Torture in America’s Supermax Prisons


Writing last year in Boston Review, a well-regarded magazine of literature and politics, reporter Lance Tapley shines a spotlight on the routine physical and mental degradation that inmates endure in America’s supermax prisons. The article was adapted from his contribution to Marjorie Cohn’s anthology The United States and Torture, published this past January by NYU Press. Tapley notes that the types of abuses we rightly decried at Guantanamo are actually common in the regular prison system, but these receive far less press attention, even though the victims are American citizens. (My pen pal Conway resides in a supermax facility in California.)

An excerpt from the article follows. Tapley is discussing Mike James, an inmate at a Maine supermax:

James, who is in his twenties, has been beaten all his life, first by family members: “I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall.” He began seeing mental-health workers at four and taking psychiatric medication at seven. He said he was bipolar and had many other disorders. When a doctor took him off his meds at age eighteen, he got into “selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries.” He received a twelve-year sentence for robbery. Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.

James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantánamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. The Obama administration— somewhat unsteadily—plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though this would mark a substantive change. In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity. Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, and they receive meager health services. The isolation frequently leads to insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.

In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a Florida State University criminologist who has done the most careful count. Mears told me his number was conservative. In addition the federal system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, and a total of about 11,000 inmates in solitary in all its lockups, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Some researchers peg the state and federal supermax total as high as a hundred thousand; their studies sometimes include more broadly defined “control units”—for example, those in which men spend all day in a cell with another prisoner. (Nationally, 91 percent of prison and jail inmates are men, so overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes. Women also are kept in supermax conditions, but apparently no one has estimated how many.) Then there are the county and city jails, the most sizable of which have large solitary-confinement sections. Although the roughness in what prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to prison and jail to jail, isolation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.

James experienced frequent cell extractions—on one occasion, five of them in a single day. In this procedure, five hollering guards wearing helmets and body armor charge into the cell. The point man smashes a big shield into the prisoner. The others spray mace into his face, push him onto the bed, and twist his arms behind his back to handcuff him, connecting the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. As they continue to mace him, the guards carry him screaming to an observation room, where they bind him to a special chair. He remains there for hours.

A scene such as this might have taken place at supposedly aberrant Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described by prisoners and guards and vividly revealed in a leaked video (the Maine prison records these events to ensure that inmates are not mistreated), an extraction is the supermax’s normal, zero-tolerance reaction to prisoner disobedience, which may be as minor as protesting bad food by covering the cell door’s tiny window with a piece of paper. Such extractions occur all the time, not just in Maine but throughout the country. The principle applied is total control of a prisoner’s actions. Even if the inmate has no history of violence, when he leaves the cell he’s in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with a guard on either side.

But he doesn’t often leave the cell. In Maine’s supermax, which is typical, an inmate spends 23 hours a day alone in a 6.5-by-14-foot space. When the weather is good, he’ll spend an hour a day, five days a week, usually alone, in a small dog run outdoors. Radios and TVs are forbidden. Cell lights are on night and day. When the cold food is shoved through the door slot, prisoners fear it is contaminated by the feces, urine, and blood splattered on the cell door and corridor surfaces by the many mentally ill or enraged inmates. The prisoner is not allowed a toothbrush but is provided a plastic nub to use on a fingertip. Mental-health care usually amounts to a five-minute, through-the-steel-door conversation with a social worker once or twice a week. The prisoner gets a shower a few times a week, a brief telephone call every week or two, and occasional “no-contact” access to a visitor. Variations in these conditions exist: for example, in some states TVs or radios are allowed.

When supermaxes were built across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, they were theoretically for “the worst of the worst,” the most violent prisoners. But an inmate may be put in one for possession of contraband such as marijuana, if accused by another inmate of being a gang member, for hesitating to follow a guard’s order, and even for protection from other inmates. Several prisoners are in the Maine supermax because they got themselves tattooed. By many accounts mental illness is the most common denominator; mentally ill inmates have a hard time following prison rules. A Wisconsin study found that three-quarters of the prisoners in one solitary-confinement unit were mentally ill. In Maine, over half of supermax inmates are classified as having a serious mental illness.

Prison officials have extraordinary discretion in extending the stay of supermax inmates. Their decisions hit the mentally ill the hardest. Administrators can add time as a disciplinary measure, and often they will charge prisoners with criminal offenses that can add years to their sentences.

In 2007 James was tried on ten assault charges for biting and kicking guards and throwing feces at them. Most were felony charges, and if convicted he could have served decades more in prison. Inmates almost never beat such charges, but James’s court-appointed lawyer, Joseph Steinberger, a scrappy ex-New Yorker, succeeded with a defense rare in cases of Maine prisoners accused of crimes: he convinced a jury in Rockland, the nearby county seat, to find James “not criminally responsible” by reason of insanity. Steinberger thought the verdict was a landmark because it called into question the state’s standard practice of keeping mentally ill individuals in isolation and then punishing them with yet more isolation when their conditions worsen. After the verdict, as the law required, the judge committed James to a state mental hospital.

But prison officials and the state attorney general’s office saw the verdict as another kind of landmark: never before in Maine had a convict been committed to the mental hospital after being tried for assault on guards. In the view of the corrections establishment, James would be escaping his deserved punishment, and this would send the wrong signal to prisoners. Officials refused to send him to the hospital, arguing he first had to serve the remaining nine years of his sentence.

Steinberger wrote to Maine’s governor—John Baldacci, a Democrat—begging him to intervene and send James to the hospital:

He continually slits open his arms and legs with chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and his cell with feces, strangles himself to unconsciousness with his clothing. . . . He also bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards.

This behavior was never in dispute, but the governor declined to intervene.

After a year of court battles, Steinberger finally succeeded in getting James into the hospital, though the judge conceded to the Department of Corrections that his time there would not count against his sentence. So James faces nine years in prison after however long it takes to bring him to a sane mental state.

Why is the richest, most powerful nation in the world still using punishment methods that Europe abandoned 150 years ago as too brutal? Our prison system is an international scandal.

I wish I could end this article with an “action item” to mitigate the helplessness you may feel after reading this. Can’t we click on something, donate something, sign a petition? I don’t have a quick fix, but my advice is: Get informed. Feel your common humanity with those who seem alien and frightening. Look behind the “tough on crime” rhetoric in your next election. Write to a prisoner in SHU. Your letters and books could save someone’s sanity.


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