Supermax Prisons

High-Tech Dungeons and Modern-Day Torture

by Erica Thompson and Jan Susler

from the book

Criminal Injustice

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 following:

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, proscribed.

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 MCC guards.

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 control units.

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.

Criminal Injustice