Revolution #183, November 15, 2009
Torture by Isolation: America's Supermax Dungeon
You’re supposedly alive... but you’re trapped in a tiny, bare, silent tomb-like cell for 23 hours a day, robbed of sensory stimulation that human beings thrive on.
No window to the outside world, no way to see if it’s day or night, winter or summer.
Bland, barely edible meals get passed through a slot in the door.
No contact with anyone... except when the guards, wearing gloves, shackle and cuff you and cavity-search you before you can take a shower or "exercise" in a bare concrete space—by yourself, every move under close watch.
A heavy glass barrier cuts you off from family members during the few visits allowed.
This goes on for months... years... even decades.
They haven’t killed you... but even if you somehow manage to hang on to your sanity, they have assaulted the very core of your humanity.
This is torture by long-term isolation—torture officially sanctioned and carried out by the state and federal authorities all around the U.S., against tens of thousands of prisoners. It is happening in "Supermax" prisons—using the latest in high-tech surveillance and prisoner-control methods—that go under various names: secure housing units (SHUs), special management units (SMUs), closed maximum security (C-Max), and so on.
As a 2007 report from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) on Arizona’s prisons describes it, "Solitary confinement in supermax units is characterized by holding prisoners alone at least 23 hours per day for months or years. The cells are generally the size of a small bathroom and are outfitted only with a toilet, a sink, and a slab of metal protruding from the wall as a bed. Many such cells have no windows and no way to tell if it is daytime or nighttime. Prisoners describe either an eerie silence or a deafening wall of constant noise 24 hours each day. Prisoners eat alone and most human ‘interaction’ occurs through a small slot in a steel door. Shakedowns, or cell searches, by guards and strip searches are common. These prisoners have extremely limited access to prison programs. They are forbidden from holding jobs or attending most rehabilitative or educational programs."
Long before the U.S. began to use near-total isolation as a deadly form of torture against detainees in Guantánamo and other CIA and military prisons after 9/11, isolation torture was carried out in U.S. prisons. In the early 1970s, three young Black men at the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana were the target of vengeful retaliation by the authorities for organizing protests against the conditions there. Known as the Angola 3, they spent over 30 years in solitary confinement.
The first Supermax was built in 1972 at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois. The Marion "management control unit" held about 60 prisoners, and through the 1970s and mid-1980s, there were a handful of such Supermaxes.
Then came a dramatic increase in the use of isolation in the late 1990s, at a time when the overall number of people incarcerated in the U.S. was spiking up. According to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, during those years "the growth rate of the number of prisoners housed in segregation far outpaced the growth rate of the overall prison population: 40 percent compared to 28 percent."
These units have grown even more since—exact numbers are difficult to come by, but according to a recent article in the New Yorker, there are now over 25,000 inmates in Supermax prisons. Mississippi alone has 1,800 prisoners in Supermaxes—12% of the state’s total prison population. An additional 50,000 to 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. are held in restrictive segregation units, and many of them are also in isolation—but the government does not release those figures. Most U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement today have been there for more than five years.
Devastating Effects of Isolation
Straight-up physical forms of brutality and torture against prisoners are rampant in American prisons. A British film, Torture: America’s Brutal Prisons, includes horrifying surveillance camera clips from Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California of prisoners being severely beaten—and several being killed—by guards who also use tasers, stun guns, attack dogs, chemical sprays, and dangerous restraining devices. At the Pelican Bay SHU in California, "extraction teams"—each with five guards and a sergeant—disable the prisoner, helpless in the isolation cell, with batons and mace, and then forcibly "extract" him as punishment, often for minor infractions like not returning a meal tray. In 2003, the world saw horrifying photos of American guards brutalizing and sexually assaulting prisoners at the U.S. prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Many of the torturers at Abu Ghraib used to be guards at U.S. prisons—including Charles Graner, who was known for brutalizing prisoners at the SCI Greene maximum security prison in Pennsylvania.
But what is so devastating about prolonged solitary confinement is that the mental abuse of prisoners has profoundly disturbing effects. Many prisoners are driven insane (if they were not mentally ill to begin with) or into committing suicide by this inhumane punishment. In California, about 5% of the total prison population is locked down in isolation—but close to 70% of inmate suicides occurred in those units in 2005.
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology, reported that "there is not a single published study of solitary or Supermax-like confinement in which non-voluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic depression, and suicidal thoughts and behavior."
Tyrone Dorn, an isolation prisoner at the Tamms Supermax in Illinois, said, "This place takes a toll on your entire body from a physical and mental standpoint." Dorn, who was originally sent to prison for a car-jacking, said, "The hardest part is the isolation. It’s like being buried alive."
Makini Iyapo, whose husband Leonard Alexander was sent to California’s Pelican Bay SHU, said, "There are people who had psychological trouble before they went there. Sometimes they wheel them out of there in straightjackets. Imagine being in with guys who are banging their heads and screaming. It’s mental torture."
Long-term isolation and sensory deprivation violate international anti-torture laws. In its May 2006 report on the United States, the UN Committee Against Torture wrote, "The Committee remains concerned about the extremely harsh regime imposed on detainees in ‘supermaximum prisons’. The Committee is concerned about the prolonged isolation periods detainees are subjected to, the effect such treatment has on their mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Targeted for Punishment
How do prisoners end up in a Supermax? In the California system, for example, prisoners are sent to a SHU for alleged violence against guards or other inmates, for drug or weapons violations—and for something called "gang validation." This is not based on anything a prisoner may have actually done but on the say-so of the authorities that the prisoner is a gang member or has associated with gangs. According to Charles Carbone, a lawyer with California Prison Focus, "You can do something as simple as talking to an alleged gang member in the law library about the ordinary incidents of prison life, nothing to do with gang activity whatsoever. You can talk about the weather. That association alone is enough to use as a source document [for a validation]."
About half of the 3,000 prisoners in California’s SHUs are so-called "validated" gang members. And they are primarily young people and/or people of color. Being thrown into a SHU because of alleged gang association can result in a prisoner being held in solitary indefinitely. According to prisoners, once "validated," the only way a prisoner can get out is to "renounce [that is, snitch on others], parole, or die."
The AFSC points out that many prisoners are sent to the SHU for explicitly political reasons: "As the term ‘terrorist’ is applied very broadly today, particularly to people of Arab descent, prisoners labeled ‘threatening,’ ‘dangerous,’ or simply ‘disruptive’ can find themselves in long-term isolation. An argument can be made that the first security housing units in the federal prison in Marion, and later in Florence, were created to punish political activists caught up in COINTELPRO, organizing for Puerto Rican liberation, sovereignty for First Nations peoples, and other forms of self determination. Though political prisoners make up a small portion of the 2.3 million people currently imprisoned in the U.S., in AFSC’s experience over the years, they make up a disturbingly large percentage of the control unit population."
Given the incredible horrors of America’s isolation torture chambers, it is deeply inspiring to see prisoners who have not only survived but are resisting the system responsible for these crimes.
In a letter to the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund, a Latino prisoner wrote that when he was thrown behind bars, he was one of "millions of youth across this country who turn to petty crime as they don’t understand why their circumstances are so bleak, or any other alternative to changing these conditions." Then his eyes were opened up as he began to read and study about the world and get into communism. "My awakening to Revolution," he wrote, "has led me to challenge the state on numerous lawsuits, protests and other actions while in prison. This has unleashed the state to take me out of general population and be housed indefinitely in a control unit (SHU). This has only strengthened my understanding of this society’s repressive nature and my belief that another world is necessary!"
"Brave Resistance at Pelican Bay SHU: Prison Hunger Strike Against Supermax Torture." Revolutionary Worker (now Revolution). Issue 1176, November 24, 2002. Accessed at revcom.us/a/v24/1171-1180/1176/pelican.htm
Gawande, Atul. "Hellhole. The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?" The New Yorker. March 30, 2009.
Grassian, Stuart, MD. "Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement." Statement submitted September 1993 in Madrid v. Gomez. Accessed at prisoncommission.org/statements/grassian_stuart_long.pdf
Haney, Craig. "Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and 'Supermax' Confinement." Crime and Delinquency, 2003.
Isaacs, Carolyn and Matthew Lowen. "Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona's Prisons and Jails." American Friends Service Committee-Arizona (May 2007).
Johnson, Kevin. "Inmate Suicides Linked to Solitary." USA Today. January 11, 2007
Magnani, Laura. "Buried Alive: Long-term Isolation in California's Youth and Adult Prisons." American Friends Service Committee-Oakland (May 2008)
Marx, Gary. "Tamms: Illinois' Highest-Security Prison a Study in Isolation." Los Angeles Times. February 28, 2009.
Torture: America's Brutal Prisons. BBC Channel 4 program originally aired March 2, 2005. Accessed at youtube.com/watch?v=7tJ9V_7mO-E
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