Solitary Confinement: Torture in the U.S.

by Bonnie Kerness, Fall 1998


Picture living in a cage the size of your bathroom, with tiers of single cages above, below, and to either side. You remain in this cage nearly 24 hours a day, day in and day out, year in and year out. Ruchelle Magee lived under these conditions in California for more than 20 years. Russell Shoats has been living in various Pennsylvania isolation units for 17 years. Ojore Lutalo in the Management Control Unit (MCU) in New Jersey just began his 13th year living in extended isolation--and he has never been charged with an infraction.

The use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons began in 1829, based on the early Quaker religious philosophy that solitary introspection would lead to penitence and reform. It soon became clear that people in isolation often suffer mental breakdown, so the general practice of isolation was abandoned. However, isolation as a means of administrative control continued and has grown to alarming proportions. In more recent times, abuse of isolation is combined with behavioral modification programs, including physical beatings, use of devices of torture, and psychological abuse.

In 1972, the first official "control unit" was opened in Marion Federal Prison in Illinois as a behavior modification experimental unit. Similar units began opening in state prisons across the country including the Management Control Unit in New Jersey. In 1983, in response to an isolated incident of violence, the entire prison at Marion was "locked down"--all prisoners locked in cells 24 hours a day without human contact. That lock down has never been lifted.

In 1995, a new federal high tech prison in Florence, Colorado, took over the "mission" of Marion and purports to house the "most predatory" prisoners in the U.S. Here, people are kept in nearly total isolation for years, many in soundproof cells. There is little interaction with anyone other than prison staff. Visits, telephone calls, and mail from family and friends are severely restricted, as are educational, recreational, and religious services. The federal model of control units has been adopted by over 40 states throughout the country, often taking the form of supermax, or maxi-maxi prisons.

Although litigation concerning control units has been sporadic, ongoing, and not too promising, there have been successes in the fight against them. In 1989, the women's small-group isolation prison in Lexington, Kentucky, designed specifically for women political prisoners, was closed by legal, political, and moral battles waged by a broad coalition of people. In January 1995, in Madrid v. Gomez, a federal court in California condemned the pattern of brutality and neglect at Pelican Bay Prison and called upon the state to discontinue excessive force and punitive treatment such as cell extractions and shackling prisoners to toilets and called for changes in grossly inadequate medical and mental health care.

The development of control units can be traced to the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement, during which time many activists found themselves in U.S. prisons. We believe this use of isolation stems directly from the brain-washing techniques used during the Korean War. Sensory deprivation as a form of behavior modification was used extensively for imprisoned members of the Black Panther party, members of Black Liberation Army formations, members of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, members of the American Indian Movement, white activists, jail house lawyers, Islamic militants, and prison activists. At one time or another, they all found themselves living in extended isolation, sometimes for years on end. Many political prisoners still live in isolation, not because they have received charges for infractions, but because of who they are and what they believe.

The experiment in solitary confinement expanded throughout the country in the form of supermax prisons--entire prisons that force people to live in complete isolation. Prisoners cannot see or hear another human being unless or until the administration decides that they can. The fastest growing population living in enforced solitude is perhaps youth of color imprisoned as a result of the racist crack-cocaine laws. Most of these youngsters received unconscionably long sentences. Their consequent anger tends to lead them into real or imagined infractions shortly after their imprisonment, resulting in their placement in sensory deprivation supermax prisons.

The mentally ill are another population increasingly placed in isolation. Many of them are not able to cope with the rules of free society, and they fare far worse once in prison. Unable to follow prison regulations, they end up being charged with endless infractions, often receiving sanctions requiring years in solitary confinement. In New Jersey, Frank Hunter died in an isolation unit after being forced to commit sexual acts for food. He didn't know who or where he was when he died. At Pelican Bay in California, Vaughn Dortch, an emotionally disturbed prisoner, was treated to a scalding "bath" by guards to wash off excrement that he had spread over his body. That bath burned off 30% of his skin.

The latest effort to multiply the number of people living in isolation involves the alleged spread of the "gang problem" in U.S. prisons. While most of us who deal with prison issues know of gangs in prisons, we also watch this "problem" being created, as well as enhanced, by many facilities. New Jersey, for instance, is building a new 750 bed "gang unit." In order to fill this new unit, they are rounding up people for interviews to determine "gang membership." New Jersey has never had a gang problem. Prisoners report that the Department of Corrections uses various counterintelligence tactics to create one, and guards start rumors provoking one group against another. This trend, repeated throughout the country, results in more supermax prisons being built.

We have been told by Corrections personnel that the nationwide move to expand the use of isolation is being fostered to a great extent by guard unions, which now contribute heavily to political campaigns of "law-and-order" candidates. Various forms of lobbying secure the necessary support to build new solitary confinement units or prisons. Guards report feeling that these units provide a safe working environment. Advocates and monitors of prisons report that control units also provide a place in which prison staff can commit atrocities unobserved.

The goal of these units is clearly to disable prisoners through spiritual, psychological and/or physical breakdown. This is accomplished by arbitrary placement in isolation; years of solitary or small group isolation from both prison and outside communities; extremely limited access to education, worship, or vocational training; physical torture, such as forced cell extractions, strap-downs, hog-tying, beating after restraint, and provocation of violence between prisoners; mental torture, such as sensory deprivation, forced idleness, verbal harassment, mail tampering, disclosure of confidential information, confessions forced under torture, and threats against family members; sexual intimidation and violence, usually against women prisoners by male guards using strip searches, verbal sexual harassment, sexual touching, and rape as a means of control.

In recent years, we have seen a duplication of these horrendous conditions. Throughout the country, for instance, when control unit prisoners leave their cage, they are strip-searched, even when there is no contact with anyone but prison staff. Oscar Lopez, a Puerto Rican political prisoner reported being searched rectally three times going to a window visit and three times returning. At the time, Oscar hadn't been in the direct company of another human being for months. Prisoners at the Ohio women's prison report the use of restraint tables for women who are "misbehaving."

Ray Luc Levasseur, now contained in the Florence, Colorado ADX federal prison, testifies, "It seems endless, each morning, behind the same gray door, listening to the same grating noises provoked by steel bruising steel. At this moment, there is someone in ADX, perhaps me, who suffers oppressive weight that buckles the knees. He may be bent over, arms clasped behind the back, pawed, prodded, stripped, commanded, gassed, stunned by projectile gun, bar coded, boxed in concrete, or leaning heavily against a plexiglass partition that prevents touching grandmother, father, or child. The unnatural construction and evil intent of ADX lies hidden at the rear of this federal complex. You know where it is because you've followed the links in the human chain thru the poorest communities, the darkest skin, the youngest blood--straight to hell in the form of children's prisons, penitentiaries, control units, and execution chambers."

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Lawyers Guild, California Prison Focus, and many other groups and individuals have joined with the World Organization Against Torture to express their concern. The World Organization Against Torture is currently writing a report on United States' compliance with the United Nations Covenants this country has signed. For instance, the U.S. ratified the International Convention Against Torture in 1994, but does not comply, continuing to use punitive violence and brutality in control unit facilities, cell extractions, mistreatment of the mentally ill, chemical sprays and dangerous methods of restraint. The existence and scope of these conditions are also in opposition to guidelines for treatment set in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Human rights monitors throughout the country increasingly hear about use of torture devices--pepper spray, mace, stun belts, head masks, and even restraint chairs and beds described as having holes for voiding bodily wastes when prisoners are tied down for days. One person reported being strapped down in a restraint chair for 21 days. Women's prisons and juvenile facilities report increasing use of these devices.

Unconscionable conditions exist in the H-Unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Maximum Control Complex at Westville, Indiana, Utah State Prison in Draper, the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, and the Maryland House of Corrections Annex. Reports from prisoners in the Q-wing and the Broward Institution for Women in Florida and from Texas, Virgina, Connecticut, and many other states confirm the spread of these inhuman conditions.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, an expert on the results of living in extended isolation, has commented at length on the psychiatric harm that can come to people subjected to long-term isolation. He interviewed people who began to cut themselves just so they can "feel" something and reports panic attacks and a progressive inability to tolerate ordinary stimulation. Isolation has been documented as a cause of paranoia, problems with impulse control, extreme motor restlessness, delusions, suspiciousness, confusion, and depression. I have treated a number of ex-control unit prisoners who come out with serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.

The National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons (NCSCUP) held hearings throughout the country in 1996 and collected shocking testimony from ex-control unit prisoners, current control unit prisoners via audio tape and written testimony, family members, lawyers, activists and advocates. What was described in these testimonies clearly violates the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, another Covenant, which the United States has signed. NSCUP continues to monitor conditions in isolation units throughout the country and has published a 1997 report on the status of control units in the U.S. and The Survival Manual, a pamphlet written by prisoners living in isolation for prisoners living in isolation. NSCUP also continues to provide analysis to the media as well as to lawyers preparing litigation.

Prisons are now one of the largest growth industries in the United States. The use of extended isolation is part of that growth pattern. The Prison Industrial Complex now houses over 1.7 million people in state and federal prisons, (excluding children's facilities, immigration detention centers, and municipal lockups).

As a human rights advocate on behalf of prisoners for over 20 years, I find it glaringly clear that, just as slavery had economic and political functions, so do prisons. People who are perceived as economic liabilities have been turned into a major economic asset. The young male of color who is worth less than nothing in this current economy suddenly generates between 30 and 60 thousand dollars a year in the "justice" system. It is not accidental that the technological revolution has been accompanied by the largest explosion of prison building in the history of the world. Control units, supermax prisons, and maxi-maxi prisons are the latest form of this growth. The politics of the criminal justice system--the politics of the police, the politics of the courts, the politics of the prison, and the politics of the death penalty-is a manifestation of racism and classism.

We need to expand popular understanding of what is happening in this country's justice system and make it relevant to the lives of people that we know and touch. We need to put a human face on those people living so alarmingly out of sight of the rest of us. We need to press Congress to exercise its oversight authority over the Bureau of Prisons. We need to press the state criminal justice systems that operate these places to examine the way control units function and study their effects. The folks in prison are mostly the poor and the working class who need jobs and education. Prison issues are class issues, and until prisoner activists and outside organizers begin a more serious level of opposition, neither prison administrators nor the U.S. government will take our complaints seriously.

Prisons reflect both the structure of society and the struggle against it. The wall of silence built around prisons and prisoners must be broken down. Groups all over the country are working on these issues. They need your help.

Please get in touch with one of these organizations:

American Friends Service Committee/National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons (972 Broad Street, Newark, NJ 07102/(973) 643-3192).

The Committee To End the Marion Lockdown (P.O. Box 578172, Chicago, IL 60657).

California Prison Focus (2489 Mission #28, San Francisco, CA 94110).


Bonnie Kerness is Associate Director of the American Friends Service Committee Criminal Justice Program in New Jersey and the National Coordinator of the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons.

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