Return of the Madhouse

Last summer, some 600 inmates in the notorious
supermaximum-security unit at California's Pelican Bay State Prison stopped
eating. They were protesting the conditions in which the state says it must hold
its most difficult prisoners: locked up for 23 hours out of every 24 in a barren
concrete cell measuring 7 1/2 by 11 feet. One wall of these cells is perforated
steel; inmates can squint out through the holes, but there's nothing to see
outside either. In Pelican Bay's supermax unit, as in most supermax prisons
around the country, the cells are arranged in lines radiating out like spokes
from a control hub, so that no prisoner can see another human being--except for
those who are double-bunked. Last year, the average population of the Pelican Bay
supermax unit was 1,200 inmates, and on average, 288 men shared their tiny space
with a "cellie." Since 1995, 12 double-bunked prisoners in the Pelican Bay
supermax unit have been murdered by their cell mates. But near-total isolation is
the more typical condition.

Meals are slid to the inmates through a slot in the steel wall. Some
prisoners are kept in isolation even for the one hour per day that they're
allowed out to exercise; all are shackled whenever they are taken out of their
cells. And many are forced to live this way for years on end.

Such extreme deprivation, the food strikers said, literally drives people
crazy. Many experts agree. But the protest died out after two weeks, according
to the jailhouse lawyer who organized it; and though a state senator promised
that he would look into the strikers' complaints, so far conditions at Pelican
Bay remain unchanged.

All told, more than 8,000 prisoners in California and at least 42,000 around
the country, by the conservative estimate of the Corrections Yearbook, are
currently held in similar conditions of extreme confinement. As of 2000, Texas
alone boasted 16 supermax prisons and supermax units, housing some 10,000
inmates. In Florida, more than 7,000 inmates were double-bunked in such
facilities and the corrections department was lobbying to build another one (at
an estimated cost of nearly $50 million) to house an additional 1,000 offenders.

Seven years ago, in January 1995, inmates at Pelican Bay won a class-action
lawsuit, Madrid v. Gomez, against the California Department of Corrections. Among
other constitutional violations, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson
found that the staff had systematically brutalized inmates, particularly mentally
ill inmates. "The Eighth Amendment's restraint on using excessive force has been
repeatedly violated at Pelican Bay, leading to a conspicuous pattern of excessive
force," Henderson wrote in describing the severe beatings then common at the
facility, the third-degree burns inflicted on one mentally ill inmate who was
thrown into boiling water after he smeared himself with feces, and the routine
use of painful restraining weapons against others. The judge ordered California
to remove any seriously mentally ill or retarded inmates from the supermax unit,
and he appointed a special master to overhaul the prison.

What Henderson didn't rule, however, was that the supermax model, per se,
amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
And so, while a new warden and new rules were brought to Pelican Bay, the basic
conditions of sensory deprivation in its supermax unit have remained intact.
Extremely mentally ill inmates are now held elsewhere; but critics say that less
severe cases are still sent to the unit, where they often deteriorate
drastically, for the same reasons that Judge Henderson originally identified:
"The physical environment reinforces a sense of isolation and detachment from
the outside world, and helps create a palpable distance from ordinary
compunctions, inhibitions and community norms."

Meanwhile, the prescribed method for dealing with uncooperative inmates who
"act out" in a supermax is still to send a team of guards into the cell with
batons, stun guns, Mace, and tear gas. Thus, say critics, the chances for
guard-on-inmate violence remain high at Pelican Bay, just as at other supermaxes
around the country.

The supermax model emerged out of the prison violence of the
1970s and the early 1980s, when dozens of guards around the country, including
two at the maximum-security federal prison at Marion, Illinois, were murdered
by prisoners. First, prison authorities developed procedures to minimize
inmate-staff contact; then they took to "locking down" entire prisons for
indefinite periods, keeping inmates in their cells all day and closing down
communal dining rooms and exercise yards. Eventually, they began to explore the
idea of making the general prison population safer by creating entirely separate
high-tech, supermax prisons in which "the worst of the worst" gang leaders and
sociopaths would be incarcerated in permanent lockdown conditions. In the late
1980s, several states and the federal government began constructing supermax
units. California--which had seen 11 guards murdered by inmates between 1970 and
1973, and a staggering 32 prisoners killed by other inmates in 1972 alone--opened
Corcoran State Prison and its supermax unit in 1988 and Pelican Bay the year
following. In 1994 the first federal supermax opened, in Florence, Colorado.
Soon, dozens of correctional systems across the country were embracing this

Indeed, throughout the 1990s, despite year-by-year declines in crime, one
state after another pumped tens of millions of dollars into building supermax
prisons and supermax facilities within existing prisons--sections that are
usually called "secure housing units," or SHUs. Defenders of supermaxes, like
Todd Ishee, warden of Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a supermax in Youngstown,
argue that their restrictions provide a way to establish control in what is
still--and inherently--an extremely dangerous environment. "In 1993," he says,
"our maximumsecurity prison at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility was host to a
riot. One correctional officer was killed. A number of inmates were killed and
several injured. Following the riot, the department made a decision that a
500-bed facility of this nature was needed to control the most dangerous

But while it may be necessary to maintain such restricted facilities as
prisons of last resort for some inmates, critics point out that far less
troublesome inmates end up being sent to them. In Ohio, for example, a special
legislative committee appointed to inspect the state's prisons in 1999 concluded
that fewer than half of the inmates at OSP met the state's own supermax
guidelines. State correctional-department data indicate that of the more than 350
inmates currently incarcerated at OSP, 20 were ringleaders of the 1993 riot and
31 had killed either an inmate or a correctional officer while living among the
general prison population; but the rest had been sent there for much less serious
offenses (often little more than a fistfight with another inmate).

And Ohio isn't alone in this practice. According to a study issued by the
state of Florida, fully one-third of the correctional departments across the
country that operate supermax prisons report placing inmates in them simply
because they don't have enough short-term disciplinary housing in lower-security
prisons. Given that the supermaxes' average cost to taxpayers is about $50,000
per inmate per year--compared with $20,000 to $30,000 for lower-security
prisons--this is hardly an economically efficient arrangement.

Yet the available numbers suggest that casual overuse of these facilities is
common. For in tough-on-crime America, imposing grim conditions on prisoners is
all too often seen as a good in itself, regardless of the long-term costs. The
U.S. Department of Justice's 1997 report on supermax housing (the most recent
available) found Mississippi officials insisting that they needed to house fully
20 percent of their prison inmates in separate supermax-type prisons and another
35 percent in similar units within existing prisons. Arizona claimed that it
needed to house 8 percent of its inmates in supermax prisons and another 20
percent in SHUs. In Virginia, after Jim Austin, the state's nationally renowned
consultant on prisoner classification, told officials that they needed to put
more of their inmates into medium-security prisons, the state instead spent
approximately $150 million to build Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, two supermax
prisons with a combined capacity to house 2,400 prisoners.

Proponents of the supermax system claim that its introduction has reduced
violence in the general prison population--both by removing the most hard-core
miscreants and also by introducing a fearsome deterrent to misbehavior. But the
data on this are, at best, mixed. Among Ohio's total prison population, for
example, there were more inmate-on-inmate assaults serious enough to be written
up by officials in 2000 than there were in 1997, the year before the OSP supermax
opened for business (8 assaults for every 1,000 prisoners in 1997 compared with
10 for every 1,000 in 2000). And even where lower-security prisons have been
made somewhat safer, that safety has been purchased at a staggering financial
and, ultimately, social cost.

Even the best-run of the supermax facilities seem to see high
rates of mental illness among their inmates. For example, a study carried out by
the Washington State Department of Corrections, which is known as one of the more
humane, rehabilitation-focused prison systems in the country, found that
approximately 30 percent of inmates in its supermax units show evidence of
serious psychiatric disorders--at least twice the rate in the overall prison

In Connecticut's Northern Correctional Institution (NCI), Warden Larry
Myers presides over an inmate population just shy of 500 and a staff of just over
300. With six mental-health professionals, a gradated three-phase program
offering inmates the possibility of returning to the general prison population
within one year, and relatively calm inmate-staff relations, Myers prides himself
on running a tight ship. Unlike staffers at many other supermaxes, once those at
NCI identify an inmate as psychotic, they remove him to an institution that
caters to mentally ill prisoners. Myers says that to avoid a "ping-pong
effect," with inmates bouncing back and forth between NCI and mental-health
institutions, the prison has not accepted severely disturbed inmates since 1999.

Yet even in Myers's prison, psychiatrist Paul Chaplin estimates that 10
percent of the inmates are on antidepressants or antipsychotic drugs, and several
times a month an inmate gets violent enough to be placed in four-point
restraints. Last September, guards had to subdue prisoners with Mace on 12
occasions. As I toured the pink-painted steel tiers of level one, dozens of
inmates began screaming out their often incoherent complaints in a bone-jarring
cacophony of despair.

"This is shitty," shouted one of the more intelligible of them. "We ain't got
no recreations, no space. If I try to sit back and motivate, you got people
yelling." He said he sleeps for more than 10 hours a day, does push-ups, and sits
around. "I have trouble concentrating," he yelled. Through the narrow Plexiglas
window in the door of his cell, a 21-year-old shouted: "I'm in jail for behavior
problems. My cellie has behavior problems. Why put two people with behavior
problems in the same cell?"

The greatly disputed chicken-and-egg question is: Do previously healthy
inmates go mad under these extreme conditions of confinement, or do inmates who
are already mentally unstable and impulsive commit disciplinary infractions that
get them shipped off to SHUs or supermax prisons, where they are then likely to
further decompensate?

Some psychiatrists, including Harvard University professor Stuart Grassian,
have testified in court that the sensory deprivation in a supermax frequently
leads otherwise healthy individuals to develop extreme manifestations of
psychosis, such as hallucinations, uncontrollable rage, paranoia, and nearly
catatonic depressions. Grassian and others have also documented examples of
extreme self-mutilation: supermax inmates gouging out their eyes or cutting off
their genitals. Using the tools of the supermax prison, writes James Gilligan in
his book Violence, "does not protect the public; it only sends a human time bomb
into the community" when the inmate is eventually released.

Other psychiatrists are more cautious, arguing that while some perfectly
healthy people are driven insane by these dehumanizing prison settings, the more
common problem is that mildly mentally ill inmates are often precisely the ones
who find it hardest to control their behavior while in the general prison
population and who therefore get sent to the supermax or SHU. Judge Henderson
acknowledged this in his Pelican Bay ruling; and in Ruiz v. Johnson, a 1999 case
involving Texas's use of long-term inmate-segregation facilities in its prisons,
another federal court likewise found that "inmates, obviously in need of medical
help, are instead inappropriately managed merely as miscreants."

In the large supermaxes of Texas, correctional bureaucrats have devised a
systematically humiliating and, indeed, dehumanizing regimen of punishments for
prisoners who elsewhere would more likely be considered disturbed: no real meals,
only a "food loaf" of all the day's food ground together, for prisoners who
don't return their food trays; paper gowns forced on those who won't wear their
clothes. I myself have heard guards joking about "the mutilators" who slash their
own veins to get attention. According to Thomas Conklin, a psychiatrist and
medical director at the Hampden County Jail in Massachusetts who was called on to
evaluate mental-health care in one Texas supermax, "All suicide gestures by
inmates [were] seen as manipulating the correctional system with the conscious
intent of secondary gain. In not one case was the inmate's behavior seen as
reflecting mental pathology that could be treated." In most supermaxes, this kind
of thinking still seems to be the norm.

Although prison authorities say that they provide mental-health care to their
supermax inmates, prisoner advocates tend to dismiss these claims.
Documentary-film maker Jim Lipscomb, who has interviewed scores of inmates in
Ohio's most secure prisons, reports that mental-health programs there often
consist of little more than in-cell videos offering such platitudes as "If you
feel angry at one of the guards, try not to curse and shout at him."

"That's called mental health!" Lipscomb says in amazement.

"The forceful rushes of this isolational perversion has pulled my essence into
a cesspool," wrote one inmate from a supermax in Pennsylvania to Bonnie Kerness
of the American Friends Service Committee (ASFC). "This just ain't life,
pathologized in a subsumed litany of steel and cement codes preoccupied with the
disturbing thrust of death." Accompanying the florid words was a penciled image
of a grown man curled into a fetal position against a brick wall.

The American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project is currently
spearheading three class-action lawsuits against supermaxes in Illinois, Ohio,
and Wisconsin. In the Wisconsin case, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb
issued a preliminary ruling in October against the Supermax Correctional
Institute in Boscobel after hearing the testimony of various health experts,
including Dr. Terry Kupers, a Berkeley psychiatrist and author of the book Prison
Madness. Kupers, who had been to Boscobel, told me that "there're a lot of crazy
people in here, and they need to be removed on an emergency basis because it's
not safe." In court, he testified that he had interviewed inmates who had been
diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and who continued to hallucinate despite
being given high doses of Thorazine.

Judge Crabb ordered prison authorities to remove five mentally ill inmates
from the facility immediately and to provide an independent mental-health
assessment to any inmate with symptoms of mental illness. "The conditions at
Supermax are so severe and restrictive," Crabb wrote, "that they exacerbate the
symptoms that mentally ill inmates exhibit. Many of the severe conditions serve
no legitimate penological interest; they can only be considered punishment for
punishment's sake." She also set a trial date in July 2002 to hear evidence on
the lawsuit's larger claim that the stringent conditions of confinement at the
supermax--the extreme isolation, extraordinary levels of surveillance, and tight
restrictions on personal property--constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

For advocates of prisoners' rights, this is the Holy Grail: a broad new
reading of the Eighth Amendment that would prohibit supermax-style
incarceration. And a broad reading is warranted, they say, by the international
conventions that the United States has signed--such as the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for
Treatment of Prisoners, which prohibit torture and regulate prison conditions
much more stringently than does U.S. case law. It's also a matter of human
decency, says attorney Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch. "The moral critique
is this: Secure-housing units have been designed, at the best, with utter
disregard for human misery. At the worst, it's a deliberate use of human misery
for deterrence and punishment."

Pending such a ruling, however, the filing of lawsuits provides virtually the
only public accountability for what goes on in the supermaxes. With the exception
of the New York Correctional Association, there is no legislatively mandated
oversight agency watching the prisons--no civilian review board or independent
ombudsman--in any state with supermax facilities. And over the past few years, in
response to a rash of critical media coverage and unfavorable reports by
human-rights organizations, many prison authorities have stopped allowing outside
observers to visit these prisons or interview their inmates. (In the past, I
have visited supermax sites in California, Texas, and Illinois to report on them.
For this article, only Connecticut opened its supermax doors to me; Arizona, New
Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia all refused to do so.) Says Human
Rights Watch's Fellner: "It is incredible that it's sometimes easier to get
access to prisons in closed regimes in third-world countries than it is in the

If nothing else, the lawsuits are keeping the human-rights questions on the
table. Supermax critics are also trying to call attention to the public costs,
which are not just financial. Tens of thousands of inmates are now being held in
supermax facilities, and almost all of them will be released one day. Indeed,
many states are releasing such inmates directly from the SHUs to the streets
after their sentence is up, without even reacclimatizing them to a social

Although no national tracking surveys of ex-supermax and ex-SHU inmates have
been carried out, anecdotal evidence suggests that many prisoners have been made
more violent by their long-term spells of extreme deprivation and isolation.
Bonnie Kerness of the AFSC talks about a whole new generation of cons coming out
of supermax prisons with hair-trigger tempers. One former inmate at Rikers Island
jail in New York City, who now participates in a rehabilitation program run by
the Manhattan-based Fortune Society, recalls that prisoners routinely referred to
"Bing monsters." (The Bing is the nickname for the Rikers Island version of the

"The impact on society could be devastating," says Steve Rigg, a former
correctional officer who worked at California's supermax prison in Corcoran
during the mid-1990s and blew the whistle on his fellow officers for organizing
fights between rival prison-gang members. Corcoran's administration was
overhauled after this, but Rigg warns that the underlying dangers in
undermonitored supermaxes remain. "There's more [inmate] recidivism," he says of
SHUs. "They breed the worst."

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