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Caging the crazy: "supermax" confinement under attack.

A steel door separates the Department Disciplinary Unit from the rest of the prison of Walpole, Massachusetts. Inmates confined in the DDU are considered management problems by staff. It is a prison within a prison: convicts housed here have no contact with each offer or with other inmates at Walpole. They spend all of their waking hours alone in 8-by-10-foot cells, each with a narrow window in the back wall permitting minimal sunlight. They eat alone, are denied access to work or educational programs, and are entitled to five hours a week of solitary recreation in an empty 6-by-30-foot outdoor exercise cage surrounded by a chain-link fence. When the weather is bad, there is no recreation time at all. They can have no more than four books in their cells People can be sentenced here for a maximum of 10 years but can spend longer than that if they disobey the rules. Serious infractions lead to disciplinary isolation, where they are permitted no phone calls, no visitors, no access to radio or television, no legal materials, no books, and, until recently, no exercise, it is possible to serve consecutive sentences in isolation, sometimes for a year or more.

Slowly, and with few people outside

of corrections noticing, America's

most secure prisons are locking down

"problem" inmates 23 hours a day

behind solid steel doors.

Whether they are called supermax or control units, punitive or administrative segregation areas, the conditions of confinement are usually the same. Inmates are housed in solitary. They eat and exercise alone. They are never allowed contact visits and are permitted few, if any, in-cell educational or vocational programs. Thirty-six states have embraced the idea of lockdown for their "problem" inmates; some have built spanking-new high-tech supermax prisons, while others have added high-security units like the DDU to existing facilities. In the newer prisons, most of the traditional jobs performed by staff-such as opening cell doors, listening to complaints, and surveillance-are now totally automated. With prison gangs now considered to be the greatest threat to institutional safety, correctional administrators have not hesitated to fill these supermax units with suspected members, even if they have committed no infractions. Some mental-health researchers say that mentally ill inmates are disproportionately represented in supermaxes, since they are often unable to control their disruptive behavior. Inmates are doing years in lockdown and then being released from supermaxes directly onto the streets with no pre-release programming.

In Massachusetts, for example, as of September 1995, 39 inmates had been released from the DDU without any pre-release counseling, according to Massachusetts Department of Corrections officials. "Imagine taking a dog that has bitten someone, and kicking and beating and abusing it in a cage for a year," says Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist who examined 32 DDU inmates for a suit pending against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. "Then you take that cage and you put it in the middle of a city, you open it, and you hightail it out of there. That's what you're doing to these people.... This is not a service for public safety." He describes inmates who have spent long periods in supermax units as being high-strung, irritable, anti-social, potentially violent, sometimes mentally ill, and definitely at risk of recidivating. "I would not want to be the neighbors of the individuals that I knew and saw leave the DDU," says Robert Dellelo, 54, who is now serving a five-year DDU sentence for an escape attempt. "I have not only seen inmates who were aggressive and hostile but actually psychotic released onto the streets," Robert Verdeyen of the American Correctional Association acknowledges that it is "a pretty scary thought" to consider that supermax prisoners can be released directly into the community. But he adds, "If people serve every bit of time they're supposed to do, there's nothing anyone can do.... They're just released. They've paid their debt to society."

The courts have proved the sole avenue for penal reform. The Massachusetts litigation alleges cruel and unusual punishment in the DDU and is part of a larger trend of suits challenging supermax confinement on mental-health grounds. Historically, the judiciary has allowed great discretion to prison administrators in designing and operating correctional programs of their choosing. The courts have also never ruled that solitary confinement was so damaging to inmates' psyches that it constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Nevertheless, in Madrid v. Gomez, a recent, well-publicized suit challenging conditions at northern California's Pelican Bay State Prison, a U.S. district court judge ruled that confinement in lockdown units was harmful to certain inmates, notably those with mental illnesses or those at risk of developing them.

In 1996, lawyers for mentally ill inmates confined in New Jersey prisons filed a class-action suit charging that the state Department of Corrections failed to provide them with adequate psychiatric care. The suit claims that the corrections department's own records show that a substantial proportion of inmates admitted to the state psychiatric hospital came from supermax units. Meanwhile, other supermaxes are coming under increasing scrutiny. A Colorado prisoners' rights group has just issued a report on the Colorado State Penitentiary, a Canon City supermax, noting that a quarter of the inmates housed there are on some form of anti-psychotic medication; they are also never allowed outdoors under any circumstances. The group has asked for a Department of Justice investigation.

Also in 1996, a Department of Justice inspection of the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, a Baltimore supermax, noted potential constitutional violations. The report pointed out that inmates were subjected to "extreme social isolation" and were kept alone in their cells 24 hours a day, except for a brief period (less than an hour) every two to three days when they were permitted to shower and walk around an indoor area. The Department of Justice noted that this isolation was "the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe"

The modern America penitentiary

was born in the 1820s and 1830s and

imbued with a moral dogma that still

confuses our thinking about the role of

prisons in our society.

At this time, there were two models of incarceration+: the Auburn system, which emphasized punishment and deterrence, and the Pennsylvania system, which sought moral reformation. While the Auburn system was eventually adopted by most states, the Pennsylvania model was more popular in Europe, and its rehabilitative goal has, from time to time, exerted considerable influence over domestic prison policy. American send their criminals to prison as punishment, shown that most want them to be rehabilitated while locked up. Parole boards still look for evidence of reform and penitence, though many who study criminal justice acknowledge that our prisons are coercive warehouses that are incompatible with rehabilitation. Prison and punishment are dirty words in American "corrections," as the field is euphemistically known. Inmates who break prison rules are not punished but earn different "security classifications." Then they are sent to horrifying places where the corrections lingo fools no one. They are being punished.

Auburn Prison in New York was built between 1816 and 1821. Upon completion, its board of inspectors stated that its purpose was to confine felons "in solitary cells and dungeons," their reformation being of "minor consideration." Convicts in Auburn's northern wing were confined in solitary without any opportunity to work or leave their cells. Eighteen months after this experiment began, Auburn's administrators realized they had been overzealous. On an official visit to the prison, New York Governor Joseph C. Yates witnessed one man spring from his cell the moment the door was opened and hurl himself from the gallery to the pavement. Another prisoner was witnessed beating his head against the wall of his cell until he had put one of his eyes out. After this false start, Auburn's penal philosophy changed. Convicts were confined alone in their cells at night but worked together in silence during the day. Frequent beating were administered to make inmates work and to enforce the silence rule. This system of congregate labor had the great advantage of making Auburn inexpensive to operate, and the prison became the prototype for institutions across the country.

The Pennsylvania system established in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was more expensive to operate but had loftier goals. The Quakers who ran the prison believed that convicts had a tendency to corrupt one another and that solitary confinement with the Bible (the only book allowed) would serve a rehabilitative purpose. Work was also considered beneficial, and convicts were permitted to pursue trades in their cells.

When it opened in 1829, Eastern State was the largest and most expensive public-works project of its time, costing $653,125. The prison, which still stands, was designed by English architect John Haviland to resemble a medieval castle. It has seven radial cellhouses connected to a central rotunda which served as an observatory and guardhouse. Like the Auburn system, inmates were to have no communication with fellow prisoners. But unlike Auburn, this mandate was enforced not with the whip but by solitary confinement. Eastern State enforced this solitude with a variety of innovations. No one was needed to provide wood for in-cell stoves because Haviland installed central heating. Flush toilets insured that inmates would not wander the halls and commingle while on their way to a communal privy. Inmates were allowed outdoors once a day in a walled-off area attached to each cell. Outdoor time was scheduled so as to avoid inmates in adjacent cells from communicating over their walled dog-runs. All 583 convicts ate in their cells. The modern history of the supermax began on Saturday, October 22, 1983, when Thomas Silverstein, and inmate at the federal maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, stabbed a corrections officer 40 times, precipitating a total lockdown of the prison. The guard was one of two corrections officers to die that day in separate incidents. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reacted by converting Marion into a disciplinary institution to confine inmates considered escape risks or especially dangerous. The Bureau of Prisons established the now-familiar routine for inmates in segregation: solitary confinement, 23-hour lockdown, in-cell meals. Isolating convicts became a trend as state penitentiaries soon began to "Marionize" Marion was the model for programs adopted in prisons at McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1985, at Pelican Bay, California, in 1989, at Soutport, New York, in 1991, and at Walpole, Massachusetts, in 1992.

Prison administrators like supermaxes for a variety of reasons. First, they believe that, by isolating difficult inmates in one secure facility, they will decrease disruptive behavior at their other prisons. California, Colorado, and New York prison officials credit the introduction of supermaxes with a reduction in violent incidents systemwide. Second, they believe supermaxes provide a safe environment for staff, because inmates are nearly always behind bars. "If these conditions are harsh, you have to remember that we're talking about some very violent people who have typically either killed other inmates or staff after they've been in prison," says Verdeyen. "We're talking about very, very violent people." Third, prison administrators think supermaxes are deterrents; they offer prison officials an option of last resort for disruptive convicts. Fourth, supermaxes are convenient places to stash "revolutionary" inmates, gang leaders, or those who administrators think might stir up trouble. And finally, because supermaxes are so automated and provide so few programs to inmates, their operation is theoretically cost-efficient.

But some mental-health researchers

worry that supermax confinement

is not in the best interests of society.

Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian and psychology professor Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz have emerged as the most articulate critics of "Marionization," and it was their testimony that helped sway the court in the Madrid v. Gomez suit. John Rheinstein, the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union lawyer who filed suit over DDU conditions in his state, says that, if the case ever goes to trial, it will "rise or fall with Grassian's testimony." Grassian is a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and has published and lectured on the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement. Haney, in addition to his psychology professorship, is a lawyer and the director of the university's legal studies program. Both men have testified numerous times in prison litigation.

Haney describes the trend toward supermaxes as a major shift in the focus of American corrections, perhaps the most significant change since the abandonment of rehabilitation in the mid-1970s. He says this trend toward isolation units has occurred with very little public awareness. The marriage of technology with modern prison architecture has minimized staff-inmate contact in these prisons, despite studies showing that such contact can diffuse hostility and violence. Guards working at supermaxes "never see inmates in any even semi-normal context," Haney says. "They're always in their cells, under surveillance, in chains, being escorted, never interacting with anyone in anything that approximates a human context. I think that has an eroding effect over time in terms of their ability to understand these guys as people." As a result, staff view the inmates as monsters and treat them as such.

According to Haney, supermaxes represent another change from traditional punitive confinement in that inmates are serving their entire sentences in isolation. Whereas in the past inmates were sent to the "hole" (punitive isolation) for weeks or even months as punishment, the idea was always to reintegrate them back into prison society. "Now the notion is that these guys are just going to be {in isolation} forever," he says. "They're going to be there until they parole or die." Haney explains that in the past the hole was a small part of a larger prison that typically included some activities or resources. Prisoners serving time in the hole might be able to avail themselves of at least some diversion, from a correspondence course to a book cart. But now, with entire prisons and special units devoted solely to punitive confinement, it's more difficult for inmates in isolation to access any of the prison's resources, mostly because they don't exist.

The most insidious effect of isolation

is that it can destroy an inmate's

ties to society.

According to Haney, "You can go up to Pelican Bay on any given day, and there are 1,500 guys in the [Security Housing Unit], and I'll bet you $100 that, on the day you go, there will not be a single visitor in the visiting room. It's 1,500 miles from southern California and, when you get there, your inmate is brought out in chains and put into a little booth. The only thing you can do is talk to him over a telephone and look through a great big, thick glass partition. You can't even touch their hand. And what happens is that these guys paradoxically retreat further and further into themselves, and so they discourage even the visitors who are willing to endure all of that, because they become very uncomfortable around people." Haney says that marriages dissolve and relationships with children wither. "The people with the worst prospects for successfully adjusting to the free world once they're released from prison are those who come out with nobody to rely on," he says. "These places are about as dysfunctional as you can imagine for providing them with the resources to make that transition work."

Though supermax confinement has existed for more than 10 years, there have been no follow-up studies at these institutions tracking exconvicts who were confined for lengthy periods in isolation. "It would seem to me," Haney says, "that, in a rationally organized society, before we committed hundreds of millions of dollars [to prison construction], we'd want to do some careful followup of the few supermaxes that have existed for quite a while." Both Ganey and Grassian have only anecdotal evidence of the long-term ill effects of supermax confinement, and the little information they have about its effects is not comforting. Both have been contacted by about a half-dozen inmates who were released from the Pelican Bay SHU only to commit murder or other serious felonies.

"I'm not going to argue that anybody and everybody who goes into a control unit like the SHU comes out a raving maniac," says Haney. "But I would say that I don't know of instances of people being benefited by it. I think it varies as to the amount of harm inflicted. Some people come out and they manage to adjust reasonably well afterward, but they have the resources - mental and otherwise - to rebound from the experience. But even among people who were otherwise healthy, some of them never recover. I've looked at files of people who had no preexisting psychological problems who went to Pelican Bay, began to deteriorate, and some of them are still in psychiatric crisis."

Grassian says he has identified a

psychiatric syndrome associated

with the sensory deprivation of solitary


This syndrome, he says, includes a constellation of symptoms rarely, if ever, found outside conditions of social isolation, including hyperresponsivity to external stimuli (that is, the inability to tolerate certain smells and sounds)l perceptual disturbances; difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory; severe anxiety and agitation; and, in the most severe cases, onset of a confusional psychosis with severe agitation and paranoia. Grassian contends that this syndrome appears to be a form of delirium and meets diagnostic criteria for that syndrome. People with a history of cognitive impairment, seizure disorder, or attention-deficit hyperactivity are especially prone to this delirium in atmospheres of restricted environmental stimulation. According to Grassian, the greater the degree of social and sensory deprivation, the greater the chance someone will develop this syndrome. Similarly, the greater the amount of time spent in conditions of sensory deprivation, the greater the risk of the illness.

Grassian first saw symptoms of this delirium while examining inmates confined in solitary at Walpole during a 1979 lawsuit challenging conditions at the prison. "I didn't know what I was observing," he recalls. When he examined psychiatric literature on sensory deprivation, however, he found striking parallels. Grassian's research led him to the rare books room at the Harvard Medical School Library, where he found a 1912 summary of 50 years of psychiatric research on solitary confinement in German prisons. By the end of the nineteenth century, 37 articles in German medical journals had documented psychotic disturbances among inmates in the more than 40 prisons modeled after Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. In this summary, solitary confinement was identified as an important factor in the origin of these mental illnesses. The fist was exhaustive. "These clinicians 100 and 150 years ago were speaking to me," says Grassian. "They were describing exactly the same thing that I had just seen. It was one of the most dramatic intellectual moments of my life."

Not all researchers agree with Grassiaris warnings about the risks associated with sensory deprivation in solitary confinement. Some social scientists, especially psychologists, say that his research has been compromised by his involvement as an expert witness for inmate plaintiffs in class,action suits. Peter Suedfeld, a University of British Columbia professor of psychology who has conducted research on solitary confinement, says that there are "many, many convicts, political prisoners, and prisoners of war who have been held in solitary for several years and who came out of it without major mental breakdowns, and any psychiatrist or lawyer who implies that solitary confinement necessarily results in psychiatric breakdown is either ignorant or lying." Suedfeld says that conditions of isolation would have to be "very severe and quite prolonged - complete darkness, complete silence, complete isolation" - in order to induce mental illness in previously healthy inmates. He notes that few Vietnam prisoners of war and prisoners of the Gestapo went crazy, and both were tortured and held under these conditions. He feels that psychologists and psychiatrists who get involved in class,action suits "are essentially working against the prison system, and they don't have any particular interest in doing rigorous research. What they want to do is what Grassian is doing - intervene on behalf of inmates they think are being mistreated. And they don't want to do research that might show that they're wrong."

The one thing Suedfeld and

Grassian agree on is that mentally

ill offenders have no place in solitary


There is little question that solitary confinement makes the psychotic even more psychotic. Grassian, however, thinks that correctional administrators are singling out the wrong inmates for punishment. "People generally have this notion that these are bad guys who do bad things and that, if you punish them, they won't do bad things," he explains. "But you're assuming that the inmate makes a rational calculation of means and ends, of actions and consequences. The kinds of people who are cold-blooded calculators aren't generally the kind of people who end up in solitary confinement. They usually end up in places where you can make big pots of pasta in minimum-security institutions. They're clever enough to know when it isn't worth breaking a rule." The people who end up in supermaxes, he says, are those who are "impulse-ridden, whose internal lives are chaotic, whose ability to calculate means and ends is very, very limited, or whose capacity to control their behavior in response to such a calculation is very, very limited." As a result, the more a mentally ill offender is punished, the more out of control he or she becomes. The more stringent the condition of confinement, Grassian adds, the greater the percentage of mentally ill inmates.

Academic research appears to bear this out. A 1991 study of isolation units in two maximum-security prisons in Quebec found that nearly a third of the inmates confined in long-term segregation had a severe mental illness. They were three times more likely to be schizophrenic than the general prison population, and 25 times more likely than nonincarcerated males. Nearly a quarter had attempted suicide.

David Lovell, a research assistant at the University of Washington's Department of Psychosocial and Community Health, is conducting a study of inmates referred to a special mental-health unit at the McNeil Island Correctional Center in Washington state. "Based on our sample," he says, "there appears to be a minority of mentally ill offenders who have had extremely disruptive prison careers and who have spent a lot of time in disciplinary settings, including segregation and intensive management units." He adds that the McNeil Island study corroborates other research indicating that the mentally ill get in trouble in disproportionate numbers and end up spending more time in lockdown. An earlier study by Lovell and University of Washington colleague Ron Jemelka showed that, while offenders with serious mental illness constituted 18.7 percent of Washington state's prison population, they accounted for 41 percent of the infractions.

Mental-health researchers estimate that between 10 and 15 percent of the nation's one million prisoners have severe mental illnesses. Only those found not guilty by reason of insanity are housed in psychiatric hospitals - a standard that, according to David Lovell, is "pretty hard to meet in court, even for someone who is quite looney." So those not legally insane but still mentally ill often find themselves being shuttled between prisons and psychiatric hospitals - two institutions with profoundly different missions. Convicts will typically become ill behind bars, then be bussed to a psychiatric hospital, where they will remain until they are stabilized. They are then bussed back to prison, where they often become sick again.

While prisons are required to provide mental-health services, the recent explosion in the prison population has meant that there are fewer resources available for careful attention to the needs of the mentally ill. Haney says that there are just "too few mental-health personnel to do the kind of screening and monitoring that ought to be done throughout the system generally and during the disciplinary process in particular." As a result, he says, "quite a high percentage of people who are acting out because of their mental disorder are undetected, untreated, unmonitored, and end up in segregation units."

While both Haney and Grassian advocate confining mentally ill offenders in hospitals or, at least, in prisons with specially designed mental,health units, both recognize that this is not about to happen soon. All available criminal-justice resources have been used for prison construction, and psychiatric hospitals that confine garden-variety mentally ill offenders are a thing of the past. Most are not secure enough and provide only short-term treatment.

Howard Zonana, medical director of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, says that confining mentally ill offenders in a secure psychiatric hospital would most likely be more expensive than traditional imprisonment. He also doubts that the mental-health community would want to take on the burden of incarceration. "If you transfer everyone to mental hospitals," he says, "the public expectation is that, if anyone ever gets released, they should be permanently cured. There's a zero-degree tolerance for any mentally ill person getting out and committing crimes. Whereas most people - while they don't like it - don't find it surprising that many people released from prison are rearrested. Wardens don't lose sleep over whether an inmate is going to get out and do something illegal again, whereas mental hospitals go crazy over that kind of stuff. They are held responsible."

Finally, there's a lack of political will to build secure mental hospitals. According to Haney, "You don't get a lot of support in the legislature by getting up and saying, `We've got a lot of mentally ill prisoners and we've got to do something humane to deal with this problem.' The whole slant of political rhetoric over the past 15 to 20 years has been `Kick `em in the ass. Be as nasty as you can be.' If I were a legislator, I think it would be kind of hard to put it in a way that wouldn't cost me votes."

The prognosis for the future of inmate

suit challenging supermax

confinement on mental-health grounds

is uncertain.

The Supreme Court has recently interpreted the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in a narrow manner, plaintiffs must now prove the "deliberate indifference" of defendants. Such "state of mind" standards are notoriously difficult to prove. Inmates must show not only that their confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment but that the prison staff meant for it to be so.

Making matters more difficult for inmate advocates, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed by President Clinton in April 1996, does not allow prisoners to sue for damages for psychological harm in federal courts unless there is a prior showing of physical harm. "This seems to say that psychological torture is okay in US prisons," says Jenni Gainsborough, public policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "As long as you don't leave any scars, you can get away with anything." Gainsborough notes that the law has not yet been subject to a court challenge because it is still so new.

The concentration of inmates who present management problems in one secure prison is not necessarily an unsound penological concept. But the idea becomes problematic when inmates are housed there for indefinite periods and are written off as monstrous incorrigibles deserving of none of the small pleasures - like natural light - that prison life can offer. Pelican Bay's SHU and Walpole's DDU wouldn't exist if correctional administrators thought that the loss of liberty associated with being in lockdown 23 hours a day were punishment enough. "This way of treating inmates," says Grassian, "is to punish them if they misbehave, and if they misbehave in that punishment setting, punish them more severely. So what you have to do is artfully keep finding worse and worse methods of punishing them. So this creates more and more elaborate systems of solitary confinement and longer and longer sentences there under very harsh conditions."

There's no question that more thorough studies of supermax confinement should be undertaken to determine whether the millions of dollars it takes to build these facilities is well spent. Prison disciplinary procedures that lead to supermax confinement also need to be reviewed. All too often, these disciplinary measures presuppose a rational, calculating convict who will be deterred from misbehavior by harsh conditions of confinement. Sadly, however, supermaxes imprison a large share of impulsive, chaotic, mentally ill people who are oblivious to a rational calculus of punishment and rewards. The more they are punished, the more out of control they become.

Since the vast majority of offenders will be back on the streets at one time or another, correctional administrators do have a responsibility to society, and that is to make sure that convicts leave prison no worse than when they entered.

Spencer P. M. Harrington is a freelance writer who has attended the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and worked as an associate editor at Archaeology magazine for seven years. This article was written with the support of a grant from the Dick Goldensohn Fund, which supports investigative journalism.
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Author:Harrington, Spencer P.M.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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