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July 27, 2006

More on Supermax, human dignity, and public safety

I have had time this afternoon to take in some of NPR's great work on solitary confinement (blogged here, series here).  For those concerned about human dignity and modern punishments, consider this lengthy snippet:

Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool.  Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet.  You can't move more than eight feet in one direction....  The cell is one of eight in a long hallway.  From inside, you can't see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard....

One inmate known as Wino is standing on just behind the door of his cell. It's difficult to make eye contact, because you can only see one eye at a time.... Wino fears he'll get in trouble for talking; he asks that NPR not use his real name.  Wino is a 40-something man from San Fernando, Calif.  He was sent to prison for robbery.  He was sent to the SHU for being involved in prison gangs.  He's been in this cell for six years. "The only contact that you have with individuals is what they call a pinky shake," he says, sticking his pinky through one of the little holes in the door.  That's the only personal contact Wino has had in six years....

Inside the SHU, there's a skylight two stories up.  But on an overcast day, it's dark, and so are the cells. There are no windows here.  Inmates will not see the moon, stars, trees or grass.  They will rarely, if ever, see the giant, gray building they live in.  Their world -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year -- is this hallway.... There are 132 hallways at Pelican Bay just like this one.  They are all full....

Each month, officers squeeze soap, shampoo and toothpaste into paper cups for the inmates.  They are issued a jumpsuit, but in two days at the facility, there doesn't seem to be a single prisoner wearing one.  All of them are wearing their underwear, white boxer shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops....

When inmates do go crazy, there is another part of the prison for them -- the psychiatric SHU... In the psychiatric SHU at Pelican Bay, one inmate stands in the middle of his cell, hollering at no one in particular.  Another bangs his head against the cell door.  Many of the inmates are naked, some exposing themselves.  The psychiatric SHU is full -- all 128 beds.  One in 10 inmates in segregation is housed here.  There's even a waiting list....

Almost 95 percent of the inmates in Pelican Bay's SHU are scheduled to be released back into the public at some point.  They'll spend a few weeks in a local prison before rejoining society, with little, if any, preparation for how to live around people on the outside.  And for every inmate that leaves, there is another one waiting to take his place.

My review of the NPR series confirms my assertions here that persons concerned about human dignity ought to focus more on the tens of thousands of humans in Supermax facilities than on the many fewer humans on (much nicer) death rows.  And the final paragraph quoted above suggests that persons concerned about public safety also ought to be giving a lot more attention to the all-too-secretive Supermax world.

July 27, 2006 at 06:09 PM | Permalink


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In NYS SHUs were built in Medium classification facilities to save state expenses. These SHUs house prisoners for up to five years. There are two prisoners per cell. They never leave their cells except for medical or visits. But is it humane to incarrcerate two strangers together in a cell for up to five years and they are never apart? Could any of us live with another person, even our spouses, for five years without ever getting away from them, without any privacy? This is another form of psychological deprivation, or is it a violation of a person's right to privacy? All I know is, as a chaplain, it is very mean spirited.

Posted by: moshe | Jul 28, 2006 10:12:07 AM

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