[Ppnews] Solitary - 30, 000 supermax prisoners in the US are denied any human contact

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 19 17:46:17 EST 2011


30,000 supermax prisoners in the US are denied 
any human contact. So how does it affect them? Sharon Shalev goes inside

<http://newhumanist.org.uk/2478/sharon-shalev>Sharon Shalev
<http://newhumanist.org.uk/articles>Articles > 
<http://newhumanist.org.uk/2457>Volume 126 Issue 1 January/February 2011 >

I vividly remember my first visit to a supermax 
prison. In a remote rural part of the United 
States and in stark contrast to the beautiful 
landscapes surrounding it, the prison site itself 
was completely barren, double-fenced with barbed 
wire, covered by gravel and overlooked by guard 
towers. It was instantly clear that this is not an ordinary prison.

To enter you must pass through several gates and 
a highly sensitive metal detector. Once you 
finally get to the windowless, bunker-like prison 
building you need to walk through seemingly 
endless CCTV-monitored corridors and numerous 
electronically controlled gates – each gate needs 
to lock behind you before the next one opens – 
before you even make it to the cell-block. You 
are then made to wear a protective vest and eye 
goggles, warned not to get too close to the cell 
gates and reminded that the prisoners confined 
there are extremely dangerous individuals.

The appearance of the prison, security 
arrangements, stories of extreme violence and the 
accompanying props (goggles, protective vest, and 
combat uniforms worn by guards) immediately place 
a barrier, physical as well as psychological, 
between yourself and the prisoners confined behind the thick metal doors.

If visiting a supermax is unpleasant, it’s hard 
to imagine what it must be like to live in one. 
Prisoners in a typical supermax will spend their 
days confined alone in a windowless 
seven-square-foot cell which contains only a 
concrete slab and a thin mattress for a bed, a 
small table and stool made of tamperproof 
materials, and a metal combo unit of a wash basin 
and an unscreened toilet, located at the cell 
front within full sight of prison guards.

Prisoners are confined to their cells for 22 and 
a half to 24 hours a day. They will only leave it 
for an hour’s solitary exercise in a barren 
concrete yard or for a 15-minute shower on 
alternate days. Technology and design allow for 
these two activities to take place with a flick 
of a switch and without direct staff contact. 
Food, medication, post and any other provisions 
will be delivered to them through a hatch in 
their cell door, with little communication or time-wasting.

The regime of relentless solitary confinement and 
tight prisoner control in a typical supermax is 
made possible by prison architects. Without their 
professional knowledge and careful calculation 
and assessment of every design detail, it would 
not have been possible to hold hundreds of 
prisoners in complete isolation from each other 
within a single, relatively small, building for prolonged periods.

And it is this extreme functionality, calculated 
to design out human contact and enable maximum 
prisoner isolation and control, that makes 
supermax prisons so chilling. As one senior 
supermax officer put it, “Do we have an 
obligation to take care of them? Yes. But do I 
have an obligation to provide him touching, 
feeling contact with another human being? I would 
say no. He has earned his way to [supermax] and 
he’s earned just the opposite. He’s earned the 
need for me to keep him apart from other people.”

This control of every aspect of prisoners’ daily 
lives extends beyond the control of their bodies 
and movement across time and space. All 
foodstuffs and toiletries will be removed from 
their original packaging and placed in paper cups 
before being delivered to prisoners, to prevent 
them from accessing materials which may be 
fashioned into weapons. For similar reasons, 
prisoners will not be served with chicken on the bone or fruit with pips.

The personal belongings that prisoners may keep 
in their cell are extremely limited in number and 
type. In one supermax, for example, prisoners may 
purchase a small black and white speaker-less TV 
set and keep the following items: one ballpoint 
pen filler; five books and magazines; one address 
book; five greeting cards; 15 photographs; 15 
sheets of writing paper. The following items are 
prohibited: hats; headbands; sweatshirts; 
undershirts; slippers; cotton swabs; hair 
conditioner, grease, or gel; lip balm; 
handkerchieves; calendars; clocks; hobby and 
craft materials; musical instruments; and, 
bizarrely, correspondence-course materials. The 
absurdity of some of the prohibitions imposed on 
supermax prisoners was perhaps best illustrated 
when officials at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ 
supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, turned 
down a request by a prisoner to receive a copy of 
two books written by the then presidential 
candidate, Barack Obama, on the grounds that this 
would be “potentially detrimental to national security”.

Once inside their small, sparsely furnished and 
meagrely provisioned cell, prisoners must still 
follow strict rules and regulations. In one 
supermax prisoners are issued with the following 
directives: yelling or loud noises or disruptive 
behaviour is prohibited. You may not tape or 
attach anything to any surface of your cell; your 
mattress must stay on your bed at all times. You 
must lie on the bed with your head towards the toilet.

Failure to comply or any act of disobedience, 
large or small, will constitute a disciplinary 
offence and may result in an extension of the 
prisoner’s time in a supermax. Cells are searched 
on a regular basis and occasionally “extracted”, 
meaning that a team of up to six guards dressed 
in full riot gear, sometimes assisted by dogs, 
enter the cell and thoroughly search it. A 
prisoner who does not cooperate will be gassed 
with chemical agents and forcibly restrained.

On the rare occasions that prisoners leave their 
housing unit – for a medical appointment or an 
infrequent no-contact family visit – they will be 
shackled and escorted by a minimum of two guards. 
They will also be body-searched twice – once 
before leaving the cell and once before being 
returned to it. Other than cases of complicated 
medical emergencies which cannot be treated in 
the prison’s medical clinic and court appearances 
which cannot be conducted via video-conferencing, 
supermax prisoners will not leave the inside of 
the prison building for the duration of their 
supermax term. For those confined there for an 
indeterminate time, that can mean the duration of 
their prison sentence or natural life.

Supermax prisons operate at the deep and far end 
of a vast (over 1.6 million prisoners) and 
punitive American criminal justice system. These 
prisons emerged as an addition to the 
“traditional” segregation units that still 
operate in most prisons. Their spread across the 
US from the early 1990s (the Federal government 
and some 44 states across the US now operate at 
least one supermax prison) has found 
justification in apparently rational arguments 
for their value as a prison management tool in 
isolating risk and controlling violence in the prison system as a whole.

Prison officials claim that these large isolation 
prisons are necessary to safely manage predatory 
prisoners, the “worst of the worst” in the prison 
system. Supermax confinement is proposed as the 
best, indeed the only, solution to safely 
managing these loosely defined “predators”, a 
tool of last resort for those with whom “nothing else works”.

However, the simple fact that at least 30,000 
prisoners are held in these conditions suggests 
it is at best unlikely that they are all the 
violent “super predators” that the official 
discourse describes. With the exception of the 
Federal supermax, which does house some of the 
most notorious criminals in the United States, 
placement in a supermax has nothing to do with 
the crime initially committed by the prisoner. 
Rather, these state-run supermaxes are an 
internal prison management tool, and placement in 
them is based on the prisoner’s actual, or 
predicted, behaviour in prison. Some supermax 
prisoners are indeed extremely violent 
individuals who have committed a serious crime 
such as murder or rape in prison, but many of 
those confined to a supermax are non-violent 
offenders who broke prison rules and regulations 
– in one state offences such as disobedience and 
“possessing more than $5 in unauthorised funds” 
can result in a supermax term of 2 years. Others 
end up in a supermax because of their mental 
illness, or because they are jailhouse lawyers, 
prison gang members or other “nuisance” prisoners.

But even if all supermax prisoners did fit the 
category of the “worst of the worst”, the strict 
and prolonged solitary confinement and some of 
the additional deprivations and petty 
prohibitions in a typical supermax can only serve 
to dehumanise and debase prisoners, and cannot be 
said to be founded in necessary or legitimate 
security considerations. Supermax prisons are a 
highly excessive administrative response to 
exaggerated perceptions of dangerousness. They 
are about power, retribution and reinforcing 
perceptions of the dangerous other.

The system-wide benefits of supermax prisons also 
remain questionable. There is little evidence 
that the introduction of these prisons resulted 
in a reduction of overall prison violence. On the 
other hand, there is a large body of evidence 
consistently and convincingly demonstrating the 
harmful effects of solitary confinement on health 
and wellbeing. These effects are particularly 
devastating for the mentally ill, who are 
overrepresented in supermax prisons: in Colorado 
alone, as many as 40 per cent of prisoners housed 
in segregated housing were suffering mental 
illness. One of the most commonly reported 
reactions to regimes of solitary confinement is 
increased irritability and rage, often manifested 
in unprovoked violent outbursts. In the absence 
of others, this violence is often directed 
inwardly: in California, a reported 69 per cent 
of prison suicides in 2005 took place in 
segregated housing. When the prisoner is released 
back to the general prison population or to 
society at large, violence may also be directed against others.

Rather than controlling violence, as they 
officially purport to do, supermax prisons may 
thus breed mental illness and violence, creating 
a self-fulfilling prophecy, the costs of which 
may be borne not only by the prisoners themselves 
but also by the communities to which they will eventually return.

The trend for supermax prisons shows little signs 
of abating in the US itself, and meanwhile 
similar prisons have been built in Australia, 
Brazil, Holland, Peru and South Africa, albeit, 
at the moment, on a much smaller scale. Any 
prison administration considering the 
introduction of a supermax-type prison should 
assess its financial, medical, legal, moral and 
societal costs, as well its apparent failure in 
controlling prison violence, and reject its use 
as a legitimate prison practice.

Sharon Shalev’s book 
Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement 
(Willan, 2009) won the British Society of Criminology’s Book Prize for 2010

Freedom Archives
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