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Cover story

Long-term lockdowns

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The inmate died at about 10:30 the night of April 13, according to Alice Lynd, a former attorney and Quaker. Lynd is a Mother Teresa for the men in solitary lockdown at Ohio State Penitentiary. The inmate’s family had called her three hours earlier, saying they feared he was about to take his life. Lynd’s name circulates among prisoners and their families as the woman to contact if there are problems. And there are problems at Ohio State Penitentiary. The suicide on April 13 was the third at the high-maximum security facility since it opened in 1998 on the outskirts of Youngstown. All three men died by hanging, their bed sheets fashioned into nooses.

“No one told him why he was put in segregation,” Lynd said. “He had no violence on his record.” The death, after four months in solitary, was documented in news reports, but his family asked that the prisoner’s name not be used. “He was transferred ... with no conduct report, no notice, no conference and he did not know why he was at OSP. In a letter to his family he spoke of ‘no hope here’ and ‘no love.’ … [Correction officials] call it behavioral management, but you have people [at OSP] who haven’t had a conduct report for years.” Such reports document disruptive or felonious behavior that might justify punitive measures.

The supermax craze

Prolonged solitary confinement, a penal practice instituted in the United States in the early 19th century but later discredited, is making a big comeback. Whether shipped off to a supermaximum (supermax) facility or interned in a segregated housing unit (SHU) within a prison complex, more and more American inmates are sentenced to 22- to 23-hours-a-day lockdowns in single cells, where human contact and environmental stimulus are kept to an extreme minimum. The isolation can last for weeks, months or years.

In a February briefing on supermax confinement, the New York-based monitoring organization Human Rights Watch wrote, “Prolonged segregation that previously would have been deemed extraordinary and inconsistent with concepts of dignity, humanity and decency has become a corrections staple.”

Segregated housing units, internal management units, supermaxes -- the terms differ in each jurisdiction -- are all categorized as “control units,” in prison parlance. “Supermax” is the most widely used term to designate a prison or part of a prison that operates under a supermaximum security regimen. Although states vary in practice, organizations monitoring prisons have identified the following conditions as common to all control units: In addition to the 22- to 23-hours-a-day solitary lockdown, inmates are denied congregate dining, group exercise, work opportunities and corporate religious services. Access to facilities and social services is severely limited. In control units these conditions exist permanently (as opposed to temporary lockdowns that occur in most prisons) and are considered official policy.

In 1980, the United States had one control unit prison. Today, more than 50 are scattered throughout the country. Forty-two states, the District of Columbia and the federal Bureau of Prisons operate at least one control unit facility in their respective jurisdictions. Some have two.

Statistics on the number of inmates incarcerated in control units vary, but Chase Riveland, who has written an overview on supermax confinement for the National Institute of Corrections, said the number is somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000. In Texas and California, where the inmate population is 150,000 per state, 7 percent of the incarcerated are in administrative segregation, “a two-fold increase from five years ago,” Riveland said. A former director of two state departments of corrections, Riveland finds the increasing and indiscriminate reliance on supermaxes disturbing. For example, he said, “If you are in some parts of Texas and you have a Spanish surname, you are going to be locked down.”

From the point of view of prison officials, lockdowns inhibit gang activity inside prison walls. Mexican-American prison gangs are among the most powerful and best organized, according to Andrew Lichtenstein, a photographer from Brooklyn who is documenting growth and changes in U.S. prisons with a grant from the Open Society Institute.

In May of 1999, The Village Voice reported that on any given day in New York, “4,000 of the state’s 71,000 prisoners [were] doing time in an SHU [segregated housing unit].”

Death row inmates and now even people who have simply been detained and have yet to be convicted might end up in solitary lockdown. One of the most well-known in this category was Wen Ho Lee. Lee, accused of mishandling nuclear secrets, was kept in almost total isolation for nine months. All but one of his 59 charges were eventually dropped.

Many in the corrections field welcome the increased reliance on supermax security. They argue that confining the “worst of the worst” in separate, highly restrictive facilities ensures safety and security in other prisons and is cost-effective -- two significant pluses in an era where budget cuts and prison overcrowding strain the U.S. penal system. Human rights advocates and even some corrections officials say the policy has led to cruel and capricious confinements, an increase in prisoner abuse and even torture.

“The question becomes,” Riveland said, “how sterile an environment do you need? Should we be punishing someone daily, hourly or by the minute? Someone who hasn’t misbehaved? And does it never end?”

Jails have always relied on isolation units to maintain control. The dangerous, those deemed too difficult to manage in the general population and those in need of protective custody, have been among the segregated and confined. And the dangerous in prison can be very dangerous, continuing while incarcerated to commit crimes like rape, assault and murder.

While recognizing that a very small percentage of high-risk inmates warrant permanent segregation, human rights advocates worry that too many prisoners are qualifying for supermaxes.

“One of our main concerns,” said Kara Gotsch of the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Prison Project, “is that states are building large facilities. Because they have to justify their costs, they are putting people who do not belong there, people who have not committed crimes or offenses while incarcerated but are unlucky enough to be branded ‘gang member.’ The definition of a gang member is left up to the Department of Corrections.” Lichtenstein said prison officials are constantly on the lookout for evidence of gang affiliation, which may be signified by something as seemingly benign as a detail in a tattoo. Gang members are locked down to keep them segregated from other prisoners and minimize their potential for manipulation and disruption, he said.

Bonnie Kerness, associate director of the American Friends Service Committee, believes the category “worst of the worst” is too broadly applied in today’s prisons. Control units, she argues, are more about behavior modification of political activists and “social control” than prison security. Kerness, who has monitored prisons for more than 20 years, said that among the isolated are “members of the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army formations, proponents of Puerto Rican independence, members of the American Indian Movement and white radicals” and more recently “youth of color.”

According to Riveland, the number of women kept in isolation is “pretty miniscule” in comparison to men. Women comprise a much smaller portion of the inmate population, and gang membership among females is less prevalent. “Almost any women’s prison will have a capacity for lockdown,” he said, but there are currently no separate supermax facilities for women only.

Angela Wright of Amnesty International considers the supermax explosion a strictly American phenomenon. “Obviously, there are prisoners around the world who are held in solitary confinement, but they are not held in such high numbers.” In Europe, whenever authorities have held inmates in high security facilities, Wright added, “they have been very much criticized by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Within [Europe] a 40-country jurisdiction, they only use isolation in extremely small, restricted circumstances.”

Riveland said the supermax trend marks “a philosophical change” in prison practice, a shift from the “dispersion” approach to the “concentration” approach. Riveland describes that change in his overview on supermax prisons. “Many agencies in the past would spread their troublemakers around the system,” he wrote. “This dispersal enabled prisons to break up cliques and gangs. It was contingent, however, on availability of facilities.”

Today’s “concentration” approach hearkens back to the era of Alcatraz when those deemed dangerous or a threat to the system were segregated in a separate high-security facility. According to Riveland, the “concentration” approach operates on the premise that “general population prisons will be more easily and safely managed if the troublemakers are completely removed” and confined elsewhere.

Both Riveland and Wright describe U.S. prisons as “a system under stress.” Increased sentences and a more punitive justice system have taxed prison capacity. Control units offer a quick fix to overcrowding and its subsequent problems. In U.S. prisons, Wright said, “there are a lot of young people, a lot of mentally ill. ... To run proper programs requires huge amounts of resources. I suppose that the administration believes that one way of dealing with [the problem] is to lock people up in concrete cages.”

Evidently that solution does not appall many Americans. Supermaxes are politically popular. Legislatures and, in one instance, a governor have pushed for their construction in some jurisdictions. The supermax prison appeals politically, said Kara Gotsch of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, because it conveys a tough-on-crime attitude. “The public sees prisons as hotels,” she said. “Unfortunately the public doesn’t know how desperate these prisons are.”

Out of touch

Life in a control unit is far from hospitable. The degree of deprivation varies from facility to facility, but in many, human contact is kept to a severe minimum. Windowless cells with steel doors and thick walls prohibit intra-cell communication. Meals, even Holy Communion, must come through a food slot in the door. Inmates are not allowed contact visits and must converse with friends and loved ones through plexiglass windows with a guard monitoring the conversation. A strip-search usually precedes and follows every visit, and prisoners are often shackled.

After spending a year in a supermax, inmate Ronald Epps couldn’t stand being touched. Upon his return to a Maryland prison, a fellow prisoner shook his hand and then embraced him. “I became visibly shaken and cringed up as if I had been physically violated,” Epps wrote. “I had not had any physical contact with another human being in so long that I wasn’t used to being touched.”

Inmates at the new supermax in Malone, N.Y., exercise for 60 minutes a day in a cage attached to the back of their cells. The cage The Village Voice reported, “is about half the size of [the] cell, just big enough to do jumping jacks. No barbells, no basketball, no horseshoes. The cage is empty. Guards call it a kennel.” In some facilities, Human Rights Watch reports, “inmates have been deprived of sunshine for years because all recreation is indoors.”

Many facilities rely on state-of-the-art technology to reduce the interaction between authorities and prisoners. Cameras, rather than guards, monitor the well-being or decline of the interned. Doors open and shut electronically. The barrier of technology protects correction officials but has led in some cases to serious neglect of prisoners, according to groups that monitor prisons. In the H-Unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester, Amnesty International reports that prisoners are “confined two to a small cell for all but five hours a week.” Because correctional officials are isolated from inmates, “serious health problems go untreated and inmate conflicts undetected.”

‘Constant state of doubt’

“The most common feeling people in solitary confinement have is that of extreme and profound anxiety,” said Israeli psychiatrist Ruhama Marton, who has worked to place legal restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in Israeli prisons. He also is founder of the Association of Israeli and Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights. Feeling totally abandoned and suffering from hallucinations, the isolated person can degenerate into “a constant state of doubt and uncertainty in which they may lose their self-confidence, self-esteem and finally their identity,” Marton said.

The degeneration can happen fairly rapidly. Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff, who studied interrogation techniques used by the Soviet Union’s KGB in the late 1950s, found that prisoners subjected to sensory deprivation and a strict regimen of control -- including being told how and when to sleep -- declined in a matter of weeks. “The prisoner becomes increasingly dejected and dependent. ... Ultimately he seems to lose many of the restraints of ordinary behavior. He may soil himself. He weeps; he mutters and he prays aloud in his cell. It usually takes from four to six weeks to produce this phenomenon in a newly imprisoned man.”

Stuart Grassien, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and one of the country’s leading specialists on the mental effects of solitary confinement, said that it is “toxic to mental functioning.” Under prolonged solitary confinement, the mentally ill become sicker and the psychologically healthy show signs of acute mental illness. The psychological damage is akin to that suffered by torture victims, prisoners of war and Arctic explorers.

According to Grassien, two key functions of the mind are affected: the ability to focus attention and the ability to shift attention.

The inability to focus causes cognitive problems. Difficulty in concentration, memory loss, and feeling like “you are in a mental fog” are commonly reported symptoms. One prisoner interviewed by Grassien told him, “I can’t concentrate, can’t read ... Your mind’s narcotized.”

The inability to shift attention creates a kind of “tunnel vision.” The sufferer becomes fixated or stuck on something and can experience hypersensitivity to external stimuli. A noise, a smell or the flushing of a toilet two cells away seems unbearably irritating. Other symptoms can include obsessive thinking, uncontrollable anger, paranoia and in severe cases, psychotic delirium.

Most notably, specialists have found that solitary confinement can cause permanent mental damage, leading some to label its use in prison as “a sentence within a sentence.”

The mental side effects of solitary confinement and the lack of transitional programs for people released from control units worry Riveland, who said, “Most of these people in [solitary lockdown] are not spending their life in prison. What shape will they be in when they come out?”

In its February briefing, Human Rights Watch reported that prisoners in a supermax “may be subjected to electronic stun devices, chemical sprays, batons, stun guns, shotguns with rubber pellets” and violent abuse for misconduct.

For Bonnie Kerness, inmate reports of brutality are part of her morning mail. Kerness, who is associate director of the American Friends Service Committee Criminal Justice Program in New Jersey, founded the National Coalition to Stop Control Unit Prisons six years ago. Her name is out on the “prison grapevine.” Many of the reports come unsolicited, she said, but she has carefully documented them in a publication titled Torture in U.S. Prisons, still in its draft version. Inmates from more than 25 control units describe in harrowing and graphic detail being beaten, strapped to beds, strapped to tables, maced, subjected to racial taunts, left unmonitored in restraining chairs for days and sprayed with up to eight cans of pepper spray (suppliers of the spray warn against issuing more than a single, one-second burst).

Allegations of torture

Sr. Beth Davis doesn’t doubt the allegations that swirl around Virginia’s two supermaxes. She doesn’t doubt the story about guards scrubbing a mentally ill inmate with a brush until he bled because he refused to take a bath. She doesn’t doubt Amnesty International’s allegations that the excessive use of stun guns in one facility could have caused an inmate’s death. As an addiction counselor in a rural community “where everyone knows each other,” she is privy to a lot of news. The correction officials who have “broken the code of silence” and spoken with her confirm the allegations of torture and abuse. “I can only tell you, Sr. Beth,” one correction officer said, “it is a war zone from the time you are in.”

Supermaxes are frequently constructed in remote, rural areas where political opposition is unlikely. Wallens Ridge State Prison and Red Onion State Prison, Virginia’s two high-security facilities, are located in the southwestern corner of the state. Davis knew that placing the prisons in the economically depressed region of central Appalachia was “a recipe for an explosion.”

A member of the Congregation of Notre Dame, she has lived in the town of St. Charles, a 25-minute drive from Wallens Ridge, for 30 years. She speaks with compassion about the region’s people who have shifted from “coal-dependency to prison-dependency.” And she speaks with quiet, articulate fury about a system that has pitted Southern rural whites against imprisoned, inner-city blacks.

From the beginning, the “whole pitch” to the community was “jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said. For men who had never had a living-wage job with benefits, the option was attractive. “Suddenly they’re given a uniform, a badge and a gun. Many correction officials said they had never been in a position of authority, and you couple that with the fact that many had never seen people of color. ”

‘Renting out prison cells’

Virginia, like some other states, rents out space in its supermaximum facilities to other departments of corrections. The going rate is between $64 and $68 per out-of-state inmate per day. Shortly after Wallens Ridge opened, Virginia’s corrections department contracted several hundred beds out to the state of Connecticut. Many of the new arrivals were urban blacks.

Davis said the whole process hearkens back to pre-Civil War days. “We’re going from slavery to renting out prison cells,” she said. “The attitude is, ‘We’ve got the cheaper cells so bring them here.’ We’re moving people like commodities.”

Transferring inmates out of their home state, a common practice, intensifies their isolation. Family visits become more difficult and legal assistance less likely. In a letter to Kerness, a contract inmate from Connecticut incarcerated in Virginia wrote that he needed to “take the proper steps to try and get back to Connecticut. My life is on the line. I don’t have many options left. I can’t properly or adequately prepare for a court hearing here in Virginia. They don’t carry Connecticut case law in their law library. I can’t talk to my attorney or to my private investigator.”

Wright, who is researching the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, has called the prolonged segregation of inmates in control unit facilities a “modern phenomenon.” Until fairly recently, Wright said, “you would have a small minority [of prisoners] sentenced to six 30-day terms in administrative segregation, with a review coming at the end of each term.” Even this was an increase in inmate isolation policies from previous decades. The 1959 Manual of Standards of the American Correctional Association recommended “a few days” of punitive segregation for most infractions and “30 to 90 days of administrative segregation in extraordinary circumstances.” These limits were set in recognition of the fact that isolation can have “a damaging effect upon some inmates.”

Jim Turpin, legislative liaison with the American Correctional Association, said the change in confinement policy is to accommodate the “increasing number of violent inmates. Prison in many ways is a reflection of the streets and society,” which, Turpin said, have become more violent. “It’s a different philosophy, different approach. We’re dealing with a lot different inmate than we were in the 1950s. What do you do if you’ve got an inmate who is a proven threat to himself, the staff, or other inmates?”

Critics, however, say that in today’s supermax there are no clear guidelines determining entry or exit. Who gets isolated and for how long is “within the discretion of prison officials.” In the absence of any due process, prisoners can be confined indefinitely.

Gerry Berge, warden of the new supermax in Boscobel, Wis., said inmates determine their own entry and exit. “How you behave gets you to the supermax,” he told National Public Radio last November. “When you get here, we’re going to tell you exactly what you’ve got to do to get out of here. I just don’t see that as a high-tech torture chamber as some people have described places like this, including this place.”

National Public Radio reported that Berge planned to offer incremental rewards to his inmates. Initially denied TV, radio and books, and limited to one six-minute phone call a month, the prisoner may gain TV privileges and greater use of the phone -- four six-minute calls a month -- if he does not misbehave. Berge expected inmates would serve two-and-a-half years at his supermax before returning to general population.

“Most inmates are able to accomplish this,” Berg told National Public Radio. “We’re not setting up anything here particularly more stringent than any other jurisdiction. Will some inmates not make this? Yep. There’ll be some inmates that will not get out of here.”

Does this punitive approach improve prison security? Riveland is skeptical. Proponents of supermaxes point to the reduction in assaults on inmates and staff as an indication of their effectiveness. But Riveland argues, “There exists little or no hard data comparing such perceived impacts on entire systems versus the fiscal cost to gain such results.” Moreover, environments that prioritize human control and isolation have, Riveland wrote, “the potential for creating a we/they syndrome between staff and inmates.”

Walter Dickey, former Wisconsin corrections commissioner, opposed the construction of the supermax in Boscobel. Dickey, who also spoke to National Public Radio last November, said that with nothing to do all day and limited contact with other people, inmates often become increasingly angry, depressed and antisocial. “Like the rest of the world, [prisoners] respond more to opportunity, to the carrot, than they do to threats. If one looks at one’s self, how well do you respond to threats? Most people kind of get their back up a little bit about it. And how well do you respond to the opportunity to have a better life than you currently have? Most people are eager to have a better life than they currently have. And prisoners are not different.”

Symptom of a larger problem

The human rights community has been ringing the alarm on control unit facilities for the last half decade. As early as 1991, Human Rights Watch voiced concern over the increasing trend of isolating prisoners in extremely “harsh conditions.” Today, many who monitor prisons realize that the allegations of brutality and torture are not isolated incidents but symptomatic of a much larger problem within the U.S. penal system and even American society. All call for greater public scrutiny of supermax facilities. Human Rights Watch recommends bringing in independent monitors, severely restricting the use of isolation and improving the physical conditions of supermaxes. For example, put windows in the cells and allow for more congregate activity.

Kerness believes that public scrutiny must go beyond the prison walls. In her campaign to close control unit prisons, she frequently urges Americans to wake up and look to themselves and the kind of society they want. Prison issues, she believes, are ultimately issues that touch on race and class.

Davis is already awake. She and others in Virginia are starting a criminal justice coalition “open to anyone interested in criminal justice issues.” And she is confident that enough people are concerned. “I think,” she said, “we are going to have a real movement for change.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000