10,000 inmates. In Florida, more than 7,000 inmates were double-bunked in such facilities and the corrections department was lobbying to build another one (at an estimated cost of nearly $50 million) to house an additional 1,000 offenders.

Seven years ago, in January 1995, inmates at Pelican Bay won a class-action lawsuit, Madrid v. Gomez, against the California Department of Corrections. Among other constitutional violations, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson found that the staff had systematically brutalized inmates, particularly mentally ill inmates. "The Eighth Amendment's restraint on using excessive force has been repeatedly violated at Pelican Bay, leading to a conspicuous pattern of excessive force," Henderson wrote in describing the severe beatings then common at the facility, the third-degree burns inflicted on one mentally ill inmate who was thrown into boiling water after he smeared himself with feces, and the routine use of painful restraining weapons against others. The judge ordered California to remove any seriously mentally ill or retarded inmates from the supermax unit, and he appointed a special master to overhaul the prison.

What Henderson didn't rule, however, was that the supermax model, per se, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. And so, while a new warden and new rules were brought to Pelican Bay, the basic conditions of sensory deprivation in its supermax unit have remained intact. Extremely mentally ill inmates are now held elsewhere; but critics say that less severe cases are still sent to the unit, where they often deteriorate drastically, for the same reasons that Judge Henderson originally identified: "The physical environment reinforces a sense of isolation and detachment from the outside world, and helps create a palpable distance from ordinary compunctions, inhibitions and community norms."

Meanwhile, the prescribed method for dealing with uncooperative inmates who "act out" in a supermax is still to send a team of guards into the cell with batons, stun guns, Mace, and tear gas. Thus, say critics, the chances for guard-inmate violence remain high at Pelican Bay, just as at other supermaxes around the country.

The supermax models emerged out of the prison violence of the 1970s and the early 1980s, when dozens of guards around the country, including two at the maximum-security federal prison at Marion, Illinois, were murdered by prisoners. First, prison authorities developed procedures to minimize inmate-staff contact; then they took to "locking down" entire prisons for indefinite periods, keeping inmates in their cells all day and closing down communal dining rooms and exercise yards. Eventually, they began to explore the idea of making the general prison population safer by creating entirely separate high-tech, supermax prisons in which "the worst of the worst" gang leaders and sociopaths would be incarcerated in permanent lockdown conditions. In the late 1980S, several states and the federal government began constructing supermax units. California-which had seen guards murdered by inmates between 1970 and 1973, and a staggering 32 prisoners killed by other inmates in 1972 alone- opened Corcoran State Prison and its supermax unit in 1988 and Pelican Bay the year following. In 1994 the first federal supermax opened, in Florence, Colorado. Soon, dozens of correctional systems across the country were embracing this model.

Indeed, throughout the l990s, despite year-by-year declines in crime, one state after another pumped tens of millions of dollars into building supermax prisons and supermax facilities within existing prisons-sections that are usually called "secure housing units," or SHUs. Defenders of supermaxes, like Todd Ishee, warden of Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a supermax in Youngstown, argue that their restrictions provide a way to establish control in what is still-and inherently-an extremely dangerous environment. "In 1993," he says, "our maximum security prison at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility was host to a riot. One correctional officer was killed. A number of inmates were killed and several injured. Following the riot, the department made a decision that a 500-bed facility of this nature was needed to control the most dangerous inmates."

But while it may be necessary to maintain such restricted facilities as prisons of last resort for some inmates, critics point out that far less troublesome inmates end up being sent to them. In Ohio, for example, a special legislative committee appointed to inspect the state's prisons in 1999 concluded that fewer than half of the inmates at OSP met the state's own supermax guidelines. State correctional-department data indicate that of the more than 350 inmates currently incarcerated at OSP, 20 were ringleaders of the 1993 riot and 31 had killed either an inmate or a correctional officer while living among the general prison population; but the rest had been sent there for much less serious offenses (often little more than a fist fight with another inmate).

And Ohio isn't alone in this practice. According to a study issued by the state of Florida, fully one-third of the correctional departments across the country that operate supermax prisons report placing inmates in them simply because they don't have enough short-term disciplinary housing in lower-security prisons. Given that the supermaxes' average cost to taxpayers is about $50,000 per inmate per year-compared with $20,000 to $30,000 for lower-security prisons-this is hardly an economically efficient arrangement.

Yet the available numbers suggest that casual overuse of these facilities is common. For in tough-on-crime America, imposing grim conditions on prisoners is all too often seen as a good in itself, regardless of the long-term costs. The U.S. Department of Justice's 1997 report on supermax housing (the most recent available) found Mississippi officials insisting that they needed to house fully 20 percent of their prison inmates in separate supermax-type prisons and another 35 percent in similar units within existing prisons. Arizona claimed that it needed to house 8 percent of its inmates in supermax prisons and another 20 percent in SHUs. In Virginia, after Jim Austin, the state's nationally renowned consultant on prisoner classification, told officials that they needed to put more of their inmates into medium security prisons, the state instead spent approximately $150 million to build Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, two supermax prisons with a combined capacity to house 2,400 prisoners.

Proponents of the supermax system claim that its introduction has reduced violence in the general prison population-both by removing the most hard-core miscreants and also by introducing a fearsome deterrent to misbehavior. But the data on this are, at best, mixed. Among Ohio's total prison population, for example, there were more inmate-on-inmate assaults serious enough to be written up by officials in 2000 than there were in 1997, the year before the OSP supermax opened for business (8 assaults for every 1,000 prisoners in 1997 compared with 10 for every 1,000 in 2000). And even where lower-security prisons have been made somewhat safer, that safety has been purchased at a staggering financial and, ultimately, social cost.

Even the best-run of the supermax facilities seem to see high rates of mental illness among their inmates. For example, a study carried out by the Washington State Department of Corrections, which is known as one of the more humane, rehabilitation-focused prison systems in the country, found that approximately 30 percent of inmates in its supermax units show evidence of serious psychiatric disorders-at least twice the rate in the overall prison population.

In Connecticut's Northern Correctional Institution (NCI), Warden Larry Myers presides over an inmate population just shy of 500 and a staff of just over 300. With six mental-health professionals, a gradated three-phase program offering inmates the possibility of returning to the general prison population within one year, and relatively calm inmate-staff relations, Myers prides himself on running a tight ship. Unlike staffers at many other supermaxes, once those at NCI identify an inmate as psychotic, they remove him to an institution that caters to mentally ill prisoners. Myers says that to avoid a "ping-pong effect," with inmates bouncing back and forth between NCI and mental-health institutions, the prison has not accepted severely disturbed inmates since 1999.

Yet even in Myers's prison, psychiatrist Paul Chaplin estimates that 10 percent of the inmates are on antidepressants or antipsychotic drugs, and several times a month an inmate gets violent enough to be placed in four-point restraints. Last September, guards had to subdue prisoners with Mace on 12 occasions. As I toured the pink-painted steel tiers of level one, dozens of inmates began screaming out their often incoherent complaints in a bone-jarring cacophony of despair.

"This is shitty," shouted one of the more intelligible of them. "We ain't got no recreations, no space. If I try to sit back and motivate, you got people yelling." He said he sleeps for more than 10 hours a day, does push-ups, and sits around. "I have trouble concentrating," he yelled. Through the narrow Plexiglas window in the door of his cell, a 21-year-old shouted: "I'm in jail for behavior problems. My cellie has behavior problems. Why put two people with behavior problems in the same cell?"

The greatly disputed chicken-and-egg question is: Do previously healthy inmates go mad under these extreme conditions of confinement, or do inmates who are already mentally unstable and impulsive commit disciplinary infractions that get them shipped off to SHUs or supermax prisons, where they are then likely to further decompensate?

Some psychiatrists, including Harvard University professor Stuart Grassian, have testified in court that the sensory deprivation in a supermax frequently leads otherwise healthy individuals to develop extreme manifestations of psychosis, such as hallucinations, uncontrollable rage, paranoia, and nearly catatonic depressions. Grassian and others have also documented examples of extreme self-mutilation: supermax inmates gouging out their eyes or cutting off their genitals. Using the tools of the supermax prison, writes James Gilligan in his book Violence, "does not protect the public; it only sends a human time bomb into the community" when the inmate is eventually released.

Other psychiatrists are more cautious, arguing that while some perfectly healthy people are driven insane by these dehumanizing prison settings, the more common problem is that mildly mentally ill inmates are often precisely the ones who find it hardest to control their behavior while in the general prison population and who therefore get sent to the supermax or SHU. Fudge Henderson acknowledged this in his Pelican Bay ruling; and in Ruiz v. Johnson, a 1999 case involving Texas's use of long-term inmate-segregation facilities in its prisons, another federal court likewise found that "inmates, obviously in need of medical help, are instead inappropriately managed merely as miscreants."

In the large supermaxes of Texas, correctional bureaucrats have devised a systematically humiliating and, indeed, dehumanizing regimen of punishments for prisoners who elsewhere would more likely be considered disturbed: no real meals, only a "food loaf" of all the day's food ground together, for prisoners who don't return their food trays; paper gowns forced on those who won't wear their clothes. I myself have heard guards joking about "the mutilators" who slash their own veins to get attention. According to Thomas Conklin, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Hampden County Jail in Massachusetts who was called on to evaluate mental-health care in one Texas supermax, "All suicide gestures by inmates [were] seen as manipulating the correctional system with the conscious intent of secondary gain. In not one case was the inmate's behavior seen as reflecting mental pathology that could be treated." In most supermaxes, this kind of thinking still seems to be the norm.

Although prison authorities say that they provide mental health care to their supermax inmates, prisoner advocates tend to dismiss these claims. Documentary-film maker Jim Lipscomb, who has interviewed scores of inmates in Ohio's most secure prisons, reports that mental-health programs there often consist of little more than in-cell videos offering such platitudes as "If you feel angry at one of the guards, try not to curse and shout at him."

"That's called mental health!" Lipscomb says in amazement.

"The forceful rushes of this isolational perversion has pulled my essence into a cesspool," wrote one inmate from a supermax in Pennsylvania to Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends Service Committee (ASFC). "This just ain't life, pathologized in a subsumed litany of steel and cement codes preoccupied with the disturbing thrust of death." Accompanying the florid words was a penciled image of a grown man curled into a fetal position against a brick wall.

The American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project is currently spearheading three class action lawsuits against supermaxes in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin. In the Wisconsin case, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb issued a preliminary ruling in October against the Supermax Correctional Institute in Boscobel after hearing the testimony of various health experts, including Dr. Terry Kupers, a Berkeley psychiatrist and author of the book Prison Madness. Kupers, who had been to Boscobel, told me that "there're a lot of crazy people in here, and they need to be removed on an emergency basis because it's not safe." In court, he testified that he had interviewed inmates who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and who continued to hallucinate despite being given high doses of Thorazine.

Judge Crabb ordered prison authorities to remove five mentally ill inmates from the facility immediately and to provide an independent mental-health assessment to any inmate with symptoms of mental illness. "The conditions at Supermax are so severe and restrictive," Crabb wrote, "that they exacerbate the symptoms that mentally ill inmates exhibit. Many of the severe conditions serve no legitimate penological interest; they can only be considered punishment for punishment's sake." She also set a trial date in July 2002 to hear evidence on the lawsuit's larger claim that the stringent conditions of confinement at the supermax-the extreme isolation, extraordinary levels of surveillance, and tight restrictions on personal property- constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

For advocates of prisoners' rights, this is the Holy Grail: a broad new reading of the Eighth Amendment that would prohibit supermax-style incarceration. And a broad reading is warranted, they say, by the international conventions that the United States has signed-such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners, which prohibit torture and regulate prison conditions much more stringently than does U.S. case law. It's also a matter of human decency, says attorney Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch. "The moral critique is this: Secure-housing units have been designed, at the best, with utter disregard for human misery. At the worst, it's a deliberate use of human misery for deterrence and punishment."

Pending such a ruling, however, the filing of lawsuits provides virtually the only public accountability for what goes on in the supermaxes. With the exception of the New York Correctional Association, there is no legislatively mandated oversight agency watching the prisons-no civilian review board or independent ombudsman-in any state with supermax facilities. And over the past few years, in response to a rash of critical media coverage and unfavorable reports by human-rights organizations, many prison authorities have stopped allowing outside observers to visit these prisons or interview their inmates. (In the past, I have visited supermax sites in California, Texas, and Illinois to report on them. For this article, only Connecticut opened its supermax doors to me; Arizona, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia all refused to do so.) Says Human Rights Watch's Fellner: "It is incredible that it's sometimes easier to get access to prisons in closed regimes in third-world countries than it is in the U.S."

If nothing else, the lawsuits are keeping the human-rights questions on the table. Supermax critics are also trying to call attention to the public costs, which are not just financial. Tens of thousands of inmates are now being held in supermax facilities, and almost all of them will be released one day. Indeed, many states are releasing such inmates directly from the SHUs to the streets after their sentence is up, without even reacclimatizing them to a social environment.

Although no national tracking surveys of ex-supermax and ex-SHU inmates have been carried out, anecdotal evidence suggests that many prisoners have been made more violent by their long-term spells of extreme deprivation and isolation. Bonnie Kerness of the AFSC talks about a whole new generation of cons coming out of supermax prisons with hair-trigger tempers. One former inmate at Rikers Island jail in New York City, who now participates in a rehabilitation program run by the Manhattan-based Fortune Society, recalls that prisoners routinely referred to "Bing monsters." (The Bing is the nickname for the Rikers Island version of the SHU.)

"The impact on society could be devastating," says Steve Rigg, a former correctional officer who worked at California's supermax prison in Corcoran during the mid-1990s and blew the whistle on his fellow officers for organizing fights between rival prison-gang members. Corcoran's administration was overhauled after this, but Rigg warns that the underlying dangers in undermonitored supermaxes remain. "There's more [inmate] recidivism," he says of SHUs. "They breed the worst."


Sasha Abramsky is the author of Hard Time Blues, which examines the growth of America's prison system. Work on this article was supported by a grant from the Center on Crime, Communities, and Culture at the Open Society Institute.

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