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Supermax Nation
February 15, 2009 4:54 PM   Subscribe

Awakening on a mattress atop a wooden slab, the bare walls of your 7' x 12' cell come into focus, illuminated by the constant glare of an overhead light. Through the narrow window in the back of your cell, you can peer out into the prison yard. In the window in the reinforced steel door, you can catch an occasional glimpse of a prison guard as they bring your meals, usually the only interruption of the silence and isolation that pervade your living conditions. Those walls are the boundaries of your world for 23 hours a day in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit-- the supermax prison maintained in Walpole, Massachusetts, one of dozens of such institutions currently operated in the United States, in spite of growing outcry based on human rights violations.

Since 1790, prolonged solitary confinement has been criticized as inhumane. The tendency of prolonged isolation to lead to severe psychological damage is well-documented, but the stories of inmate abuse associated with supermax confinement are too numerous to comprehensively recount. Significant examples include Vaughn Dortch, who was forced into a bathtub filled with scalding hot water and held there until the skin burned off his legs, Timothy Souders, who died of dehyrdation after being shackled to his bed and abandoned by prison guards during a psychotic episode, and Bobby Delello, who contracted Hepatitis C after being shackled with bloody handcuffs that had been used on another inmate.

The use of supermax prisons persists despite evidence that they are not effective at reducing inmate violence, are not cost effective, increase rates of inmate recidivism, cause significant psychological symptoms in most inmates, and lead to disproportionately high rates of inmate suicide. When this thread was posted, 220,000 people were confined to supermax facilities in the United States. For further reading, see supermaxed.
posted by Law Talkin' Guy (94 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember seeing a documentary about supermax prisons, where one (former?) prisoner in a supermax recounted, "You start off trying to get through the next day. Soon it becomes a matter of just getting through the next hour."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:58 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


The use of supermax prisons persists despite evidence that they are not effective at reducing inmate violence, are not cost effective, increase rates of inmate recidivism, cause significant psychological symptoms in most inmates, and lead to disproportionately high rates of inmate suicide.

As if any of those are as important as being able to masturbate furiously to the phrase "tough on crime."
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:01 PM on February 15, 2009 [24 favorites]


I want to run for office on a "soft on crime" platform. it'll be awesome.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:03 PM on February 15, 2009


Also:

The use of supermax prisons persists despite evidence that they are not effective at reducing inmate violence, are not cost effective, increase rates of inmate recidivism, cause significant psychological symptoms in most inmates, and lead to disproportionately high rates of inmate suicide.

Even if the exact opposite of all these things were the case (and it isn't), supermaxes would still be a monostrosity.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:04 PM on February 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Apropos of something: "The Bet", by Anton Chekhov
posted by Rhaomi at 5:09 PM on February 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


it can be agued that these prisoners violently broke a social contract when free, were sentenced to prison and violently broke the social contract that exists there, and are in solitary confinement of their own accord. would crime and recidivism decline if all penal institutions were run as supermaxes? american prisons, by the way, are the only prisons in the world where a large percentage of inmates have an obesity problem.
posted by kitchenrat at 5:17 PM on February 15, 2009


Even the name is horrific. If you're the sort of person who says "good" when told there are such things as "supermax prisons" you really should work out why you're so angry and do something proactive about it, like seeing a therapist. I mean that sincerely.
posted by maxwelton at 5:27 PM on February 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Supermax" kinda sounds like a big, hugely profitable mega store, doesn't it? These lives are a real bargain, too!
posted by orme at 5:27 PM on February 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing, I agree with you and I think it's exta-special disturbing that we hold onto these things even though they don't do what we think they're supposed to do. Then it's just cruelty for cruelty's sake which chills me even more. It's like someone who knows punching her kid in the face isn't going to make him a good, obedient, well-adjusted child but does it anyway 'cause it's just fun to punch the little shit in the face. Or something. Anyway, icky.


Maybe there would be a chance to eliminate this practice if activists really drove home the Not Cost Effective angle?
posted by Neofelis at 5:28 PM on February 15, 2009


Maybe there would be a chance to eliminate this practice if activists really drove home the Not Cost Effective angle?

I hope it won't come to that. Being broken on the wheel was very cost effective, and might have even been a deterent, for all I know. I'd like to think people can shun practices on the sole grounds of cruelty.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:35 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


would crime and recidivism decline if all penal institutions were run as supermaxes?
That's right. Let's put tax cheats, embezzlers, shoplifters, people who get in drunken brawls, car thieves, 18-year-olds who sleep with 16-year-olds, sodomites, miscegenators, transvestites, idolaters, people who have killed their abusers, and people who look funny in there, along with all the various people who have sold drugs of every description (including drugs which are legal in other states) or just associated with people who have sold drugs, and shove them into solitary confinement along with the rather small percentage of inmates who have committed first degree murder or other worse crimes, or who have at least been accused of such crimes, though given the results of the Innocence Project a certain percentage of them may be innocent, at a cost of say a hundred thousand per cell to build the prison and, say, $30,000 per year per inmate (conservative and based on two per cell and communal meals), and then hire enough guards and support staff to run the things, and that would solve all the problems in our economy because of all the money it would bring in to all the many small towns and cities that built the things. Plus it would cut down on expensive municipal services such as garbage pick-up and sewage because everybody would be in prison in solitary confinement except may the guards. I like it.
posted by Peach at 5:39 PM on February 15, 2009 [14 favorites]


Supermax just sounds so doubleplusgood, you know? First you've got security, and you know we all want to be safe, so if we just lock these guys up, we'll be more safe. Then you've got maximum security, because, damn, maybe they could get out, and they're dangerous criminals. But sometimes you're in America, and you need the bacon-wrapped triple cheeseburger of security, and that's supermax. Back the fuck up, is that a supermax prison? Just look at this prison! Holy shit, you know you want to put some folks in there! Goddamn, the only way this could get any better is if there were an ocean on the moon and these people were at the bottom of it with their nuts on fire! It's so extreme it will even absorb your tired, your hungry, and your huddled masses! What the hell are you waiting for? Write your congressperson and order up some more of this for your state!
posted by adipocere at 5:47 PM on February 15, 2009 [26 favorites]


american prisons, by the way, are the only prisons in the world where a large percentage of inmates have an obesity problem.

You're suggesting we starve the inmates too?
posted by smackfu at 5:49 PM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


kitchenrat: it can be agued that these prisoners violently broke a social contract when free,

I bet you think Draco was a wonderful guy.

were sentenced to prison and violently broke the social contract that exists there,

Prisons don't have a social contract. They have authoritarian rules.

and are in solitary confinement of their own accord.

No one in his right mind would willingly be placed in solitary confinement.

would crime and recidivism decline if all penal institutions were run as supermaxes?

Considering how bad a reputation even ordinary prisons in the U.S. have, it should be obviousl that the answer is no.

american prisons, by the way, are the only prisons in the world where a large percentage of inmates have an obesity problem.

That stands to reason when "a large percentage" of American citizens also have an obesity problem, and "a large percentage" of those people are locked away in prisons. But how large a percentage? And how many of that percentage are in Supermax prisons? And how many have been surveyed?

It is difficult for me to avoid turning this response into an attack at this moment.
posted by JHarris at 5:51 PM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Metafilter - Back the fuck up, the only way this could get any better is if there were an ocean on the moon and people were at the bottom of it with their nuts on fire!
posted by mannequito at 5:52 PM on February 15, 2009 [7 favorites]


Thanks for this well-researched post.
posted by serazin at 5:53 PM on February 15, 2009


adipocere: Goddamn, the only way this could get any better is if there were an ocean on the moon and these people were at the bottom of it with their nuts on fire!

Or maybe if you had a volcano, that was like, inside another volcano...

When life becomes so much like a cartoon, I wonder sometimes if we're the parody of a another, better reality.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:55 PM on February 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


Peach: and then do you know what they say after a couple of hundred years of that treatment?
G'day.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:57 PM on February 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


The main (only?) reason these things exist is that somebody is making lots of money building & running them, and convincing the rest of us to send people there. Not that they actually, you know, "work."
posted by gottabefunky at 5:57 PM on February 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think the core problem is that most people just don't give it much thought, especially since prisoners are the outsiders of society. In fact, they are usually literally on the outside, on the fringes of population centers, near a small town at best. Most of them are the poor and undereducated of society, so society's stopped caring before they even reach prison.

It's sad. I'm not sure what to do about it.
posted by wastelands at 6:04 PM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I meant that the prisons themselves are usually located in remote areas, if that wasn't clear.
posted by wastelands at 6:05 PM on February 15, 2009


Excellent post, thanks. There is still a lingering "primitiveness" to western penal practices - a venue where basic and venal discourses of discipline and punishment are made practice.
posted by Rumple at 6:05 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Prisons don't have a social contract. They have authoritarian rules.

Society in general has authoritarian rules. Prisons who can manage to refrain from anti-social behavior generally do not find themselves in solitary confinement.

No one in his right mind would willingly be placed in solitary confinement.

No. But some people willfully choose the behavior that lands them there. Time after time after time.
posted by Crotalus at 6:06 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Naturally, Cheney has invested heavily in prisons.
posted by chance at 6:06 PM on February 15, 2009


There is still a lingering "primitiveness" to western penal practices

I'll grant this if you concede that there is more than a lingering "primitiveness" to those currently housed in the cells this post decries.
posted by Crotalus at 6:08 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this post.

In California, it costs $47,000 to keep an adult incarcerated for a year. That is for your standard, run of the mill, 170% of capacity facility, not a supermax. We pay $200,000 per year for juveniles incarcerated by the state.
posted by gingerbeer at 6:14 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


“Sensory deprivation – because it can only be produced through human manipulation – is at once the most human and inhuman method for the protracted degradation of life. Applied for months or years, [it] is the proverbial ‘perfect murder’ for which no one – or everyone, except the victim – is responsible.”

Dutch psychiatrist Sjef Teuns in 1973 (“Isolation/Sensorische Deprivation: Die programmierte Folter,”)

From Ulrike Meinhof's diary:
"The feeling, one’s head explodes (the feeling, the top of the skull will simply split, burst open) —
the feeling, one’s spinal column presses into one’s brain —
the feeling, one’s brain gradually shrivels up like, for example, a baked fruit —
the feeling, one is uninterruptedly, imperceptibly, under a torrent, one is remote controlled, one’s associations are hacked away —
the feeling, one pisses the soul out of one’s body, like when one cannot hold water —
the feeling, the cell moves. One wakes up, opens one’s eyes: the cell moves; afternoon, if the sun shines in, it suddenly remains still. One cannot get rid of the feeling of motion.
One cannot tell whether one shivers from fever or from cold —
one cannot tell why one shivers — one freezes.
To speak at a normal volume requires an effort like that necessary to speak loudly, almost like that necessary to shout—
the feeling, one stops speaking —
one can no longer identify the meaning of words, one can only guess —
the use of sibilants — s,ss, tz, sch — is absolutely unbearable guards, visits, the yard seems to be made of celluloid —
headaches —
posted by kolophon at 6:16 PM on February 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'll grant this if you concede that there is more than a lingering "primitiveness" to those currently housed in the cells this post decries.

Absolutely.

But is this fighting fire with fire? It doesn't seem to work well. Time to fight fire with water.
posted by Rumple at 6:16 PM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


it can be agued that these prisoners violently broke a social contract when free, were sentenced to prison and violently broke the social contract that exists there, and are in solitary confinement of their own accord.

If there is any tangible representation of the social contract which governs America, it's the Constitution. The 8th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. On top of that, 18 U.S.C. § 3553 provides that sentences shall be "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to achieve the purposes of criminal justice, which include providing the offender with rehabilitation, vocational training, and medical care, which our regular prisons abjectly fail to do, let alone supermax facilities.

So even if we were to assume that the prisoners broke the social contract when free, and did so again in prison, the social contract allows certain forms of punishment to address that breach, and prohibits others. If anyone has violated the explicit terms of the social contract where supermax prisons are concerned (and has done so with impunity, I might add), it's the government.
posted by Law Talkin' Guy at 6:17 PM on February 15, 2009 [22 favorites]


And to think that even with all these facilities, people are afraid of transferring Guantanamo detainees to American soil because "where would we put them where we'd be safe from them?" If we can ask that question with a landscape abounding with supermax facilities, what does that say for the ultra-mega-supermaxiness of the facility at Guantanamo? It can't be good.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:24 PM on February 15, 2009


"They hate our freedoms..."

We ceded our rights long ago. When prisons are run for profit what can you expect?
posted by Max Power at 6:30 PM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Even the name is horrific.

Just do what we did here in Wisconsin, change the name from Supermax to Wisconsin Secure Program Facility. Sounds much friendlier doesn't it?
posted by MikeMc at 6:40 PM on February 15, 2009


I love it when MeFites compete to be the most humane commenter in the thread. I feel like I'm watchin' the frickin' Compassion Olympics here.
posted by jayder at 6:44 PM on February 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Well I see somebody needs a hug
posted by Flashman at 6:51 PM on February 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


I love it when MeFites compete to be the most humane commenter in the thread. I feel like I'm watchin' the frickin' Compassion Olympics here.

As opposed to every other place on the Web, where the League of Internet Tough Guys compete to see who would castrate Them with the rustiest knife.
posted by PlusDistance at 6:54 PM on February 15, 2009 [16 favorites]


I love you, jaydar
posted by leotrotsky at 6:54 PM on February 15, 2009


Favorited Law Talkin' Guy's comment so hard that computer key broke.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:57 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


We're running out of just about every resource on this planet except for one. Yet we piss away the last of our water, clean air, rainforests and wild fauna... and can't bear to discard even the worst, most poisonous drop of human life. Instead we spend hundreds of millions on special buckets to safely hold it until it evaporates.

If these prisoners are so aggressive, violent and unresponsive to rehabilitation, then for christ's sake just put them down and divert the prisons' resources to schools and hospitals.
posted by magic curl at 7:02 PM on February 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm not very sympathetic. I think of inmates in regular prison who want to serve their time and be left alone and prison guards who float unarmed and outnumbered among the inmates. I'm confident that there are people who deserve supermax prison life.

Give them the internet, put a heavy filter on their 'puting and carry on.
posted by wrapper at 7:08 PM on February 15, 2009


magic churl: and can't bear to discard even the worst, most poisonous drop of human life... If these prisoners are so aggressive, violent and unresponsive to rehabilitation, then for christ's sake just put them down

'put them down'?
I can't negative favorite this comment hard enough.
posted by dunkadunc at 7:11 PM on February 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


Law Talkin' Guy - good point, and I would agree that the government does not keep its end of the contract up. The current prison system does not seem like a good solution.

On the other hand: the article notes, "Judges have ruled consistently that [supermaxes] do not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment." Cruel and unusual, of course, being terms relative to the offense and to the ethical standards of the age.

Reading into your comment, I'd guess you disagree with them.
posted by magic curl at 7:15 PM on February 15, 2009


dunkadunc - that's interesting, but I'd be even more delighted to hear your views on the article
posted by magic curl at 7:20 PM on February 15, 2009


If there is any tangible representation of the social contract which governs America, it's the Constitution.

And this was written by slaveowners who thought that American-style chattel slavery was neither cruel nor unusual. I've worked on a number of 8th Amendment cases yet that choice was just a matter of practicality and not out of any love for the document. William Lloyd Garrison burned his copy of the constitution and called it a covenant with the devil. If you want to argue that our nation is treating prisoners in an inexcusable way (and I'm with you 100%) don't you dare turn to the Constitution, unless you think that you've got a clever way to make it work for you. I don't see it. Conditions of confinement will not be a viable challenge to Supermax. We need to appeal to something larger than the Constitution, like common fucking sense.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:26 PM on February 15, 2009


Hey, just a thought: might the "obesity problem" in American supermax prisons have something to do with how little exercise you get locked in a very small room for 23 hours a day? Nah, must just be cause they're lazy...
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:27 PM on February 15, 2009


Morgan Spurlock spends 30 days (well, okay, 25) in jail, including 72 hours in solitary confinement.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:30 PM on February 15, 2009


From Law Talkin' Guy's post: in spite of growing outcry based on human rights violations. (emphasis added)

I very much doubt that this "growing outcry" will grow beyond a few webpages run by cranks, and left-wing journals like AlterNet. Is there any evidence of a real, mainstream concern with SuperMaxes?

This is one of those causes that we can't expect to gain much traction, because the question of prison conditions of the worst offenders being too harsh somewhat pales in urgency compared to lots of other areas that compete for our social concern. It's kind of like fretting about prison rape --- there are a handful of diehard activists who are approaching this with firm ethical principles and deep commitment, surrounded by an ocean of people who crack jokes about it and don't give a damn.
posted by jayder at 7:36 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I very much doubt that this "growing outcry" will grow beyond a few webpages run by cranks, and left-wing journals like AlterNet. Is there any evidence of a real, mainstream concern with SuperMaxes?

Amnesty International has been pretty vocally against supermax prisons, at times culminating in well-publicized confrontations.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:39 PM on February 15, 2009


Marisa - not to get all Saul Alinsky on you, but ur doin it wrong. Amnesty Press releases are not how we're going to address this problem. I don't disagree with them, but we're going to need a lot more ammunition than Amnesty will ever bring to the table.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:42 PM on February 15, 2009


Amnesty Press releases are not how we're going to address this problem. I don't disagree with them, but we're going to need a lot more ammunition than Amnesty will ever bring to the table.

Well, we also have testimony before the House Prison Reform Committee of the Illinois General Assembly that supermax prisons are cruel and unusual punishment. For example. I was just addressing the question of who beyond "cranks" give a crap about this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:47 PM on February 15, 2009


I did a short stint as a state correctional officer a little over a decade ago.*

I agree with most people here in theory. Locking people up and throwing away the key doesn't solve anything. It is cruel to put people in solitary for more than a trivial amount of time.

I met some really fucking bad people in prison. I'm not talking about someone who was caught with a gram too much pot in his car or got one DUI too many. I'm talking about cold-blooded predators who see rape, murder and picking their teeth in public as morally equivalent.

I had never really believed that there were such people. Maybe you don't, either. Think of me as your spy from the liberal world. They are real.

Whether these people came to be the way they are through their own fault or not is immaterial. The fact remains that they can't or won't be rehabilitated with the techniques that we have at our disposal today.

Almost everyone here seems to agree that everyone deserves their Eighth Amendment rights. I think that everyone here would also admit (even if only to themselves) that they wouldn't send their young child on a week long camping trip alone with someone like I have described.

So what are we, as a society to do with these folks? I don't know, but my gut tells me that driving them crazy in isolation and letting them run (nearly) free are both wrong answers.


* - This amazes people who know me because it is completely counter to my personality and beliefs. What can I say? I had recently been laid off, my wife was pregnant with our second son and I needed a job with good health insurance. Fortunately, I got a better job after a few months and got the hell out of there, never glancing once at my rear-view mirror.
posted by SteveTheRed at 8:00 PM on February 15, 2009 [17 favorites]


As someone intimately involved with this (and who has spent some quality time--no, not that kind of time--in a federal maximum security penitentiary) I can only wonder what you propose to do with these people?

You make the case well for the Supermax crowd's rights, but I question how many of you are considering the human rights of the haven't-yet-killed-assaulted-or-otherwise-proven-myself-incapable-of-coexisting-in-prison crowd, which is a much larger segment of the population than those sent to a Supermax? The latter have a right to make the most of their time--the "don't serve time, make time serve you" crowd--without fear of an indiscriminate shanking or a Masterlock-on-the-end-of-a-belt to the forehead in their sleep from the already-identified sociopaths.

A careful, well-considered balancing of all inmates' human rights--not to mention those of the COs and staff--is undertaken in determining that some guys go to Super and some guys stay at a pen. It's not a willy-nilly determination. If you have trouble visualizing this, just think of the Far Side alien yelling at the other that he's placed incompatible species together (a human hunter and an angry bear) in their glass case terrarium; except here all the variants of even one species are incompatible, and I think you'll get a sense of the scale.

I encourage any of you actually to GO (not that you really could, which is actually a huge part of the problem, since most prisons don't want to be on anyone's radar, so the only time the 'bloggers hear anything is when something truly God-awful happens) to a federal prison and continue to suggest that everything possible to fulfill both prongs of the BoP's "care and custody" obligation isn't being done. My opinion changed drastically after having been out here and having been in there.

I ask you again--what else, in practical terms, is BoP to do?
posted by resurrexit at 8:23 PM on February 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


I ask you again--what else, in practical terms, is BoP to do?

I could go over the familiar territory of decriminalizing non-violent drug offenses to free up a LOT of space, strengthening the social safety net, building better schools and so forth. But the fact remains that supermaxes are sickeningly cruel. Horribly violent offenders can be kept separate from society without them, and supermaxes don't even resolve the other issues they intend to address.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:51 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


. . . violent offenders can be kept separate from society without them . . .

No, not just separate from society--they're necessary for separation from other prisoners. That's the majority of the justification behind them. Prisoners have rights, too.
posted by resurrexit at 8:53 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


No one in his right mind would willingly be placed in solitary confinement.

This is demonstrably false. If I were to ever be sent to a (maximum security) prison, I would do whatever it took to be remanded to solitary as quickly as possible.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:54 PM on February 15, 2009


but I question how many of you are considering the human rights of the haven't-yet-killed-assaulted-or-otherwise-proven-myself-incapable-of-coexisting-in-prison crowd, which is a much larger segment of the population than those sent to a Supermax?

Yes, I suspect that the comments up above are not informed by much actual exposure to the residents of penitentiaries and what kind of not-so-nice folk they tend to be.

Most SuperMax inmates are granted the status as the culmination of a lifetime career in hard-core crime. It's kind of like a Nobel Prize for criminality. The Colorado Federal SuperMax is kind of like the All Souls' College of criminal depravity.
posted by jayder at 8:56 PM on February 15, 2009


No, not just separate from society--they're necessary for separation from other prisoners. That's the majority of the justification behind them. Prisoners have rights, too.

Certainly. That's why I mentioned decriminalization of non-violent drug crimes first. I realize full well that the BoP can't change drug laws, divert tax dollars into the social safety net or build schools. So I guess in answer to your question of what the BoP can do, I'd say we'd be more effective shifting the burden off of them and onto other areas.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:58 PM on February 15, 2009



I heard Robert Hanssen's wife sends him huge parcels of academic books on a regular basis, and he passes his days writing her and reading up on every subject under the sun. Am I the only person here who doesn't think this sounds so bad?

As a dyed-in-the-wool "Hell is other people" introvert, I'd VASTLY prefer being left to my own thoughts 23 hours a day than eternally fending for my life among dangerous, brutal criminals who have nothing to lose. Which setup is more "inhumane" is in the eye of the beholder. Some personality types are going to have the inner resources to handle solitary confinement far better than others, that's all. (Insert your favorite Solzhenitsyn quotes on disciplined solitude here.)
posted by aquafortis at 9:23 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


As much as I abhor the notion of government enforced sensory deprivation, what exactly are the other options? As previous posters have stated; the people in supermax are dangerous to everyone -- including other inmates and those tasked with guarding them.

Jails are host to numerous cliques and gangs; many with connections to the outside world. We can't kill them (or we're waiting to kill them); we can't house them with other inmates -- because they will kill, extort, continue to exert criminal influence on the outside world, etc.

I'm by no means saying it's right to, essentially, torture people in the name of justice. But what exactly do you do with someone who appears to be human in appearance only? Someone who has decided that they will do as they please, when they please, to whomever they please, regardless of consequence. How exactly do you instill fear in a man marked for death?

I don't have an answer either....
posted by Dark Messiah at 9:28 PM on February 15, 2009


Jails are host to numerous cliques and gangs; many with connections to the outside world. We can't kill them (or we're waiting to kill them); we can't house them with other inmates -- because they will kill, extort, continue to exert criminal influence on the outside world, etc.

I think we need to shift the focus to the other people in prison. The USDOJ estimates that about 20% of the federal prison population consists of non-violent drug offenders. If we want to separate the violent from the non-violent, we could start by getting the non-violent drug offenders out of prison through decriminalization.

That, or take Robert Anton Wilson's suggestion and build a giant wall around Utah.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:37 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


This thread makes me sad.

There are at least three issues at work here - one is whether it is ever okay to lock someone up in solitary confinement for an extended period of time. Posters above make the case that super-violent prisoners might need to be separated from the rest of the prison population. I don't know.
Are there ways to do this without such intense solitary confinement, for example, by giving these prisoners greater access to contact with therapists? Or maybe we should make the environment in regular prisons safer and more secure so that there would be fewer opportunities for people to shank each other? I teach middle school, and I know from experience that the environment that surrounds you, and the culture that is created by those in charge, have a big impace on behavior.

Second is the issue of how prisoners are treated within the supermax facilities. Being locked in a cell 23 hours per day, abusive treatment of inmates by guards, lack of access to health care - surely we can agree that this is bad?

Third is the larger issue of how we as a society came to have 220,000 citizens among us who were so dangerous they needed to be locked away from everyone. I don't know what the inmates at supermax facilities are really like. I have some ideas about the kinds of conditions that they might have lived in that.

This is about our culture of violence, of which sending people to prison all the time is a part of the problem, because it is in prison and as a result of the experience of being imprisoned that many learn such hard-core violent attitudes. This is about the way we fail to teach young people to solve problems without violence, about the way that we allow povery to continue mere blocks from wealth, about the way we fail to provide an emotional or practical safety net for families in hard situations, about the way cycles of violence and abuse reproduce themselves over generations, about the way we glorify machismo and supress vulnerability, about the way we encourage fear.

I don't have quick and easy answers. Certainly "lock em up and throw away the key" is a concise public policy vision, I can't compete on that front. But the cynicism expressed by some here is not the only option.
posted by mai at 9:48 PM on February 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Is the purpose of our penal system to punish or rehabilitate?" THAT is the question that should be asked before we reinforce our penal system.

If its to punish...society should realize that letting out those who were in prison is like letting someone out of a gladiator academy. If everyone doesn't receive a life sentence in this punishment-based system, then recidivism is inevitable.

On the other hand, now Optimus Chyme can't complain about the preponderance of prison rape at supermax.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:50 PM on February 15, 2009


Paragraph cut off:

"I have some ideas about the kinds of conditions that they might have lived in that" -> I have some ideas about the kinds of conditions that they might have lived in that might have started them down the road toward being a violent criminal, because I see those condition every day in the lives of the students I teach
posted by mai at 9:51 PM on February 15, 2009


it can be agued that these prisoners violently broke a social contract when free, were sentenced to prison and violently broke the social contract that exists there, and are in solitary confinement of their own accord. would crime and recidivism decline if all penal institutions were run as supermaxes? american prisons, by the way, are the only prisons in the world where a large percentage of inmates have an obesity problem.

Without even going into the travesty of insufficient legal representation for a robust percentage of inmates, what the fuck good is it to drive people insane via their incarceration? We prevent them from ever being able to join society AND make them harder to control on the inside...to prove that the institution is badass? As the post points out, these un-productive (and unintended) problems were not only known, but were a legal opinion before the 20th century began.

As for obesity, well, considering the name of the game in prisons is to feed people for as few pennies on the dollar as possible, this is not surprising. My college cafeteria was processed-carb-heavy on the offerings, and that was allegedly not punishment.
posted by desuetude at 9:53 PM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


No one in his right mind would willingly be placed in solitary confinement.
This is demonstrably false.


That's not demonstration---and I'm not quite sure you get solitary confinement, ynoxas. Try it out: take your shoelaces and your belt off, empty the medicine cabinet and close the windows, then lock yourself in the toilet. No TV, no books, no radio, no internet. Now you get to stay there.
















Bored yet? Want to stretch your legs, walk around? Read something, write something?You've got 23 and a half hours left to go.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:11 PM on February 15, 2009


That's not demonstration---and I'm not quite sure you get solitary confinement, ynoxas. Try it out: take your shoelaces and your belt off, empty the medicine cabinet and close the windows, then lock yourself in the toilet. No TV, no books, no radio, no internet. Now you get to stay there. Bored yet? Want to stretch your legs, walk around? Read something, write something?You've got 23 and a half hours left to go.

I did a medical research study that involved being isolated in a dark room, bedridden, for 72 hours. You know what? I wasn't bored at all. I mentally worked on a play I was writing "outside", processed my emotions about a recent breakup, thought about plans for the future, meditated, caught up on my sleep, etc. It was a very positive experience.

In what sense is this unhealthy? Frankly, I think it's sad most people have such an impoverished inner life they can't function without a continuous stream of noise.
posted by aquafortis at 10:34 PM on February 15, 2009


Not to be flippant, "Yeah, so what's your bright idea, smart person?," but does anyone have awareness of other means, things done in other countries, to deal with people who are otherwise beyond reasonable hope of control, much less something approximating civilized behavior?
posted by ambient2 at 10:37 PM on February 15, 2009


does anyone have awareness of other means, things done in other countries, to deal with people who are otherwise beyond reasonable hope of control, much less something approximating civilized behavior?

The US distinguishes itself from most other industrialized democratic nations for the percentage of people it has in prison. As I said, a fifth of these are non-violent drug offenders. There's also meaningless "tough on crime" legislation like three-strikes laws that tend to pack prisons pretty quickly. Most other industrialized democratic nations lock up their most violent sociopaths in regular prisons, usually for life, as they have more than enough space for them.

I will now stop broken-record-ing in this thread.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:29 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


aquafortis, your mental discipline is commendable. I'm sure I'd do worse in 72-hour isolation. Notice something, though: of the five ways you mentioned having passed the time, three of them involved your near-future or near-past plans for your life on the outside. Those tricks won't work if you're spending many years alone.

Meditation is the only long term pastime you've suggested. Not everyone is cut out to be a monk; for most people this is slow, soul crushing torture. I could handle physical pain a lot better than I could handle this.

Being connected to other people is what makes life meaningful for just about everybody. If you intend to take that from someone and tell them that they will never have it back, you should at least make painless suicide a convenient option for them. (by which I mean that torturing someone to the point where suicide is rational is less evil than forcing a torture victim to remain alive, day after day)

220 000 people, that's not the worst of the worst, that's...what is wrong with your country?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:40 AM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Britain's most notorious solitary confinement prisoner would be Charles Bronson, due to his habit of taking hostages of other prisoners and staff.

He clearly has periods of intense mental illness, with a history of self-harm. While he is kept in a special secure unit, he does have access to mental health treatment, he also writes many letters to the outside world. He also writes books, draws cartoons and artworks (a number of which have been published) and even writes award winning poetry.

While British prisons are overcrowded, underfundeded and understaffed, and there have been some instances of abuse by guards; generally the system is run reasonably humanely and professionally. Prison rape is pretty rare indeed.

What gets me is the general and complete lack of compassion amongst the general US population (mefi excluded) for prisoners. With so many sent to jail for drug and alcohol offences, surely many people must know a few friends or relatives that have done time, even for a short period? Or does knowing people personally that have been in prison not have any effect on compassion or desire for humane treatment for prisoners?
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:00 AM on February 16, 2009


Dark Messiah: As much as I abhor the notion of government enforced sensory deprivation, what exactly are the other options?

Well, first of all, even if you do have to lock them away from all other people, you don't have to put them into sensory deprivation. There's no really good reason not to give them books, radio, even TV, unless you just want to make them suffer. Even if you don't trust them at all, you could build it into the wall of the cell... put it behind a half-inch of plexiglass or something.

I know people are always bitching about prisoners getting TV, but making people bored for years is just going to quietly destroy their minds and/or cause them to strike out at the other prisoners or guards.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:02 AM on February 16, 2009


Most people in this thread are talking about whether these prisons are cruel or not. Of course they're cruel, ridiculously cruel in fact, but that doesn't matter. What matters is they make money. People make money building them, money is exchanged for the contracts to build them, politicians get money and power by appearing to be "tough on crime" and by allowing them to be built in their territories. Cash Rules Everything Around Me*. If you attack them based on the humanity of allowing them to exist, it will make no difference. I don't know about right now, but pretty recently and for a lot of years before that prisons were one of the fastest growing industries in America. As long as they make people money, these prisons will exist. If breaking people on the wheel or drawing and quartering was profitable to someone, we'd do that too. The only way to get rid of these increasingly terrifying prisons is to make them not profitable. How do we do that? I don't know. I don't know if we can. But convincing each other that they're inhumane isn't going to accomplish anything as long as there's money to be made on them.

* dolla dolla bill y'all
posted by DecemberBoy at 1:30 AM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


220 000 people, that's not the worst of the worst, that's...what is wrong with your country?

Factoring in the total population, that's not a lot of people. Not to say they don't matter, of course.


I did a medical research study that involved being isolated in a dark room, bedridden, for 72 hours. You know what? I wasn't bored at all. I mentally worked on a play I was writing "outside", processed my emotions about a recent breakup, thought about plans for the future, meditated, caught up on my sleep, etc. It was a very positive experience.

It's great you did so well in isolation, but I'm not sure you, or anyone for that matter, would be able to deal with it for months on end. It's not like you can count down the hours until you're out of isolation because Time kinda loses its meaning when there's nothing separating today and next month.
posted by parjanya at 4:16 AM on February 16, 2009


I did a medical research study that involved being isolated in a dark room, bedridden, for 72 hours. You know what? I wasn't bored at all. I mentally worked on a play I was writing "outside", processed my emotions about a recent breakup, thought about plans for the future, meditated, caught up on my sleep, etc. It was a very positive experience.

In what sense is this unhealthy? Frankly, I think it's sad most people have such an impoverished inner life they can't function without a continuous stream of noise
.

This sort of thinking strikes me as glib, and is exactly how these prisons continue to operate without outcry. Ha hah why don't they just sleep?

Your experience was not analogous. You were not confined for the purpose of punishment. Your safety was not in danger. I think it's safe presumption that you were fed adequately and kept at a comfortable temperature. You knew when you'd be leaving, and you would not have been prevented from staying against your will. And after three days, you were released back into your life to go write your play and experience your future.
posted by desuetude at 6:38 AM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I did a medical research study that involved being isolated in a dark room, bedridden, for 72 hours.

Most importantly, you knew when you were going to be released and you could have walked out at any time. There really is no comparison here with enforced confinement of any sort.

It strikes me that the commenters in this thread have never been confined against their will. Perhaps waiting in line to board a plane is the most dehumanising experience you have ever had? What a privileged and lucky position to be in!
posted by asok at 7:58 AM on February 16, 2009


As much as I abhor the notion of government enforced sensory deprivation, what exactly are the other options?

Not sensory deprivation. Let's assume that keeping them separately is necessary for the safety of other prisoners*. How does that mean "only a tiny window"? How does that mean "no tv" or "no access to books" and so on? For that matter, why does it mean that their cells must be made so that communication with other prisoners is impossible?

And frankly, another option is giving them the option of suicide, a la Escape from New York. Or at least tacitly doing so, instead of driving them to the point that suicide is pretty reasonable and them denying them most relatively easy means to do so.

*It doesn't seem to work.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:56 AM on February 16, 2009


Countries that have fewer prisoners per 100000 than the US has Extremely Violent Felons per 100000 : Demark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Saudi Arabia and any other country with fewer than 70 per 100000.
posted by Rubbstone at 9:07 AM on February 16, 2009


Fiasco da Gama: I'm not claiming solitary to be some sort of utopia, but I'm comparing it to the reality of the other part of maximum security life, namely being threatened, beaten, sexually assaulted, and possibly murdered in the cafeteria or yard.

First, I think you are overstating things. Even in the attached story it talks about the inmate having pictures in his cell and writing to his family. The story above about Hansen also implies they are not denied books or other certain media.

Would I take boredom over the basically guaranteed future of repeated beatings and rapes, paired with the likely deadly results if you resist or try to seek protection?

Yeah. Yeah I would. Everytime.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:42 AM on February 16, 2009


My sister voluntarily confined herself to a darkened room for a week, as a meditation exercise for the religion she belongs to. She found it a very profound experience. Of course, she was doing it voluntarily, and she WAS hallucinating by the end of it. And she's already severely depressed and not real functional, so it was hard to tell how it affected her overall ability to cope. Oh, and she has been known to refer to the gruesome and prolonged death of a close friend from a degenerative disease as "wonderful," and referred to her last conversations with said friend, who could no longer talk, eat, or drink, as "so meaningful." And when my stepfather, who struggled mightily to give up alcohol and succeeded, was given morphine to ease the end of his life, my sister told me how wonderful it was to see him a little intoxicated. So I suppose my anecdotal evidence supporting the rehabilitative effect of solitary confinement is a tad contaminated.
posted by Peach at 9:46 AM on February 16, 2009


I clerked for a judge for a summer, and I was able to attend a tour of 4 Colorado State Prisons, from a minimum-security women's prison to the state supermax. A few observations:

The minimum security prison was surprisingly progressive. For the most part, the inmates were allowed to travel about the compound as they pleased, inside the fence. The were released on work details. The facility ran a dog-training program, in which they adopted shelter dogs, and trained them to be companion dogs for the elderly and disabled. It seemed like a great setup, both for the dogs and for the inmates. Another low-security block had a culinary arts program; that's where we had lunch.

Other work programs included a vineyard, a tilapia farm, a goat farm, and a working dairy farm. Each of the work programs had to pay for itself within 2 years, otherwise the program was cut off. Seemed like a great way to get skills to the inmates, especially since they could be run balance-neutral.

The medium-security prison was a lot more stereotypical; big cell blocks, a yard, and even a license plate factory. Again, they tried to keep the inmates working, and work was generally seen as desirable by the inmates.

Then there was the state supermax. Same setup as with the feds; 23 hours a day in-cell, 1 hour of exercise, shower every other day. Inmates were sent to this facility if they were (1) on death row or (2) had committed a drug or violence offense while in prison. They started without media, but could earn access to things via good behavior. It was a cold, scary place. I don't think it makes sense to keep people there indefinitely, but I don't see a better option if you have an inmate that is stabbing other inmates, rather than locking them up in solitary confinement. Likewise, how is that confinement any sort of a deterrent unless you're significantly restricting freedom?
posted by craven_morhead at 10:18 AM on February 16, 2009


Would I take boredom over the basically guaranteed future of repeated beatings and rapes, paired with the likely deadly results if you resist or try to seek protection?

Yeah. Yeah I would. Everytime.


Except that it's likely that you wouldn't merely be bored, it's possible that you'd be unhinged. It's not hard for you (or me, either) to speculate that the best thing to do would be to suck it up and take the boredom without rebelling, but that's presuming a sound mind.

But given the abuses outlined in the links, you wouldn't be safe, either. If everyone was making sorta rational decisions, there would be theoretically a bunch of bored guys relieved that they're at least safe and no catalyst for abuse by prison staff, but this is not how humans work. Apparently.
posted by desuetude at 10:23 AM on February 16, 2009


"Awakening on a mattress atop a wooden slab, the bare walls of your 7' x 12' cell..."

Oh fer chrissake! It took me an hour and a half to get these walls to shut up, lie down and go to sleep and along you come and wake 'em up again. Well you can just deal with 'em yourself, mister!

(Happy Family Day, Ontario!)
posted by Mike D at 10:55 AM on February 16, 2009


This article in the New Yorker (and the accompanying interview) gives a good indication of what the Bureau of Prisons has to contend with. I am no supporter of our prison industrial complex and I deplore the increasing emphasis on retribution, but they do have a real problem to contend with. This isn't just done out of petty meanness.

Isolation as a means of neutralize the most violent and aggressive inmates seems reasonable, but what I find particularly troubling are the allegations that some SuperMax inmates are not considered to be security risks. I don't have any citations, I've just heard this said about Kacyzinski and Gotti. If true, it would make a compelling argument for independent oversight and review of the decision to put an inmate on "no-contact" status.
posted by BigSky at 12:18 PM on February 16, 2009


I wonder how many people are in these prisons for drug crimes.

If there's even one, that's one too many.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:41 PM on February 16, 2009


Also, to all the people in this thread who are all like, 'durrrr! I think I could deal with solitary!" or "I think it would be fun! I could get all kinds of thinking done!" or "I'm an introvert anyway, how bad could it be?" You people disgust me. Seriously. My god, what shallow, relativistic thinking. You really have no clue. You remind me of the Bush administration officials who tried to convince us that waterboarding wasn't torture.

I don't hold grudges between threads, so I won't hold it against you permanently. But for the purposes of this thread, you make me sick.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:09 PM on February 16, 2009


Afroblanco, I don't think anyone is suggesting it is a good time, or that they'd anticipate getting a lot of great work done (James Blish, "Common Time"), rather, that solitary confinement might be preferable to what they think prison in general population is like: knife fights, rapes in the shower, having your food stolen, and so forth. They may or may not be right, based on their personalities and perceptions. If I were to be sent to prison, and someone presented me with the option (not that they do), I might give some serious thought to solitary confinement in that I might, might handle it better than being in general population.

It's pretty much horrific and inhumane sensory deprivation tank made out of grey concrete and greyer time versus horrific and inhumane "hell is other people, especially people who have sharpened spoons, unsatisfied libidos, and not a lot of sense of personal space."

I've never been in county jail nor in prison, but I do know some folks who have, one of whom will never be using his arms for anything serious again. How you get both elbows broken in jail by accident is beyond me. What little I think I know scares the crap out of me, and I think I might handle being alone better. It's impossible to tell, of course, but I don't think anyone is suggesting supermax is a breeze, just that, for some, it might be more palatable than what we expect from the other situation.
posted by adipocere at 1:48 PM on February 16, 2009


Afroblanco, I don't think anyone is suggesting it is a good time, or that they'd anticipate getting a lot of great work done (James Blish, "Common Time"), rather, that solitary confinement might be preferable to what they think prison in general population is like: knife fights, rapes in the shower, having your food stolen, and so forth.

Right. And just like the Bush Administration officials who were never waterboarded, the people who you speak of have never experienced solitary confinement as part of a multi-year sentence in a US prison. And I'm not talking about "I stayed in a dark room for a few days" bullshit. I'm talking about solitary fucking confinement. As part of a multi-year prison sentence. In an actual prison.

So how about it? Any former inmates in this thread want to speak up? We've heard from a few former prison workers. How about someone who was on the other side of the bars?

I can't imagine that many of them would prefer solitary to normal prison life.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:03 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


If I were to be sent to prison, and someone presented me with the option (not that they do), I might give some serious thought to solitary confinement in that I might, might handle it better than being in general population.

Also, there is a whole class of people who are given this "option" every day - and they're called prisoners! The fact that they do not, in general, choose to go into solitary, and the fact that solitary is generally reserved for the worst of the worst, is testament to the very awfulness of that punishment.

I can't even believe I'm having this conversation.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:11 PM on February 16, 2009


It’s my understanding - constitution aside - the social contract is that prisons are for rehabilitation. The contract with the prisoners is immaterial. The prison system owes us - taxpayers - by social contract rehabilitated individuals who are prepared to be responsible citizens. Or at least the attempt.

This is like going to the dry cleaners and they throw a bucket of water over your suit and bake it for 12 hours. Oh, plus - you don’t get it back. And they say “well, shit, it’ll just get dirty again if you wear it.”
Except it’s, y’know, people. Not just clothing.

“and can't bear to discard even the worst, most poisonous drop of human life...then for christ's sake just put them down and divert the prisons' resources to schools and hospitals.”

Ever actually killed someone? It’s a concession. Always.
And it’s always made me feel powerless. Like I’ve failed or something’s failed and this is all we can do.
We kill them precisely because we had not taken preventative measures and put the money into public resources in the first place so that we don’t have people that it’s necessary to kill.
Maybe we have to imprison them for the rest of their lives. But again, that’s our failure as a society in the first place.
I’m not saying it’s not necessary to keep them in jail. Or that if they were in my house I wouldn’t swiftly end their lives.
I’m saying there’s a difference between what’s necessary and what’s expedient.
Too often people try to assert that what is expedient is what’s necessary. It isn’t.
When I have the option, the time, the resources, the discretion - that is, when it’s expedient - I’d rather not be lethal or cruel because it has a corrosive effect on society.

Once someone is in your power, you can control them without inflicting pain. It’s simply a matter of choice whether to do so or not. Your choice, because they’re in your power.
As it is, I’ve very often found it’s more efficient in method as well, it’s nice to see studies back me up in that thinking.

When you understand violence you understand that compassion and understanding are the best tools you have. It’s not for them, it’s for you. It’s yours.
I don’t know why those concepts are so hard to follow.
(To Become the Enemy) Or why understanding is seen as ‘weak’ or ‘soft.’
posted by Smedleyman at 2:45 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


some comments:

It's commonly accepted around here that people who weren't insane when they went into Pelican Bay (the only supermax I know anything about) definitely WERE insane when and if they got out.

Most people get out. Bear that in mind when you talk about how they might deserve it.

San Quentin is the only prison I've spent time in (as a volunteer- not as an inmate.) and it didn't seem too hard to get thrown into solitary. Say you, as a prisoner, work for an administrator or someone as part of your work duty. Say that administrator pisses off a prison guard. You are now thrown in the hole on any pretext available (or one is provided for you) because that's how the guard can get back at the administrator. This is common knowledge and is treated by the prisoners I ran into as an occupational hazard, like lock downs or bad weather.

Not everyone is in solitary because of the above scenario. I'm just saying that not everyone's in there because they are one of the hard cases.

Yes, there are hard cases and I don't know what to do with them. I'm pretty sure weeks of solitary confinement isn't it, though. Is there a compromise version? Where you can at least SEE other people? Wave at them through the plexiglass?

As a volunteer I didn't hang out with any hard cases. (No regrets there.)

Obesity. Have you seen what they eat? It's starch starch and more starch with some fat on top. And if you're at the back of the line or the prisoner that's serving the meals doesn't like you (or politics or gangs or whatever) you may only get part of that. If you want something different, you can order it from the canteen. Seen what's available from that order list? Top Ramen! Popcorn! Anchovies (wtf?)! Candy bars. Twinkies. Sodas. Or a red delicious apple or banana. There's more, but none of it's green and the fruits are few and drenched in syrup.

It's my pet theory that violence would decrease if they fed everyone whole grains and a better balanced diet, but that's because I'm a bleeding heart liberal/dirty hippy.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:15 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


rather, that solitary confinement might be preferable to what they think prison in general population is like: knife fights, rapes in the shower, having your food stolen, and so forth. They may or may not be right, based on their personalities and perceptions. If I were to be sent to prison, and someone presented me with the option (not that they do), I might give some serious thought to solitary confinement in that I might, might handle it better than being in general population.

Sure, I would too, rationally, from where I'm sitting. It's easier for us to be more afraid of other prisoners than our own minds. But prisoners don't get to choose it. And we've known for over 200 years that it drives people insane. This presumably includes people who also wouldn't have imagined that this would be the case.

It seems to bring out the worst in guards/staff. At least in a knife fight in the yard, you get to fight back. From the HRW report:
There is a heightened risk in supermax facilities that correctional officers will use abusive levels of force. They work in an environment in which the usual prison "us vs. them" mentality is exaggerated by the minimal staff-inmate interaction, the primacy of security over all other considerations, and the fact that the inmates have been demonized as "the worst of the worst." Perhaps not surprisingly, correctional officers in some supermax facilities have repeatedly crossed the line between the legitimate use of force and abuse. They have used force -- including cell extractions and the discharge of electronic stun devices, stun guns, chemical sprays, shotguns with rubber pellets and even guns loaded with lethal munitions -- unnecessarily, dangerously, and even maliciously.

The frequency and nature of staff abuse of inmates in a supermax (as in other prisons) is a reflection of management: abuse proliferates where management fails to signal unequivocally -through policies and their implementation-that excessive or abusive force will not be tolerated. In supermaxes with a pattern of excessive staff violence, management has tacitly condoned the abuse by failing to investigate and hold accountable those who engage in it.
The original Philadelphia system was developed with all of the best intentions to avoid the chaos and violence of jail, exactly as we're speculating that solitary should do. Turns out that the human mind doesn't work that way.

It's just not relevant to imagine what solitary would be like "if" the system were completely different. This is what it is. Punishment that's known to fail in controlling inmates, not act as a deterrent, psychologically damage prisoners, and get them abused by guards.
posted by desuetude at 6:51 PM on February 16, 2009


As a response to small_ruminant, I'll point again to Colorado, where a lot of the prison's produce is grown on-site, at least in Canon City. I'm not saying it's all sunshine and balloons over there, but there are prisons in the U.S. system that are doing it better.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:56 AM on February 17, 2009


craven_morhead, I really wish they'd do that here. I know the inmates would really get into it, too.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:17 AM on February 17, 2009


I met the guy who implemented the program; I forgot his name off the top of my head, but the guy is really smart. Could be running a corporation of some sort. He seems to have an uncanny knack for working out everybody-wins solutions. With the food, for example, the prison is getting its produce cheaper by growing it in-house, it gives the inmates something to do so it cuts down on idle hands doing the devil's work, and it teaches them a trade. Oh, and they have plenty of land to work with, which also helps.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:08 AM on February 17, 2009


I can't even believe I'm having this conversation.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:11 PM on February 16


You're not. You're having a completely different conversation, but only with yourself, based on a misunderstanding of what you think you read, and clearly letting your passion override your reason.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:21 PM on February 17, 2009


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