[Pnews] Could This Be the Worst Solitary Confinement Unit in the Nation?

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 1 15:08:42 EDT 2018


  Could This Be the Worst Solitary Confinement Unit in the Nation?

    By Jess Hallam <http://solitarywatch.com/author/jess-hallam/> -
    August 1, 2018


Dr. Craig Haney has investigated the psychological effects of prison 
conditions for more than 40 years, and has spent time in dozens of 
supermax prisons and solitary confinement units. But the conditions in 
the Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison’s solitary confinement 
facility, the Special Management Unit (SMU)—where incarcerated men 
swallow hacksaw blades and their own feces and urine in desperation, and 
the air is filled with “a cacophony of prisoner screams and cries for 
help”—may be the most atrocious he has ever encountered.

“It is one of the harshest and most draconian such facilities I have 
seen in operation, anywhere in the country,” Haney wrote in an expert 
after touring the SMU and conducting anonymous interviews with 
individuals confined there. Made public in full earlier this month, 
Haney’s report was originally submitted this May as evidence in an 
ongoing class-action lawsuit. The suit was originally filed pro se in 
February 2015 by Timothy Gumm, who was later joined by plaintiffs Robert 
Watkins and Johnny Mack Brown.

The plaintiffs claim that they and others in the 192-bed unit have been 
subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and denied due process by 
current and former officials at the Georgia Department of Corrections 
(DOC), Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, and the SMU. Within 
just one year of Gumm’s initial filing, a striking 11 cases with similar 
fact patterns and claims were submitted to the same U.S. District Court. 
The men in the SMU are now represented by the Southern Center for Human 
Rights with pro bono support from the Atlanta-based firm Kilpatrick 
Townsend & Stockton.

The United Nations’ Mandela Rules 
condemn the use of solitary beyond 15 consecutive days. Gumm has been 
held in the SMU—Georgia’s most restrictive solitary confinement 
facility—for over seven years, placing him among the nearly 20 percent 
of individuals who have been confined in the facility for six years or 
more. Haney reports that, based on prison records provided to him by the 
Georgia DOC, the most common duration of confinement at the SMU is three 
to four years. According to 2016 joint report 
by Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Program and the 
Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), Georgia had 
3,880 individuals in solitary confinement in October 2015—the fourth 
highest state total in the nation.

According the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, “Defendants frequently 
change [their] policies, but, regardless of the written procedures and 
standards, prisoners in the SMU are consistently denied meaningful 
review of their placement and guidance about what they must do to leave 
the SMU.” Similar practices have at times been found to violate the 
Constitutional right to due process of prisoners who face prolonged 
solitary confinement.

According to Haney, they are also particularly harmful to the 
psychological well-being of those confined in the SMU, as they create 
uncertainty about their fate and helplessness as to how they might 
change it. “[T]hey don’t do anything to help you or allow you to help 
yourself,” one individual in the SMU said during an anonymous interview 
with Haney.

Gumm’s allegations of cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 
Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, flow largely from the SMU’s 
soul-crushing deprivation and dangerous environment, described by Haney 
as “unusually severe and… isolating.” While the solitary confinement 
cells in some prisons lack windows letting in natural light, and others 
offer no view into the corridor, the cells in the SMU have the grim 
distinction of being closed off on both fronts: Photos accompanying the 
report show metal shields covering both exterior windows and the windows 
in the cells’ solid metal doors. “The SMU prisoners are in essence 
hermetically sealed inside their cells for the extended periods in which 
they are confined there,” Haney wrote.

These physical conditions prevent even the minimal verbal and visual 
contact that some people in solitary manage to make by shouting or 
gesturing down or across the tier. Even those who are allowed outside 
visits must conduct them in a cinderblock booth, equipped with a Lexan 
partition and unreliable electronic devices to speak through. All this 
means that men held in the SMU have gone years without any human touch, 
beyond handcuffing by the corrections officers who escort them on their 
rare trips out of their cells.

Exercise in small outdoor cages is granted only twice per week, for 2.5 
hours at a time, forcing individuals stay in their 7 x 13.5-foot cells 
for several consecutive days. This is highly restrictive even for 
segregation units, which almost universally provide some out-of-cell 
time at least five days a week.

While half of the individuals confined in the SMU are allowed to exit 
their cells for three 15-minute showers per week, the other 50 percent 
are instead forced to crouch under shoulder-height spigots affixed to 
their cell walls and controlled by prison staff. The drains in these 
cells are often unreliable, resulting in permanent damp and standing water.

Those at the lowest level of SMU’s “Tier III Program”—an incentive 
program designed to encourage conforming behavior—are denied access to 
exercise, recreation, personal property, phone calls, and visits. In all 
his years of research, Haney does not recall ever encountering 
deprivation at this level in any prison he has visited.

In such conditions, it can be difficult to discern which individuals had 
entered the unit with underlying mental health conditions, and which 
have been psychologically devastated by their time in extreme isolation. 
But the overall result, according to Haney, is that “a shockingly high 
number of mentally ill prisoners are housed in the SMU.” According to 
records provided to Haney, 39 percent of prisoners were designated as 
mentally ill during the time of his investigation—a figure that in 
Haney’s opinion understated  the true prevalence of severe mental 
illness in the SMU.

Each of the 11 individuals Haney interviewed reported ruminations, 
mental and physical deterioration, hypersensitivity to stimuli, and 
irrational anger or irritability, among other symptoms. Ten described to 
Haney chronic feelings of depression, while seven had considered 
suicide. “Some of the prisoners were among the most psychologically 
traumatized persons I have ever assessed in this context,” he wrote.

On the SMU’s E Wing—one of the two most restrictive wings in the 
facility, where exercise, programming, phone calls, and visitation are 
denied—the situation is even more dire. Haney described the wing as 
“bedlam-like, as chaotic and out of control as any such unit I have seen 
in decades of conducting such evaluations,” adding, “When I entered this 
housing unit I was met with a cacophony of prisoner screams and cries 
for help.”

At the time of Haney’s visit, 89 percent of individuals confined in the 
E Wing had mental health diagnoses, with 54 percent suffering four or 
more diagnosed conditions. More staggering still is the prevalence of 
self-injury: While the E Wing makes up less than 2 percent of the entire 
population of the Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, it 
accounted for 34 percent of the self harm incidents that occurred in the 
90-day period preceding Haney’s visit. Despite this, Haney reports that 
the control both logbook showed that the mental health counselor entered 
the E Wing only five times in the month of September, totaling only 24 
reported minutes on the unit.

Upon arrival to the E Wing, Haney was met with the smell of smoke—the 
remnants of a fire set during a suicide attempt made just one day 
earlier. It was the second time in less than two months that this man 
had cut himself in his cell.

Individuals confined in the E Wing reported to Haney that staff there 
take a lackadaisical approach to self-harm. This is corroborated by 
booth officers’ notes, described by Haney to record several instances 
when a sergeant or officer in charge was alerted by staff to threats 
and/or claims of self-harm, but failed to attend to the situation.

“I’ve been on suicide watch many times. I can’t take it. They just strip 
us naked. [You] get no help here. I’ve been in SMU for 18 months… I’ve 
swallowed batteries three or four times, cut myself many times,” one 
individual reported to Haney. “The last time they just left me in my 
cell. I haven’t seen my mental health counselor for months. Even after I 
tried to kill myself.”

Haney identified two suicides in the unit in 2017, including one in 
which the body of a man who had hanged himself was “stiff and 
cold…suggesting that officers had not checked on him in some time.” And 
on the day that he visited, a man who had attempted suicide had been 
returned from the infirmary, with a deep gash in his arm, to a cell 
still spattered with his blood. Haney witnessed the man hanging pieces 
of toilet paper—which he bloodied in his open wound—on the door flap.

Other individuals held in the SMU worry that even if they survive their 
time there, they will be permanently scarred by the experience. “I am 
being driven more crazy, so I won’t make it when I get out,” one 
interviewee told Haney.

On July 5, the plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a motion for a preliminary 
injunction from the court that would force the prison to immediately 
provide more out-of-cell time and meaningful activities, and transfers 
out of the SMU for people with mental illness. But last week, before the 
court could rule on the motion, the defendants filed a response claiming 
that the prison had already taken steps to improve the conditions Haley 
described in his report.

As evidence of change, the DOC pointed to new mental health units 
established for treatment in the SMU; customized computer tablets called 
“Georgia Offender Alternative Learning units” provided to the entire SMU 
population; and contracts for the installation of 80 “restraint tables” 
to which men would be shackled for limited group activities. The 
department also claims that it plans, at some point in the future, to 
perform mental health evaluations and provide outdoor recreation for all 
individuals in the SMU for one hour a day on weekdays. Both sides are 
awaiting the court’s rulings.

The Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
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