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December 17, 2010

"The Worst of the Worst: Supermax Torture in America"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece from the Boston Review authored by investigative journalist Lance Tapley. The piece provides an important and disturbing view of supermax confinement in the United States.  Here are excerpts from a must-read:

James’s story [of being beaten during cell 'extractions' he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison] 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 unsteadily — plans 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.

Some related older and newer posts:

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Sick is about the only word to describe it.

Posted by: peter | Dec 17, 2010 6:06:06 PM

We should bring back caning for its educational benefit. In 123D, there is no caning, or confinement, just a count to three, and expulsion from this world. Both the criminal and the public then finds peace.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 17, 2010 8:56:17 PM

In 1996, 34 states reported to the National Institute of Corrections that they had supermax prisons. Based on the Urban Institute survey respondents who self- identified as supermax wardens, as of 2004, 44 states had supermaxes housing approximately 25,000 inmates (Mears 2005, 7).

Posted by: Ci-Sun | Dec 18, 2010 6:28:18 AM

More hysteria from the legion of "incarceration nation" proponents. First, the article confuses and conflates "supermax" prisons where prisoners are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day for the length of their confinement and the control units in traditional prisons commonly referred to as "the hole".

First and foremost, both forms of solitary confinement are designed for the worst of the worst. Inmates who assault other inmates or are uncontrollable in a traditional prison setting are sent to the hole for punishment of 30 to 180 days.

Inmates with a violent history in prison and who have killed or maimed others while confined are sent to supermax prisons for their safety as well as the safety of the correctional staff.

There is simply no other way to manage incorrigably violent prisoners.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 18, 2010 10:58:02 AM

A beating during a cell extraction is not torture. The guards are storming the cell of a violent inmate who has violated the rules and refuses to come quietly. They give you a chance before hand to back up to the cell door, been cuffed through the slot and then come quietly. If he doesn't want a SWAT team coming through the door and jumping on him he should have done that. Even better, if he didn't want to end up in an isolation cell he shouldn't have raped, killed or attacked staff and inmates at other prisons. He gets no sympathy from me.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Dec 18, 2010 11:35:03 AM

mjs --

A mere 20 years ago, I did an appeal against an inmate named Muhammed Abdullah, see United States v. Abdullah, No. 90-5156 (4th Cir. Nov. 16, 1990)(unpublished). Mr. Abdullah, already an inmate as a result of prior felonies, came at a guard with three straighted-out shower hooks (which of course was felony No. 3). Under the Guidelines, that made him a career offender, and he got to go bye-bye. But the district judge didn't see it that way and didn't give him career offender status. I appealed.

It was an easy win, but the interesting part of the story was what happend on remand for re-sentencing. Mr. Abdullah understandably did not care for me or my efforts. He came to court shackled, but the shackles were scrawny. He looked around and I was not hard to find. He looked me up and down for about five seconds.

It occurred to me that Mr. Abdullah was measuring his chances of breaking my neck before anyone could do anything about it. And if he's wanted to, he could have. What the opinion doesn't mention is that he was 6'5" and about 300 lbs. I would have been dead before they maced him.

Motivated by roughly equal parts of paralyzing fear, macho and youthful foolishness, I stared right back at him. For whatever reason, he didn't do anything. I think I was more lucky than anything else; Mr. Abdullah did not have a strong record of self-control. On a different day he would have jumped me, and then I would have been the one going bye-bye.

I bring up this story to underscore your point that some of these guys are cunning, ruthless, and huge. People without the experience you and I have had don't know what it's like. The problems in just barely keeping control of some of these guys are not what normal people encounter.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 18, 2010 3:18:42 PM

Sorry, the gibberish here is as sickening as the reality of the story. Anyone who has seen any of the official video leaked onto YouTube will know full well that the violent measures used in prisons, including the use of tasers, is way beyond what any civilized and properly overseen penal system should permit. The US is NOT unique in this world in having criminals, including those who have a history of violence and who may still be violent if not treated and supervised appropriately. The conditions described CREATE mental health problems which may lead to increased risk of violent responses - both to themselves and to others. You choose to ignore best practice from around the world because the mindset is that Human Rights end at the prison gates. They do not:
Despite imprisonment, where prisoners essentially lose their right to liberty, prisoners retain certain basic rights. As human beings, prisoners maintain the right to be treated with humanity, dignity and respect while in detention. This human right is detailed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Articles 7 and 10, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Article 37, and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

Posted by: peter | Dec 18, 2010 4:14:08 PM

Classification as supermax inmate is just about the only classification decision you can contest. Supermax may suck - even unreasonably so - but it's important to note that judicial review exists for these inmates and not for max/medium inmates.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Dec 18, 2010 5:46:00 PM

I say supermax review exists - it may be only for federal inmates in Col. due to a) conditions there and b) 10th circuit law. I do not pretend to have surveyed every circuit to determine where security conditions become atypical pursuant to Wolff etc.

Posted by: Gray Proctor | Dec 18, 2010 5:48:26 PM

Peter: There is the reality of the behavior that landed the prisoner in Supermax. There is no death penalty, so all crimes are legally immune after the first murder. Supermax is the physical segregation response to continuing assaults by the prisoners, not by the guards.

My proposal? I suggest you volunteer for one shift in a Supermax facility. I am sure it can be arranged. Test your theory of the "right to be treated with humanity, dignity and respect while in detention."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 18, 2010 10:09:15 PM

What other option is there than to isolate or kill inmates who kill, rape, escape and deal drugs?

Posted by: MikeinCT | Dec 19, 2010 1:37:23 PM

MikeinCT -
Isolation, for periods of time, may be a valid part of a constructive detention regime and program of treatment. Penal systems in all countries will have such provision, but in Europe at least, and presumably in places such as Canada and Australia also, the most severely dangerous and disturbed prisoners will continue to be offered or forced to receive a restorative program including mental health care, drug treatment programs, educational programs, work programs etc., according to their needs at any time during detention. Most will also receive regular reviews to determine progress and possible reclassification to a lower level of risk. In the UK, a Category A prisoner (the most dangerous etc) can progress to Category B and Category C over time. Some of course may not progress. Those prisoners with the most severe personality disorders may be housed in dedicated units with specialist mental health support, and some may be transferred to secure hospitals for treatment.
The systems are not perfect, and some classifications can become arbitrary because of political interference, but all penal units are subjected to regular assessment from both prison service and "independent" assessors - in order to ensure standards of human rights, and fitness for purpose.
There is an interesting review of European provision for those given Life Sentences, here:
Another interesting article can be found here:
This last shows that there is of course no easy answer that fits the needs of all prisoners. Every system needs constant evaluation, review and amendment to achieve the best outcomes for both prisoners and society.
You may also be interested to look at the brief summaries of provision at some of the UK's category A prisons, here:

Posted by: peter | Dec 19, 2010 5:47:39 PM

Peter: In US jails and prisons, all prisoners are already receiving all the services you mentioned. Supermax is for the non-responder. You are siding with the criminals for some reason. I assume your work is government funded and you want no harm nor deterrence to come to your clients, the criminals.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 19, 2010 9:01:56 PM

Supremacy - you delude yourself and others. In US jails and prisons, all prisoners are NOT already receiving all the services I mentioned. Overcrowding is rife, and staffing is critically low and of poor quality because of lack of funding. Services to prisoners such as mental health care or even basic health care are often so limited as to be meaningless. Work programs are non-existent for most because of local opposition. Conditions exacerbate problems of both. Of course there are exceptions, but too many are overcrowded human warehouses. Supermax prisons do not limit their intake to those you describe. Even if they did, there would be no excuse for the attitudes and abuse that they engender and which are so graphically illustrated by your own attitudes. Of course, death row's are part of the Supermax provision, and so yes, some not only endure those appalling conditions, but face eventual execution. Some also walk free after years of wrongful detention - lives destroyed rather than lives nurtured and respected. It is not a question of siding with criminals. Their punishment is loss of liberty. There is nothing in the Constitution that says their punishment should be extended to gross violations of Human Rights, mental or physical.

Posted by: peter | Dec 20, 2010 3:13:51 AM

Peter: You may be partially correct. There is a correlation between size and services. The bigger the jurisdiction and prison number of inmate, the greater the likelihood of there being a service.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 20, 2010 11:57:37 AM

This seems to presuppose that they're crazy. They aren't, so it seems unlikely medication would control the likes of the Aryan Brotherhood.

And this system did not control Archibald McCafferty, a serial killer who killed another inmate and sold heroine behind the walls of his Australian prison. The authorities' response? Parole him to Scotland early. Now he's someone else's problem.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Dec 20, 2010 12:14:13 PM

I think this discussion has conflated a few different issues. Supermax units were something of a fad for states during the 1990s prison construction boom, and so many states built them -- maybe because they needed them, or maybe, in some cases, because there was funding to do so, out of proportion to the number of "worst of the worst" or "incorrigibly violent" prisoners conceivably in that state. It's one thing to defend the federal supermax in Florence or to argue that a state might have a handful of people who need to be in extremely restrictive conditions, and another to argue that every state needs to have supermax capacity for hundreds of prisoners. While perhaps both arguments could be made, I think they need to be made separately because to me the issues raised seem quite different.

Here are two case studies I have found interesting. First, Atul Gawande discusses England in his New Yorker article. As he notes, England has had its share of serial killers, terrorists, etc. but it has largely moved away from solitary confinement as a punitive or security measure, because they found that it didn't work very well. "In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine."

As Gawande also notes, Mississippi at one point had 1,800 prisoners in supermax conditions; the nearby, larger, and more urban state of Georgia had a grand total of 10. Are we to believe that Mississippi had 180 times more "incorrigibly violent," "worst of the worst" prisoners than Georgia or is it perhaps possible that some states have overbuilt and/or overused supermax units? As it turned out, consultant James Austin, who I heard speak about this at a conference last year, visited Mississippi and realized that the state had been misusing the diagnostic instruments he had developed for the state's use in determining who should be in supermax and concluded that Mississippi had been extremely overinclusive in placing prisoners in supermax conditions. For example some of the prisoners in the supermax "Unit 32" were there only because they were HIV positive or mentally ill.

Mississippi has since moved 90% of the prisoners who were in supermax conditions out, and shut down "Unit 32". I have not heard any reports of havoc in the Mississippi prisons as a result, although maybe I have missed them.

Posted by: Sara Mayeux | Dec 20, 2010 12:18:11 PM

Sara - thanks for putting some perspective on this issue. The article references were very instructive and illuminating.

Posted by: peter | Dec 20, 2010 3:57:23 PM

This is the abolitionist. They attack the death penalty. Super predators are thereby totally legally immune for all crimes after the first murder. They kill again and again in prison. The liberal response is to send them to Supermax, instead of the proper dispatch to another world. Now Supermax is under attack as torture. The left wants to loose these superpredators to generate more government jobs. The alternative to somewhat expensive Supermax is extremely expensive but profitable greater staffing. These attacks on Supermax are pretextual, hypocritical, and self-serving. The aim is to generate more government jobs.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 20, 2010 4:19:46 PM

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