A Clean Version of Hell
March 26, 2015 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Inside America's Toughest Federal Prison For years, conditions inside the United States’ only federal supermax facility were largely a mystery. But a landmark lawsuit is finally revealing the harsh world within. (SLNYT)
posted by box (61 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
The emptiness that pervades solitary-confinement units “has led some prisoners into a profound level of what might be called ‘ontological insecurity,’ ” Haney, who worked as a principal researcher on the Stanford Prison Experiment while in graduate school, told the senators. “They are not sure that they exist and, if they do, exactly who they are.”

Absolutely horrific.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:16 PM on March 26, 2015 [29 favorites]


Institutionalized torture for the purpose of vengeance. Disgraceful.
posted by leotrotsky at 2:19 PM on March 26, 2015 [17 favorites]


the staff psychiatrist stopped his prescription for Seroquel, a drug taken for bipolar disorder, telling him, “We don’t give out feel-good drugs here.”

That ratfuck bastard's licence to practise medicine should be revoked.

"... let’s be candid here. It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story.”

The problem is how many people view that as a feature, not a bug.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:22 PM on March 26, 2015 [74 favorites]


I know someone who fought very hard for a lot of years in the Canadian public service to ensure our correctional system didn't go the way of the USA. He's retired now. I hope others have taken up the cause.
posted by Hoopo at 2:23 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


So this is where our "disappeared go?" With so much communication available online, it is a wonder the powers that be don't get it how even a modicum of electronic contact would help cut cost, and the human cost of this punishment. As we all have seen, sentencing can be such a subjective process.
posted by Oyéah at 2:36 PM on March 26, 2015


For comparison, linked from the bottom of the article. (And probably linked somewhere on the Blue at some point too.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:38 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's a sort of bleak amusement in the blind hypocrisy of people who think the CIA torturing suspected terrorists with waterboarding is totally wrong but are A-OK with things like this. And ADX Florence may be particularly bad in some respects, but it's really just a small example of a much larger problem (there are something like eighty thousand inmates held in solitary confinement in US prisons; only 408 of those are at Florence). Threre's a pretty strong case to be made that the USA's only real rival in the global torture sweepstakes is North Korea (and make no mistake, solitary confinement is torture).
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 2:40 PM on March 26, 2015 [11 favorites]


There's a sort of bleak amusement in the blind hypocrisy of people who think the CIA torturing suspected terrorists with waterboarding is totally wrong but are A-OK with things like this

This sounds an awful lot like a strawman to me. If anything, i'd believe the reverse was a lot more common. That it's ok for the evil brown terrorists, but a disgrace when it's freedom loving americans or whatever.

Either way though, i find it hard to believe that there's some huge group of people who are against rendition/torture who don't think this is a grave injustice.
posted by emptythought at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Lots of people are ok with waterboarding "terrorists" and millions more are ok with harsh prison conditions.

I agree that solitary confinement is torture but I'd be very surprised if any given random person agreed with me.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:53 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


This sounds an awful lot like a strawman to me. If anything, i'd believe the reverse was a lot more common. That it's ok for the evil brown terrorists, but a disgrace when it's freedom loving americans or whatever.

But polling has found that there are differences along party lines with Republicans more supportive than Democrats of torture with suspected terrorists. In our 2011 survey, a substantial majority of Republicans (71%) said torture could be at least sometimes justified, compared with 51% of independents and 45% of Democrats. In the AP/NORC poll, 66% of Republicans backed use of torture in dealing with terrorists compared with 53% of independents and 39% of Democrats.

And elsewhere[PDF], poll finds that 47% of Democrats consider solitary confinement "appropriate punishment", while 23% say "inappropriate but not torture" and only 19% say it's torture (numbers for Republicans: 70%, 10% and 9%, respectively). Allowing for the margin of error, regardless of party affiliation more Americans seem to be at least as okay with torturing other Americans, or more comfortable doing it to other Americans, than foreign terror suspects. (Of course racial and class biases may play some part there as well, considering the socioeconomic and ethnic/racial makeup of the prison population.)
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 3:00 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


So deinstitutionalization just became prison but with no actual treatment.

God bless America.
posted by Talez at 3:00 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Jesus weeps.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:05 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Seriously, the guy who cut himself up, broke a hole in his own skull, used a razor to remove a testicle...but of course was deemed totally sane with an "antisocial disorder". And he wasn't even a violent offender! He had this whole long story of being a non-violent bank robber who befriended a Chinese-American heroin dealer in prison, the heroin dealer was murdered by white supremacists right in front of him, the white supremacists targeted him, he ended up in the same prison as the white supremacists and all the other prisoners and guards treated him extra badly except for one guy, who was himself targeted and bullied into suicide...And this guy never hurt anyone.

Apparently, the reason they take people off their meds in solitary is that if you're on meds, you're not supposed to be in solitary.
posted by Frowner at 3:10 PM on March 26, 2015 [32 favorites]


Also, meds are obviously "fun" and we can't have people having "fun" in solitary confinement.
posted by rtha at 3:18 PM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Solitary or SHU or any version of it is messed up and horrible, but the alternatives are (1) these guys being in the general population with other inmates, all of whom must now do time with a total insane murderous monster of a human when the other inmates may not necessarily be violent (to say nothing of the guards or prison employees who must work around these guys), or (2) executing these guys.

Or do you have some other realistic way to rehabilitate tens of thousands of crazy violent murderers or near-murderers that doesn't involve restraining them or keeping them by themselves?
posted by resurrexit at 3:20 PM on March 26, 2015




Well, it would probably also help if we didn't induce mental disorders into people who didn't have them before they went to prison.
posted by ckape at 3:29 PM on March 26, 2015 [37 favorites]


America's very own Gulag.
posted by monospace at 3:50 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Jesus weeps.

For what it's worth, some clergy agree.
posted by weston at 4:00 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


resurrexit:
"Solitary or SHU or any version of it is messed up and horrible, but the alternatives are (1) these guys being in the general population with other inmates, all of whom must now do time with a total insane murderous monster of a human when the other inmates may not necessarily be violent (to say nothing of the guards or prison employees who must work around these guys), or (2) executing these guys. "
There's a lot of room between those extremes. For example you could very simply replace the solid doors with ones through which inmates could see and talk to each other from cell to cell while continuing to maintain physical separation. You could allow them to see more of the outside world by giving them windows to look through.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:01 PM on March 26, 2015 [28 favorites]


Ted Kaczynski and the Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph call the ADX home. The 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is held there, too, along with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef; the Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and the former Bonanno crime-family boss Vincent Basciano. Michael Swango, a serial-killing doctor who may have poisoned 60 of his patients, is serving three consecutive life sentences; Larry Hoover, the Gangster Disciples kingpin made famous by rappers like Rick Ross, is serving six; the traitorous F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen, a Soviet spy, 15.

I guess this makes me awful by Mefi standards, but I'm not terribly concerned about these people's ontological security.
posted by jayder at 4:20 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Or do you have some other realistic way to rehabilitate tens of thousands of crazy violent murderers or near-murderers that doesn't involve restraining them or keeping them by themselves?

There's a big difference between isolating someone from the general population and keeping them in psychologically isolating conditions. The former might be necessary; the latter never is.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:38 PM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


an inmate who ate his own feces so regularly that staff psychiatrists made a special note only when he did so with unusual “voracity.”

.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:42 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


The American public is generally A-OK up to enthusiastically on board with this. I don't know how to change that.

My hometown had three prisons in a town of 8000. It's not just the inmates we're doing damage to.
posted by PMdixon at 4:43 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm not terribly concerned about these people's ontological security.

I am. But my concern is less empathy for them as human beings, which says unpleasant things about me, and more about the morality of the society I participate in and perpetuate. A society which believes revenge is the function of incarceration and brutality is its dominion is sick.
posted by crush-onastick at 4:51 PM on March 26, 2015 [67 favorites]


A willingness to torture the worst mostly indicates a society's willingness to torture at all.
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:58 PM on March 26, 2015 [34 favorites]


Or do you have some other realistic way to rehabilitate tens of thousands of crazy violent murderers or near-murderers that doesn't involve restraining them or keeping them by themselves?

It seems to me that rehabilitation isn't an objective. Security is. In practical terms, the most practical way to keep us safe from dangerous people, simply put, is to kill them. But it also seems to be clear that our prison are not populated only by dangerous people. Perhaps ads many as one-third of them actually are innocent of the charge they are serving time for. Another huge bunch of these people are serving time for non-violent crimes. Another large batch of these souls have been given extended sentences based on acts they commit while incarcerated. Then comes the blending effect, where prisoners (of all flavors) are homogenized by the prison system, which maybe drives them into gang membership in order to survive. Or may they just go nuts, because living in prison in no way can be described as sane.
posted by mule98J at 5:06 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


I guess this makes me awful by Mefi standards, but I'm not terribly concerned about these people's ontological security.

The article isn't about Ted Kaczynski's experience, it's mostly about the experience of inmates who are sent to supermax prisons as a result of behavioral issues or prison politics or mental illness despite these institutions being the opposite of an environment that promotes mental stability.
posted by atoxyl at 5:08 PM on March 26, 2015 [10 favorites]


I guess this makes me awful by Mefi standards, but I'm not terribly concerned about these people's ontological security.

What makes us different from these people of we do things at the same level of horror? As a bonus, given the frigging horrific rate of wrongful conviction in the states, the inescapable roles racism and classism play in sentencing, I don't know how anyone could be comfortable with it.
posted by smoke at 5:31 PM on March 26, 2015 [9 favorites]


It seems like the nominal reasons you end up in a place like ADX Florence are:

- you are an organized crime figure or "criminal mastermind" and likely to try to continue in this role to the fullest extent possible while incarcerated, so you must be isolated from the outside world for the safety of the outside world.

- you have a history of violence toward prisoners and guards, so you must be isolated from them for their safety.

- you are likely to escape from a less secure institution.

The first reason seems legit in theory, though I think some of those guys are in supermax for symbolic reasons, because they are the "worst of the worst," not because they're likely to blow up another building if given access to a telephone.

The second is not a bad reason except that the way supermax prisoners are actually treated seems likely to make behavioral issues worse and does not appear to show real concern for anybody except the guards. That there is so much gang violence and that there are so many mental breakdowns seems reflective of something wrong with the prison system in the first place. The second and third reasons both provide a convenient excuse to disappear "difficult" prisoners to somewhere where corrections employees don't have to deal with them.
posted by atoxyl at 5:32 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


The most shocking quote I found in the article was this:
"...an inmate who ate his own feces so regularly that staff psychiatrists made a special note only when he did so with unusual 'voracity.'"
You don't just ignore things like this without being utterly dead inside.
posted by Dark Messiah at 5:49 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


I guess this makes me awful by Mefi standards, but I'm not terribly concerned about these people's ontological security.

Giving a shit about the living conditions of terrible people like those is one of the things that makes us better than them.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:02 PM on March 26, 2015 [15 favorites]


>> "...an inmate who ate his own feces so regularly that staff psychiatrists made a special note only when he did so with unusual 'voracity.'"

> You don't just ignore things like this without being utterly dead inside.

A friend of mine (who I've seen rarely in the last decade) was a psychiatric nurse in New York City for decades - which makes him a saint in my book - and also did standup. One of his classic routines was about his various clients' shiteating - it was appalling but also screamingly funny.

Even compassionate people who encounter this sort of thing get inured to it fairly fast without being any the less compassionate. Indeed, if you didn't learn to take this in stride pretty soon you would break.

But he was a psychiatric nurse, in a dysfunctional system that was still at the base trying to help people. The whole jail system is so broken it's very hard to believe that anyone involved with it has one ounce of humanity left and I'm sure that includes the doktors involved.

The whole thing is appalling and makes me glad that the whole "America" story will be over soon. When they're gazing at the ruins, I doubt one person will say, "They didn't deserve it."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:27 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I guess this makes me awful by Mefi standards, but I'm not terribly concerned about these people's ontological security.

Whether or not you're concerned about them, neither you nor I gain anything from their suffering. Though I think it's possible we can lose something by endorsing it.
posted by weston at 6:41 PM on March 26, 2015 [27 favorites]


So, you tough-on-crime tough-guys: why not just kill all of these people? It would be less cruel, and less expensive.

If you don't think that's a good solution but are still in favor of this type of treatment, I can only conclude you're pretty much just as "evil" as the worst of the prisoners, that you gain pleasure from the torture of people remanded to your care.

But speaking on money, prisons and law enforcement are an excellent way of draining the public coffers into the accounts of private enterprise, and given that's what we've decided American Values are, there is no stepping back.

Disgusting, all of it.
posted by maxwelton at 6:59 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


One of the subsidiary points of the article is that people end up in these places who are not actually giant security risks. Like the bank robber I was talking about above, for example.

And honestly, the idea that the Unabomber is literally so dangerous to the people around him that he has to be in a supermax prison seems pretty silly to me. Leaving aside any questions about prisons qua prisons, a weedy guy who sent mail bombs is just not particularly dangerous to guards, no matter how dangerous he might be with access to bomb materials. A lot of these guys are obviously in supermax prisons because it sounds, like, really badass to say that they're there, like we are taking crime Really Seriously. (Which is on the face of it stupid and immoral; William Calley can lead the My Lai massacre and he's turned loose to live his life; Henry Kissinger can collaborate with Indonesia in the massacre of 1/3 of the East Timorese population and he's rich and respected; but the Unabomber is so dangerous that he has to be in a supermax prison. Imprison people if you must, I guess, but let's be real about the political aspect of who gets assessed to be so dangerous they can't even talk to their neighbors.
posted by Frowner at 7:01 PM on March 26, 2015 [63 favorites]


I'm not terribly concerned about these people's ontological security.

"I'm usually against torture, but these people? Torture them all you want." Reminds me of "I'm usually against capital punishment, but"...and both of those remind me of the (apocryphal?) story about George Bernard Shaw, who was at a dinner party and turned to the woman next to him and asked "Madam, would you go to bed with me for £1,000,000?" When she allowed that she would, he replied "well then, what about £5?" to which she replied "of course not! What kind of woman do you think I am?" and he said "oh, I've already established what sort of woman you are; now, I am haggling."
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 7:08 PM on March 26, 2015 [13 favorites]


Pseudonymous Cognomen: "story about George Bernard Shaw, who was at a dinner party and turned to the woman next to him and asked "Madam, would you go to bed with me for £1,000,000?""

I had always heard that was attributed to Churchill.

Next you'll tell me that it wasn't Winston who said to a woman, "Yes, madam, I AM drunk. However, in the morning I shall be sober, and you will still be ugly."
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:35 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Giving a shit about the living conditions of terrible people like those is one of the things that makes us better than them.

This is a canard that undoubtedly you heard somewhere and thought sounded great ... but it's bullshit. What makes me better than them is that I am not a mass murderer or terrorist. Pretty simple.

We are feeding and housing and keeping these people alive, which is plenty ... I'd even say it is supererogatory.
posted by jayder at 7:46 PM on March 26, 2015


What makes me better than them is that I am not a mass murderer or terrorist.

Hmm, you're one of those folks who says they're a "good person," aren't you?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:56 PM on March 26, 2015 [26 favorites]


> We are feeding and housing and keeping these people alive, which is plenty ... I'd even say it is supererogatory.

You seem to have an embarrassing amount of trust in the judicial and prison systems; I'm not sure if that's better or worse than feeling superior to people incarcerated in solitary confinement for decades. Way to jump that bar.
posted by rtha at 8:04 PM on March 26, 2015 [13 favorites]


What makes me better than them is that I am not a mass murderer or terrorist. Pretty simple.

The main subject of the article and the lawsuit, Jack Powers, is neither a mass-murderer or a terrorist. He was a prolific, unarmed bank-robber who was literally driven insane by years of living in a supermax facility.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:13 PM on March 26, 2015 [32 favorites]


Apparently, the reason they take people off their meds in solitary is that if you're on meds, you're not supposed to be in solitary.
That's some catch.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:39 PM on March 26, 2015 [9 favorites]


- you are an organized crime figure or "criminal mastermind" and likely to try to continue in this role to the fullest extent possible while incarcerated, so you must be isolated from the outside world for the safety of the outside world.

- you have a history of violence toward prisoners and guards, so you must be isolated from them for their safety.

- you are likely to escape from a less secure institution.

Forgot #4:
- you are a muslim.

ADX FLorence is where all the muslims get sent. Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh: their convictions were laughable, what more the idea that they present some kind of persistent threat. USA is torturing political prisoners, plain and simple.
posted by BinGregory at 9:29 PM on March 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


We are feeding and housing and keeping these people alive, which is plenty ... I'd even say it is supererogatory.

I'm not so sure. If you're fine with torture when it's "the right people", then the only distinction is your target criteria. And that doesn't sound like the sort of moral ground to say what's "decent human being/society" criteria and what's supererogatory.
posted by CrystalDave at 9:37 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Talez or Going To Maine already said one of the few things I was likely to say about his, so thanks, y'all.

We're rapidly approaching the point where the entire system — police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons — will be recognized as illegitimate by Mr. and Mrs. America. Lots of people like to make lots of noise about the rule of law, but the day approaches where people will turn their backs on the soi-disant justice system. What happens after is unlikely to be good.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:47 PM on March 26, 2015




New federal supermax in Illinois, Gitmo North
posted by BinGregory at 10:00 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whole article is nsfl on so many levels and points.

Heaven help us.

As I've said before:

I'm not the Christian sort but they pretty much nailed it with

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.
-- Matthew 25:40

posted by RolandOfEld at 10:20 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


What a contrast to The Radical Humaneness of Norway's Halden Prison.
posted by rmmcclay at 12:54 AM on March 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


“if you treat people badly, it’s a reflection on yourself.” In officer-­training school, he explained, guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is something they should do not for the inmates but for themselves. The theory is that if officers are taught to be harsh, domineering and suspicious, it will ripple outward in their lives, affecting their self-­image, their families, even Norway as a whole. Kristoffersen cited a line that is usually attributed to Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
From the Halden article.
posted by fullerine at 2:18 AM on March 27, 2015 [19 favorites]


That's some catch.

It's the best there is.
posted by Gelatin at 5:52 AM on March 27, 2015


ADX FLorence is where all the muslims get sent.

Only the prominent ones. There are plenty more in other federal prisons as well as in the state system.

I have a relative who is in a high-level administrative role in a state prison system. He says that if you are foolish if you don't believe the US has political prisoners.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:35 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


The theory is that if officers are taught to be harsh, domineering and suspicious, it will ripple outward in their lives, affecting their self-­image, their families, even Norway as a whole.

An ex-girlfriend had a friend whose fiancé was a prison guard. One night he got drunk and started telling work stories. I don't remember the details anymore, but his obvious contempt for the prisoners and the cavalier cruelty the stories revealed (and which he seemed completely oblivious to) made me think way less of him as a human being. I don't think we ever hung out again after that.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:36 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


NYC woman held in mental ward for eight days, forcibly sedated because police wouldn't believe she was a wealthy banker with ties to Obama.

Three guesses as to the colour of her skin.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:47 AM on March 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


NYC woman held in mental ward for eight days, forcibly sedated because police wouldn't believe she was a wealthy banker with ties to Obama.

While this doesn't in any way negate the horror of the story, let us note that the victim of this outrage was an "Astoria bank worker", not a "wealthy banker", and the (honestly) claimed "tie" to Obama is that he follows her on Twitter.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:05 AM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, yes. You'll also note she keeps getting 'most productive' awards/emails, and drives a BMW, which isn't un-wealthy by my estimation.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:11 AM on March 27, 2015


In the interview, she explains clearly that she said that Obama follows her on Twitter, not that she had "ties" to Obama. She says that she intended this to illustrate that she was a respectable person.

Also, think about if someone were trying to arrest you and sock you in a mental hospital. What would you say? And couldn't almost anything you say seem delusional except if it were absolutely insufficient? "I'm a respectable person, I have a home!" "I'm a respectable person! I have a Facebook page!"...those don't sound very convincing. "I'm a respectable person - I know the mayor!!!" "I'm a respectable person...I am the CFO of a company"....well, then you're into "delusional" territory, especially if you're black, I guess.

Also, aside from anything else - I had my car (when I still had one) impounded once (skidded off the road in an ice storm; couldn't get a tow...because it was an ice storm. The city had loads of trucks out impounding cars, though) and I was practically hysterical when I went to retrieve it. The car impound process is mercilessly expensive and difficult, on purpose. So I have a ton of sympathy with this woman about that as well.
posted by Frowner at 10:26 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Giving a shit about the living conditions of terrible people like those is one of the things that makes us better than them.

Yeah I'm actually pretty comfortable being a better person than Michael Swango on the basis of him having probably murdered 60 more people than I have; everything else seems like small potatoes after that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:07 AM on March 27, 2015


Yeah I'm actually pretty comfortable being a better person than Michael Swango on the basis of him having probably murdered 60 more people than I have; everything else seems like small potatoes after that.

Repeated for emphasis:

Seriously, the guy who cut himself up, broke a hole in his own skull, used a razor to remove a testicle...but of course was deemed totally sane with an "antisocial disorder". And he wasn't even a violent offender! He had this whole long story of being a non-violent bank robber who befriended a Chinese-American heroin dealer in prison, the heroin dealer was murdered by white supremacists right in front of him, the white supremacists targeted him, he ended up in the same prison as the white supremacists and all the other prisoners and guards treated him extra badly except for one guy, who was himself targeted and bullied into suicide...And this guy never hurt anyone.
posted by Librarypt at 11:21 AM on March 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


This was incredibly sobering and revolting and disturbing to read.
posted by bardophile at 7:26 PM on April 2, 2015


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