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January 28, 2007

The case against supermax

A_supermax_0205 This week's Time magazine has this strong article entitled "Are Prisons Driving Prisoners Mad?". The article discuss the mental torture and negative consequences of how prisoner's are treated in Supermax prisons.  Here are some snippets:

The U.S. holds about 2 million people under lock and key, and 20,000 of them are confined in the 31 supermaxes operated by the states and the Federal Government....

The origin of solitary confinement in the U.S. is actually benign. It was the Philadelphia Quakers of the 19th century who dreamed up the idea, establishing a program at the city's Walnut Street prison under which inmates were housed in isolation in the hope of providing them with an opportunity for quiet contemplation during which they would develop insight into their crimes.  That's not what has happened....

By the 1830s, evidence began to accumulate that the extended solitude was leading to emotional disintegration, certainly in higher numbers than in communal prisons.  In 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, deploring solitary confinement for the "semi-fatuous condition" in which it left prisoners.  The case was narrow enough that its effect was merely to overturn a single law in a single state, but the court's distaste for the idea of solitary was clear.  "The justices saw it as a form of what some people now call no-touch torture," says Alfred W. McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of the book A Question of Torture. "It sends prisoners in one of two directions: catatonia or rage."

Modern science has confirmed this, with electroencephalograms showing that after a few days in solitary, prisoners' brain waves shift toward a pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium. When sensory deprivation is added ... the breakdown is even worse.  As long ago as 1952, studies at Montreal's McGill University showed that when researchers eliminate sight, sound and, with the use of padded gloves, tactile stimulation, subjects can descend into a hallucinatory state in as little as 48 hours.

Though this article notes some lawsuits over Supermax conditions, I remain amazed that there is far more litigation about a few minutes of possible physical torture that might accompany lethal injection for a few convicted murderer than there is about the indefinite mental torture being suffered by thousands of prisoners in Supermax facilities.

Some related posts:

UPDATE:  Steven K. Erickson at Crime and Consequences has this strong post discussing prison conditions and mental conditions.  It ends with this notable observation: "What most inmates desperately need are good social peers.  I think prison ministries are an excellent idea and have witnessed their positive outcomes. I'm perplexed at the tremendous opposition to them."  I could not agree more.

January 28, 2007 at 04:37 PM | Permalink


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» Supermaxing the Brain from Crime and Consequences
Professor Berman over at Sentencing Law and Policy has this post on this week’s Time magazine’s feature article on supermax prisons. Professor Berman quotes the Time piece: Modern science has confirmed this, with electroencephalograms showing that afte... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 28, 2007 10:27:58 PM


Given that, for the most part, people who get to Supermax deserve their fate, I don't have a ton of sympathy--surprise surprise. But with all the psychiatric research, have they found ways to make solitary easier.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 28, 2007 6:18:03 PM

What they have done is to make it more dangerous for the staff. It has been known for centuries that solitary can result in insanity for some but not all individuals. It may be it makes a preexisting mild problem severe. I don't think that making people insane is a legitimate sanction it is just another example of criminal indifference.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 28, 2007 8:36:23 PM

If the services provided by Prison Ministries had been paid for with non-governmental funds it is unlikely that they would have been taken to court. Once it became clear that the Iowa legislature was not prepared to end funding the court case became unavoidable. In preparing the case other irregularities in the Prison Ministries program were exposed.

I don't think there is any significant opposition to ministry in prisons. The Quakers and other churches have had prisoner support programs for many years.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 29, 2007 8:45:35 AM

Federalist, You don’t seem to get it. “Deserved their fate” is circular. Setting aside the smaller issue of how much money to spend, and staff safety, the issue here is whether people in such prisons, DO in fact, deserve their fate.

As a constitutional matter, the 8th Amendment posits that no matter what the crime, there are some fates that nobody deserves. The set of fates that nobody deserves is, of course, open to debate. But your analysis is strangely conclusory, since you conclude that these people do, in fact, deserve their fate. Reference to judicial processes does not help your argument since juries do not determine what kind of prison a person will be sentenced to. Judges can only make recommendations, so that doesn’t help your argument, either.

Secondly, as a more general matter, it may well be that public policy militates against extreme isolation. But, you would need to address those issues more fully.

Posted by: S.cotus | Jan 29, 2007 12:22:37 PM

Doug, the reason there isn't more litigation over solitary confinement, etc., is money. The cases are capped by the PLRA (Thanks, Clinton) to a ridiculously low amount and no corporate firm's pro bono dept will take the cases, even if the pro se prisoner can get to court through the maze of administrative exhaustion and make a claim that would merit appointment of counsel without legal materials etc.* Public interest outfits simply can't handle the load. On the other hand, lethal injection claims are often brought by public defenders' offices who are precluded from making claims that don't relate to the sentence or its execution, upon penalty of losing their funding.

You don't seriously think that people litigating LI claims don't care about prison conditions, do you?

* It's worth noting that ADA claims aren't subject to the PLRA fee cap.

Posted by: | Jan 29, 2007 5:52:22 PM

The firm of Stohl Reeves denied Christmas bonuses to associates who worked too many pro bono hours (for prisoners). Word is the associates have learned their lessons and won't be doing that again. Too bad - they had done some good work.

Posted by: rothmatisseko | Jan 30, 2007 9:39:34 PM

I am the Mother of a Supermax Son at Red Onion. My exhusband and i got seperated and he got coustody of our three sons, until i could get a job and a place of my own. I had reasonable visitation rights is what the judge ordered. One summer in 19 years was all I got with them, and no help at all to help me fight him. Now on October 3,07 I heard from my oldest son and he informed me that my middle son was in prison serving a 63 year sentence. Now I had to search and knock on doors and emails to get what little information that i have. I wish I could explain to you what I am going thru but I do not know how too. He is my son, no matter what. He was 20 years old in a Supermax prison, in my heart I just served 19 year sentence from their dad all because he did not want me to them, and now another 63 years is added on!!I know very little about the crime[s], yet my gut instinct says there is more to this than what was told. I can not shake this, I've tried,but I do not think that he got the best for a defense, haven't you ever just had a gut feeling that went past what you could explain, and you just could not shake it, it just stays with you strongly? It is my hope that you have, then you will begin to understand. How do I get anyone to listen? How do I get help? Why is driving an inmate insane right? Why is excessive force to isolate people called 'Rehablitation?" Why? Is it better to treat them as mad, or insane, just to justify to the cruel harsh punishment, only to cover up the fact that the system is driving themmad/insane? Because I'm poor I don't count, because I have no money makes me not qualify for help? Why all the double standards? Why is it that people can work in this country pay state and federal taxes allowed illegaly and they get help,why? I'm a momma, and a taxpayer,born in this country, and yet people like me fall thru cracks and our children are wrote off and no one wants to help, this isn't freedom, its entrapment of the worst kind, and I'm tired of paying.Can anyone see or understand my point of view? I have been reading alot on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and am appauled at amonut of injustice done and no one sees or cares to do anything about it for fear they will upset their peers, get over it! We the people need you in truth and in justice to make a stand and stay put, if it were your children, would you do what I am doing? I hope so, cause they need us to be with them, not agaisnt them, to hear them in truth which holds the hand of integrity, as it embraces Rehabilitation to becomming productive people and instills faith with a moral consciouse, giving conviction a release in this fight of freedom. My children,your children, Americas children, they all need us to answer the call. i find it sad when the only one's who reach out to help these inmates are the prison ministries, cause even these ministries need us as a united unit to lift them as they answer their call and walk beside my son, your son, americas son's and daughters.
Thank You,
Wendy S Ryals

Posted by: wendy ryals | Oct 18, 2007 1:56:16 PM

Excuse me while I cry over bloodthirsty prisoners being driven mad from having to suffer the torment of being alone with their pathetic selves.

Note: Liberalism is a mental disorder.

Posted by: Eric Wood | Apr 7, 2010 5:53:29 AM

if you cant do the time, dont do the crime. Im sick of liberals and their political correction policy. ohh, supermax is torture. then the same people argue that since the budget shortfalls and the down economy, why not just let some of the prisoners out to save money... is commmon sense gone? they are so open-minded their brains must have fallen off. seriously, if you are a victim of one of these criminals, dont you think they deserve to be there? they are there because they deserve to be there , PERIOD. if you still think that solitary is a more torturous sentence than death, then line them up, put them on their knees and start a executing.

Posted by: c.a.f. | May 11, 2010 5:03:40 PM

If you all knew Wendy the way I do. she is a big phoney. She's livin up on Redneck hill, and preaches to everyone. Only she is one nasty hipocrite. She smokes and drinks, and lives off other people. Then she makes people feel sorry for her and they take her in. She makes a livin off doing that. Sick! Oh and by the way your son in prison. Mutilated someone and you wanna try and get him off. what about that poor person. What about that person's family. May your son rott in hell. All the prayin and preachin in the world will never get him out.

Posted by: CJ | Nov 18, 2010 12:40:52 PM

haha not! You don't pay taxes da76 does. What job do you do? You don't you're always at the trailer trash. You never leave, how the hell does that constitute you having a voice on anything about the constitution or bill of rights. Furthermore the bible. the lord helps those who helps themselves. Your poor because you chose to be, Get off your lazy ass and get a job. Your son in Red onion. He is going to hell for sure, is that why you keep preaching and judging everyone else but yourself. that is truely Narsasistic behavior Wendy. I'm glad you don't have your kids, your past is why. Druggie....Alcoholic trailer trash...

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Posted by: חלקי חילוף לרכב | Jan 3, 2011 8:04:45 AM

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