[Ppnews] Americans Face Guantanamo-Like Torture Everyday in a Super-Max Prison Near You

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 19 17:52:56 EST 2011

Americans Face Guantanamo-Like Torture Everyday in a Super-Max Prison Near You

By Lance Tapley, Boston Review
Posted on January 18, 2011, Printed on January 19, 2011

Editor's Note: Courageous WikiLeaks whistleblower 
Manning is reportedly suffering some of the same 
horrible experiences detailed in the article 
below, including 23 hours a day of solitary 
confinement, which has been labeled torture by 
numerous prison and psychological experts.

“They beat the shit out of you,” Mike James said, 
hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating 
us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” 
he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit 
guards at the Maine State Prison.

“They push you, knee you, poke you,” he said, his 
voice faint but ardent through the speaker. “They 
slam your head against the wall and drop you on 
the floor while you’re cuffed.” He lifted his 
manacled hands to a scar on his chin. “They split 
it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! 
Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”

When you meet Mike James you notice first his 
deep-set eyes and the many scars on his shaved 
head, including a deep, horizontal gash. He got 
that by scraping his head on the cell door slot, 
which guards use to pass in food trays.

“They were messing with me,” he explained, 
referring to the guards who taunted him. “I 
couldn’t stand it no more.” He added, “I’ve 
knocked myself out by running full force into the wall.”

James, who is in his twenties, has been beaten 
all his life, first by family members: “I was 
punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against 
the wall.” He began seeing mental-health workers 
at four and taking psychiatric medication at 
seven. He said he was bipolar and had many other 
disorders. When a doctor took him off his meds at 
age eighteen, he got into “selling drugs, robbing 
people, fighting, burglaries.” He received a 
twelve-year sentence for robbery. Of the four 
years James had been in prison when I met him, he 
had spent all but five months in solitary 
confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, 
even for people who are able to control 
themselves,” he said. It included periods alone 
in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, 
butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James 
told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.

James’s story illustrates an irony in the 
negative reaction of many Americans to the 
mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at 
Guantánamo. To little public outcry, tens of 
thousands of American citizens are being held in 
equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s 
super-harsh, super-maximum security, 
solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable 
units of traditional prisons. The Obama 
administration­ somewhat unsteadily­plans to shut 
down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its 
inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United 
States, as though this would mark a substantive 
change. In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, 
months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying 
isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to 
challenge the conditions of their captivity. 
Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell 
extractions, and they receive meager health 
services. The isolation frequently leads to 
insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.

In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held 
about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a 
Florida State University criminologist who has 
done the most careful count. Mears told me his 
number was conservative. In addition the federal 
system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX 
Florence, and a total of about 11,000 inmates in 
solitary in all its lockups, according to the 
Bureau of Prisons. Some researchers peg the state 
and federal supermax total as high as a hundred 
thousand; their studies sometimes include more 
broadly defined “control units”­for example, 
those in which men spend all day in a cell with 
another prisoner. (Nationally, 91 percent of 
prison and jail inmates are men, so 
overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes. Women 
also are kept in supermax conditions, but 
apparently no one has estimated how many.) Then 
there are the county and city jails, the most 
sizable of which have large solitary-confinement 
sections. Although the roughness in what 
prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to 
prison and jail to jail, isolation is the 
overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast 
network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.

James experienced frequent cell extractions­on 
one occasion, five of them in a single day. In 
this procedure, five hollering guards wearing 
helmets and body armor charge into the cell. The 
point man smashes a big shield into the prisoner. 
The others spray mace into his face, push him 
onto the bed, and twist his arms behind his back 
to handcuff him, connecting the cuffs by a chain 
to leg irons. As they continue to mace him, the 
guards carry him screaming to an observation 
room, where they bind him to a special chair. He remains there for hours.

A scene such as this might have taken place at 
supposedly aberrant Abu Ghraib, where American 
soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as 
described by prisoners and guards and vividly 
revealed in a leaked video (the Maine prison 
records these events to ensure that inmates are 
not mistreated), an extraction is the supermax’s 
normal, zero-tolerance reaction to prisoner 
disobedience, which may be as minor as protesting 
bad food by covering the cell door’s tiny window 
with a piece of paper. Such extractions occur all 
the time, not just in Maine but throughout the 
country. The principle applied is total control 
of a prisoner’s actions. Even if the inmate has 
no history of violence, when he leaves the cell 
he’s in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with a guard on either side.

But he doesn’t often leave the cell. In Maine’s 
supermax, which is typical, an inmate spends 23 
hours a day alone in a 6.5-by-14-foot space. When 
the weather is good, he’ll spend an hour a day, 
five days a week, usually alone, in a small dog 
run outdoors. Radios and TVs are forbidden. Cell 
lights are on night and day. When the cold food 
is shoved through the door slot, prisoners fear 
it is contaminated by the feces, urine, and blood 
splattered on the cell door and corridor surfaces 
by the many mentally ill or enraged inmates. The 
prisoner is not allowed a toothbrush but is 
provided a plastic nub to use on a fingertip. 
Mental-health care usually amounts to a 
five-minute, through-the-steel-door conversation 
with a social worker once or twice a week. The 
prisoner gets a shower a few times a week, a 
brief telephone call every week or two, and 
occasional “no-contact” access to a visitor. 
Variations in these conditions exist: for 
example, in some states TVs or radios are allowed.

When supermaxes were built across the country in 
the 1980s and 1990s, they were theoretically for 
“the worst of the worst,” the most violent 
prisoners. But an inmate may be put in one for 
possession of contraband such as marijuana, if 
accused by another inmate of being a gang member, 
for hesitating to follow a guard’s order, and 
even for protection from other inmates. Several 
prisoners are in the Maine supermax because they 
got themselves tattooed. By many accounts mental 
illness is the most common denominator; mentally 
ill inmates have a hard time following prison 
rules. A Wisconsin study found that 
three-quarters of the prisoners in one 
solitary-confinement unit were mentally ill. In 
Maine, over half of supermax inmates are 
classified as having a serious mental illness.

Prison officials have extraordinary discretion in 
extending the stay of supermax inmates. Their 
decisions hit the mentally ill the hardest. 
Administrators can add time as a disciplinary 
measure, and often they will charge prisoners 
with criminal offenses that can add years to their sentences.

In 2007 James was tried on ten assault charges 
for biting and kicking guards and throwing feces 
at them. Most were felony charges, and if 
convicted he could have served decades more in 
prison. Inmates almost never beat such charges, 
but James’s court-appointed lawyer, Joseph 
Steinberger, a scrappy ex-New Yorker, succeeded 
with a defense rare in cases of Maine prisoners 
accused of crimes: he convinced a jury in 
Rockland, the nearby county seat, to find James 
“not criminally responsible” by reason of 
insanity. Steinberger thought the verdict was a 
landmark because it called into question the 
state’s standard practice of keeping mentally ill 
individuals in isolation and then punishing them 
with yet more isolation when their conditions 
worsen. After the verdict, as the law required, 
the judge committed James to a state mental hospital.

But prison officials and the state attorney 
general’s office saw the verdict as another kind 
of landmark: never before in Maine had a convict 
been committed to the mental hospital after being 
tried for assault on guards. In the view of the 
corrections establishment, James would be 
escaping his deserved punishment, and this would 
send the wrong signal to prisoners. Officials 
refused to send him to the hospital, arguing he 
first had to serve the remaining nine years of his sentence.

Steinberger wrote to Maine’s governor­John 
Baldacci, a Democrat­begging him to intervene and send James to the hospital:

He continually slits open his arms and legs with 
chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and 
his cell with feces, strangles himself to 
unconsciousness with his clothing. . . . He also 
bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards.

This behavior was never in dispute, but the governor declined to intervene.

After a year of court battles, Steinberger 
finally succeeded in getting James into the 
hospital, though the judge conceded to the 
Department of Corrections that his time there 
would not count against his sentence. So James 
faces nine years in prison after however long it 
takes to bring him to a sane mental state.

Can supermax treatment legitimately be called 
torture? The most widely accepted legal 
definition of torture is in the 
Nations Convention Against Torture and Other 
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or 
Punishment­a treaty to which the United States is 
party, and is therefore U.S. law. In this 
definition, torture is treatment that causes 
“severe pain or suffering, whether physical or 
mental,” when it is inflicted by officials for 
purposes of punishment or coercion.

Severe pain and suffering as punishment are 
plainly the norm in supermaxes, and prison 
officials use isolation to coerce inmates into 
ratting on each other or confessing to crimes 
committed in prison. (A Maine prisoner told me 
about a deputy warden who threw him in the most 
brutal cellblock of the supermax and repeatedly 
interrogated him about an escape plot, which he 
denied any knowledge of.) Even in the careful 
words of diplomacy, and even when only mental 
suffering is considered, supermax conditions, 
especially solitary confinement of American 
prisoners for extended periods, have increasingly 
been described by UN agencies and 
non-governmental human rights organizations as 
cruel, inhuman, degrading, verging on torture, or 
outright torture. In 2008 the UN special 
rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, 
that solitary confinement “be kept to a minimum, 
used in very exceptional cases, for as short a 
time as possible, and only as a last 
resort”­limits that U.S. supermaxes violate in 
the course of normal operation. The National 
Religious Campaign Against Torture, which has 
been active in opposing abuses at Guantánamo, 
recently began describing supermax conditions as 
torture. And American judges have recognized 
solitary confinement of the mentally ill as 
equivalent to torture. A key case is 
1995 federal court ruling in 
v. Gomez that forbade keeping mentally ill 
prisoners in the notorious Security Housing Unit 
of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

Solitary confinement is by far the worst torture 
in the supermax. Human minds fare poorly in 
isolation, which “often results in severe 
exacerbation of a previously existing mental 
condition or in the appearance of a mental 
illness where none had been observed before,” 
Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and 
authority on solitary confinement, writes in 
brief for the Madrid 
Grassian believes supermaxes produce a syndrome 
characterized by “agitation, self-destructive 
behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.” 
He also notes memory lapses, “primitive 
aggressive fantasies,” paranoia, and hallucinations.

Grassian’s is the consensus view among scholars 
concerned with solitary confinement. Peter 
Scharff Smith of the Danish Institute for Human 
Rights, who has surveyed in depth the literature 
concerning solitary confinement, writes, 
“Research on effects of solitary confinement has 
produced a massive body of data documenting 
serious adverse health effects.” Those effects 
may start within a few days, involve as many as 
three-quarters of supermax inmates, and often 
become permanent. Another expert on supermax 
confinement, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, writes, 
“being held in isolated confinement for longer 
than three months causes lasting emotional damage 
if not full-blown psychosis and functional disability.”

The throwing of feces, urine, and blood at 
guards; self-injury; and suicide attempts are 
common. A<http://www.bnd.com/600/index.html>2009 
investigation of Illinois’s Tamms supermax by the 
News-Democrat depicted Faygie Fields, a 
schizophrenic imprisoned for killing a man in a 
drug deal. Fields regularly cut his arms and 
throat with glass and metal, swallowed glass, and 
smeared feces all over his cell. The prison 
reaction to this kind of behavior was predictable:
Prison officials charged him $5.30 for tearing up 
a state-owned sheet to make a noose to kill 
himself. . . . If he hadn’t been charged with 
crimes in prison, Fields could have been paroled 
in 2004 after serving 20 years of a 40-year 
sentence. But Fields must serve all the extra 
time for throwing food, urine and committing 
other offenses against guards. That amounts to 34 
years, or 54 years total, that he must serve 
before becoming eligible for parole in 2038, at age 79.

This American system of administrative 
punishment­except in extremely rare cases, prison 
staff, not judges, decide who goes into the 
hole­has no counterpart in scale or severity. 
There are solitary-confinement cells in other 
countries’ prisons and the odd, small supermax, 
such as the Vught prison in the Netherlands, but 
they are few. When Corey Weinstein, a San 
Francisco physician, toured prisons in the United 
Kingdom in 2004 on behalf of the American Public 
Health Association, he was shown “eight of the 
forty men out of 75,000 [in England and Wales] 
considered too dangerous or disruptive to be in 
any other facility.” Seven of the eight
were out of their cells at exercise or at a 
computer or with a counselor or teacher. . . . 
With embarrassment the host took us to the one 
cell holding the single individual who had to be continuously locked down.

The British and other Europeans did use solitary 
confinement starting in the mid-nineteenth 
century, taking as models the American 
penitentiaries that had invented mass isolation 
in the 1820s. But Europe largely gave it up later 
in the century because, rather than becoming 
penitent, prisoners went insane. A shocked 
Charles Dickens, after visiting a Pennsylvania 
prison in 1842, called solitary confinement 
“immeasurably worse than any torture of the 
body.” Americans gave it up, too, in the late 
1800s, only to resurrect it a century later.

Officially called the Special Management Unit or 
SMU, Maine’s supermax opened in 1992, hidden in 
the woods of the pretty coastal village of 
Warren. Ten years later the new, maximum-security 
Maine State Prison was built around it. Literally 
and metaphorically, the supermax’s 132 cells are 
the core of the stark, low, 925-inmate complex 
with its radiating “pods.” Maine’s crime and 
incarceration rates are among the lowest in the 
country, but its supermax is as brutal as any. 
After allegations of beatings by guards and of 
deliberately withheld medical care, the state 
police are currently investigating two inmate 
deaths in the SMU. Grassian has told a 
legislative committee that Maine’s supermax 
treats its inmates worse than its peers in many states.

Still, supermaxes are more alike than different. 
As America’s prisoner population exploded­the 
U.S. incarceration rate now is nearly four times 
what it was in 1980, more than five times the 
world average, and the highest in the 
world­overcrowding tossed urban state prisons 
into turmoil. The federal system provided a model 
for dealing with the tumult: in 1983 mayhem in 
the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, 
resulted in a permanent lockdown and, 
effectively, the first supermax. “No evidence 
exists that states undertook any rigorous 
assessment of need,” Mears, the Florida State 
criminologist, writes of supermax proliferation, 
but the states still decided they would segregate 
whomever they deemed the most troublesome 
inmates. Maine’s supermax is a case in point, 
constructed in the absence of prisoner unrest. 
George Keiser, a veteran prisons official who 
works for the Department of Justice’s National 
Institute of Corrections, puts it bluntly: supermaxes became “a fad.”

An expensive fad. American supermax buildings are 
so high-tech and the management of their 
prisoners is so labor-intensive that the 
facilities “typically are two to three times more 
costly to build and operate than other types of 
prisons,” Mears writes. Yet, according to Keiser, 
tax money poured into supermax construction 
because these harsh prisons were “the animal of 
public-policy makers.” The beast was fed by 
politicians capitalizing on public fears of crime 
incited by increasing news-media sensationalism.

There was no significant opposition to the 
supermaxes, even when it became clear that the 
mentally ill would be housed there. Legislatively 
mandated deinstitutionalization meant patients 
were thrown onto the streets without enough 
community care, and eventually many wound up in 
jails and prisons. Also, “for a time,” Keiser 
said, “there was a thought that nothing worked” 
to rehabilitate prisoners. With conservative 
scholars such as James Q. Wilson leading the way 
in the 1970s, “corrections” was essentially abandoned.

The supermax experiment has not been a success.

Norman Kehling­small, balding, middle-aged­is 
serving 40 years in the Maine State Prison for an 
arson in which, he told me, no one was hurt. When 
I interviewed him, he was in the supermax for 
trafficking heroin within the prison. I asked him 
about the mentally ill men there. “One guy cut 
his testicle out of his sack,” he reported, 
shaking his head. “They shouldn’t be here.” He 
added, “This place breeds hate. What they’re doing obviously isn’t working.”

Wardens continue to justify supermaxes by 
claiming they decrease prison violence, but a 
in The Prison Journal 
2008 finds “no empirical evidence to support the 
notion that supermax prisons are effective” in 
meeting this goal. And when enraged and mentally 
damaged inmates rejoin the general prison 
population or the outside world, as the vast 
majority do, the result, according to 
psychiatrist Kupers, is “a new population of 
prisoners who, on account of lengthy stints in 
isolation units, are not well prepared to return 
to a social milieu.” In the worst cases, supermax 
alumni­frequently released from solitary 
confinement directly onto the street­“may be time 
bombs waiting to explode,” criminologist Hans Toch writes.

The bombs are already going off. In July of 2007 
Michael Woodbury, then 31, walked into a New 
Hampshire store and, in a botched robbery, shot 
and killed three men. He had just completed a 
five-year stint at the Maine State Prison for 
robbery and theft and had done much of his time 
in the supermax. When he was being taken to court 
he told reporters, “I reached out and told them I 
need medication. I reached out and told them I 
shouldn’t be out in society. I told numerous 
cops, numerous guards.” While in prison, he said, 
he had given a four-page “manifesto” to a prison 
mental-health worker saying he “was going to 
crack like this.” Woodbury pleaded guilty and 
received a life sentence. Unsurprisingly, a 
Washington state study shows a high degree of 
recidivism among inmates released directly to the community from the supermax.

Summing up the major pragamatic arguments, Sharon 
Shalev of the London School of Economics and 
author of a recent prizewinning book, 
Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, 
says, “Supermax prisons are expensive, ineffective, and they drive people mad.”

So what can be done?

Legally, solitary confinement is not likely to be 
considered torture anytime soon. According to 
legal scholar Jules Lobel, when the Senate 
ratified the Convention Against Torture, it 
qualified its approval so much that under the 
U.S. interpretation “the placement of even 
mentally ill prisoners in prolonged solitary 
confinement would not constitute torture even if 
the mental pain caused thereby drove the prisoner 
to commit suicide.” And despite the 
Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual 
punishment,” courts have refused to see supermax 
confinement per se as unconstitutional. Lawsuits 
on behalf of the mentally ill have had more 
success. In New York a suit brought about the 
creation of a residential mental-health unit for 
prisoners, with another on the way, plus more 
time out of the cell for the mentally ill. Still, 
fifteen years after Madrid v. Gomez, 
court-ordered reform has been infrequent and its implementation contested.

Supermax torture wasn’t instituted because of a 
utilitarian calculation about dollars and cents.

There are other roadblocks to legal action. 
Thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law 
signed by President Bill Clinton that restricts 
an inmate’s right to sue corrections officials, 
an individual prisoner has little ability to 
mount a court challenge to his placement or 
prison conditions. For example, before going to 
court, a prisoner is required to exhaust the 
prison grievance system­a dilatory process 
seemingly designed to lose or chew up inmate 
complaints. And on the rare occasions when 
prisoners make it to court, they usually have to 
represent themselves. Unlike at Guantánamo, 
lawyers from prosperous Manhattan firms are not 
lining up to offer services pro bono to penniless supermax inmates.

Activists who see supermaxes as torture chambers 
are increasingly looking beyond legal action and 
toward pressure on legislatures and governors. 
These reformers want states to abolish supermaxes 
or at least to reduce their reliance on prolonged 
solitary confinement and provide mental-health 
care and rehabilitation for disturbed and 
difficult prisoners. A persistent grass-roots 
group in Illinois, Tamms Year Ten, has extracted 
promises from the state to improve conditions at 
Tamms. The Vera Institute of Justice, a New 
York–based think tank, has begun working with 
officials in Illinois and Maryland to reduce the 
number of prisoners in isolation. Vera is trying 
to apply lessons from Mississippi, where American 
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuits resulted in 
perhaps the most significant U.S. supermax 
reform, shrinking the population of its infamous 
Parchman penitentiary supermax from one thousand 
to 150. Mississippi expanded its mental-health, 
education, and recreation programs for supermax 
inmates and, as they improved their behavior, 
moved them to the general prison population.

Early this year a Maine prison-reform coalition, 
aided by the National Religious Campaign Against 
Torture and the ACLU, lobbied the state 
legislature to pass a bill to limit terms of 
solitary confinement to 45 days and prohibit 
people with “serious mental illness” from being 
assigned to the supermax. Although the 
majority-Democratic leadership supported the 
bill, it failed. In its place the legislature 
launched a study of solitary confinement, and 
activists are hopeful a similar measure will be 
enacted in the future. At the bill’s legislative 
hearing, reformers testified that if a 
conservative state such as Mississippi could make 
sweeping reforms work, then certainly moderate Maine could.

Some reformers believe the public can be turned 
against supermaxes on the basis of their high 
cost. Faced with ever-rising prison expenditures 
at a time of depressed tax revenues, 
officeholders are beginning to question draconian 
sentencing laws and to see probation and parole 
as attractive alternatives. In Missouri a 
sentencing commission has begun telling judges, 
before they sentence prisoners, about the 
extravagant price of incarceration as compared to 
measures such as probation. And social scientists 
are increasingly producing evidence showing that 
investment in prisoner rehabilitation lowers 
recidivism and would save taxpayers money in the 
long run. Currently, two-thirds of ex-convicts 
return to prison within three years.

Supermaxes, however, grew through several 
recessions. In the current economic slump, the 
Colorado state budget has been under great 
strain, but the state just opened a 300-bed 
supermax. Although prisoner outcomes make clear 
that the high-priced supermaxes are 
counterproductive, it appears unlikely that much 
will be done immediately about this archipelago 
of agony. Prison guards in some states have 
strong unions, which will fight supermax closures 
that would put their members out of work. Prison 
bureaucracies are large and self-protective. The 
supermaxes also are the products of relatively 
recent investment, so it would be difficult for 
legislators to back out on them now.

In any case supermax torture wasn’t instituted 
because of a utilitarian calculation about 
dollars and cents. “The object of torture is 
torture,” George Orwell wrote. As long ago as 
1975, years before the first supermax, Garry 
Wills wrote that Americans had become complicit 
in “the psychic incineration of our fellow 
citizens.” His evaluation today would be even more devastating.

Lance Tapley is an investigative reporter based 
in Maine. This article is adapted from 
United States and Torture: Interrogation, 
Incarceration, and Abuse, forthcoming from New 
York University Press, and based on five years of 
reporting for the Portland Phoenix.

© 2011 Boston Review All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/149233/


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