High-Tech Dungeons and Modern-Day Torture
by Erica Thompson and Jan Susler
from the book
edited by Elihu Rosenblatt
South End Press, 1996
The United States Penitentiary (USP) at Marion, Illinois,
opened in 1963, the same year the federal prison at Alcatraz closed.
In 1983, the whole prison was permanently locked down and turned
into the first control unit. It is currently the highest security
prison in the United States.
Since the imposition of the permanent lockdown at Marion,
both the model itself and the methods it employs have been strongly
and continually criticized by human rights organizations. Consider
The 1984 convening congressional hearings about USP Marion
was prompted by allegations of widespread staff violence against
prisoners and abusive lockdown conditions to "provide a full
airing of the issues to help the subcommittee develop constructive
ways to increase the safety of correctional employees and inmates
and reduce tension."
The 1985 convening of a Congressional oversight hearing about
USP Marion involved testimony from congressional consultants,
including recommendations that a mental health unit be created
for the prisoners to treat the "negative health consequences"
that may flow from lockdown confinement, conditions so adverse
that even staff operate under "combat mentality"; and
that lockdown not be permitted to endure indefinitely, as well
as evidence that 80 percent of the prisoners at Marion were not
even classified as level six prisoners.
The 1985 report of the American Friends Service Committee
observed that Marion represents choosing "a course that favors
the continual escalation of repression as a means of control,
even though it has never been demonstrated that repression brings
its desired results."
* The 1987 John Howard Association Report concluded that Marion
"is not a normal maximum-security prison on lockdown status
but rather a firmly established, fully functioning behavior modification
program..."; that "the Marion program seems to be designed
to break the defiant spirit and behavior... through a year or
more of sensory and psychological deprivation [in which] prisoners
are stripped of their individual identities..."
* The 1987 Report of Amnesty International stated that "[w]ithin
Marion, violations of the [United Nations] Standard Minimum Rules
[for the Treatment of Prisoners] are common... There is hardly
a rule in the Standard Minimum Rules that is not infringed in
some way or other."
* The 1990 Report of the National Interreligious Task Force
on Criminal Justice concluded that " [t]he absence of balance
in the procedures at Marion prison, where security measures override
the individual need for human contact, spiritual fulfillment,
and fellowship, becomes an excuse for the constant show of sheer
force. The conditions of Marion prison... constitute, in our estimation
psychological pain and agony tantamount to torture."
* The 1990 Report of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee
on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Administration of Justice
expressed "concern... about the amount of time inmates spend
in their cells in relative isolation and the limited opportunity
for productive and recreational activity that is available in
the highly controlled environment" and the need to "continue
to develop a more humane approach to the incarceration of the
maximum-security prison population," particularly in light
of Marion's function as a model for prisons in the United States
and in other countries.
Since 1983, the Marion model-total physical and psychological
control-has spawned control units throughout this country. Indeed
Marion itself is soon to be replaced by a new federal control
unit in Florence, Colorado-an area notorious for high levels of
uranium contamination and listed as an EPA Superfund site. Human
Rights Watch, in its 1991 annual survey of the United State's
prison system, found that the single most disturbing aspect was
the proliferation of control unit prisons:
Human Rights Watch deplores the fact that 36 states have followed
the example of the maximum-security prison in Marion, Illinois,
to create super-maximum-security institutions. The states have
been quite creative in designing their own maxi-maxis and in making
the conditions particularly difficult to bear, at times surpassing
the original model.
As a result, inmates are essentially sentenced twice: once
by the court, to a certain period of imprisonment; and the second
time, by the prison administration to confinement in 'maxi-maxis"
under extremely harsh conditions and without independent supervision.
This second sentencing is open-ended and limited only by the overall
length of an inmate's sentence and is meted out without the benefit
of counsel. The increasing use of prisons within prisons leads
to numerous human rights abuses and frequent violations of the
U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Indeed, the control unit construct has bred unique abuses
in the hands of state officials. For example, at Westville, Indiana's
Maximum Control Complex (MCC), prisoners are frequently fire-hosed
and then placed on "strip cell status" with all clothing
and bedding removed from the cell for days at a time. At California's
Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU), prison officials may
subject prisoners to merciless hog-tying for hours at a time.
[Hog-tying is shackling a prisoner's wrists and ankles together,
either in front or in back. See articles on Pelican Bay.-E.R.]
Supermax prisons (control units, maxi-maxis) differ intrinsically
from lesser security institutions in three principal respects.
First, unlike maximum-security institutions, where prisoners are
out of their cells an average of 13 hours per day, supermax prisons
are permanent lockdown facilities. In other words, prisoners are
caged in their single cells approximately 23 hours per day.
Second, supermax prisons employ isolation, control, and behavior
modification techniques. Prisoners are not allowed to communicate
with other prisoners. Since the trend in these institutions is
to utilize solid steel doors, rather than bars, complete isolation
is virtually assured. Prisoners must eat, sleep, and live their
entire lives alone in a cell. There is no congregate exercise
or religious service. Censorship of reading materials is strict,
and educational programs via correspondence courses are severely
restricted, if allowed at all.
Prison officials seek to curtail any expression of creativity
or individuality by the prisoners. Prisoners are not allowed to
put anything on the walls, and until public outcry mounted, prisoners
at MCC-Westville were not even allowed to know the time of day
or night. Basic human needs such as human contact, communication,
and individuality are viewed by prison officials as a threat to
the smooth running and security of the institution and are, therefore,
Visits by family members, often critical to a prisoner's psychological
well-being, are restricted and take place under such oppressive
conditions that many family members refuse to return. At MCC-Indiana,
for instance, after a two-hour delay while prison officials attempted
to deny a pre-approved visit by a prisoner's father, the father
suffered a heart attack when his son was finally brought out and
he saw his son's deteriorated physical condition and abuse by
On the rare occasion when a prisoner has an opportunity to
leave his cell, he is fully shackled (hands, feet, and waist)
and flanked by several guards. Minor rule infractions result in
severe punishment ranging from a prisoner being fully strapped
down to his bed to a visit from a cell extraction team (guards
in riot gear with mace and steel-tipped rib-spreaders).
Finally, in some jurisdictions, officials designate a prisoner
for transfer into a supermax prison as an administrative measure,
as opposed to a punitive measure. The legal effect of an administrative
transfer is that the prisoner has no legal recourse to challenge
the designation. A punitive transfer, on the other hand, would
require at least the minimum requirements of due process.
Not only can a prisoner not challenge his administrative designation,
but he can be held indefinitely in a supermax because of that
designation. Supermax prisons are unique in this respect. Standard
procedure in non-supermax prisons would require that a prisoner
be returned, as of right, to the general prison population at
the conclusion of his punitive segregation term.
It is critical to view the supermax explosion in context.
Our "criminal justice system" is racist and politically
repressive. And the racial disparities in supermax prisons tend
to be even greater than in the rest of the prison population.
Moreover, prisoners who file lawsuits, speak out against injustice,
and fight for dignity and respect are targeted for transfer to
What is going on in the United States in the name of "law-and-order"
is obscene and unprecedented in history. We must educate ourselves,
speak out, and take action immediately. We must make a concerted
effort to reframe the debate on all fronts. We must be relentless.
There are no excuses.