AFSC Releases [new] “Survivors Manual” By and For Prisoners in Solitary Confinement

From: SolitaryWatch, July 31st, 2012
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The American Friends Service Committee has put out a new edition of the vital publication Survivors Manual: Surviving in Solitary — A Manual Written By and For People Living in Control Units. The volume is a collection of letters, stories, poetry, and practical advice on surviving solitary confinement in prisons. AFSC released the following announcement last week:
Solitary confinement, characterized by 23-hour a day lockout with minimal exercise and lack of human contact, affects an estimated 100,000 prisoners in federal and state prisons in almost every state. Thus the need for “Survivors Manual,” which was first issued in 1998, is even more vital.

In this powerful collection of voices from solitary, people currently or formerly held in isolation vividly describe their conditions and their daily lives. They also write about how they struggle to keep mind, body, and soul together in an environment that is designed to break them down. Many also analyze the political, economic, and social forces that shape their torturous situation. The collection also includes some stunning artwork and poetry.
A PDF of the manual is available online at the following link:

http://www.afsc.org/document/survivors-manual-surviving-solitary

Copies can also be purchased for $3 each at the following site:
http://www.quakerbooks.org/survivors_manual.php

AFSC Releases “Survivors Manual” By and For Prisoners in Solitary Confinement

From: SolitaryWatch, July 31st, 2012
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The American Friends Service Committee has put out a new edition of the vital publication Survivors Manual: Surviving in Solitary — A Manual Written By and For People Living in Control Units. The volume is a collection of letters, stories, poetry, and practical advice on surviving solitary confinement in prisons. AFSC released the following announcement last week:

Solitary confinement, characterized by 23-hour a day lockout with minimal exercise and lack of human contact, affects an estimated 100,000 prisoners in federal and state prisons in almost every state. Thus the need for “Survivors Manual,” which was first issued in 1998, is even more vital.

In this powerful collection of voices from solitary, people currently or formerly held in isolation vividly describe their conditions and their daily lives. They also write about how they struggle to keep mind, body, and soul together in an environment that is designed to break them down. Many also analyze the political, economic, and social forces that shape their torturous situation. The collection also includes some stunning artwork and poetry.

A PDF of the manual is available online at the following link:

http://www.afsc.org/document/survivors-manual-surviving-solitary

Copies can also be purchased for $3 each at the following site:

http://www.quakerbooks.org/survivors_manual.php

[thanks to FFIP for alerting us!]

UN Torture Investigator Calls on Nations to End Solitary Confinement

In Nevada there are large parts of whole prisons on lockdown, this means prisoners are not allowed out of their tiny cells for 24 hours a day, and a few times a week, depending on the mood of those in charge, they can go to shower or to an enclosed yard alone. This goes on forever for some prisoners, with no program to step down, left to the discretion of those in power.

They never have any normal way of talking with another human being, always have visits behind glass, and are basically treated less than dogs.

Now, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has called for a ban on all forms of solitary confinement, because they can amount to torture. Here is the report from our friends at Solitarywatch:

From: SolitaryWatch:
October 19, 2011
By Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The UN’s torture investigator, Juan Mendez, yesterday called on UN members nations to ban nearly all uses of solitary confinement in prisons, warning that is causes serious mental and physical harm and often amounts to torture. Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, presented a written report on solitary confinement to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, which singled out for criticism the routine use of supermax isolation in the United States. He also gave a press conference and participated in a forum with American civil rights and human rights groups.

As Reuters reports, Mendez stated that solitary confinement “‘can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.’” He continued, “‘Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, supermax, the hole, secure housing unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion (of information) technique.’”

Mendez was precise in defining solitary confinement, and in outlining the limitations that should be placed on its use. He stated:

“I am of the view that juveniles, given their physical and mental immaturity, should never be subjected to solitary confinement. Equally, in order not to exacerbate a previously existing mental condition, individuals with mental disabilities should be provided with proper medical or psychiatric care and under no circumstances should they ever be subjected to solitary confinement. My recommendations are, first, to see if we can have a complete ban on prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement. And I more or less arbitrarily defined that as anything beyond 15 days of solitary confinement, meaning someone being confined to a cell for at least 22 hours a day.”

As Reuters reports, “Mendez told reporters he conceded that short-term solitary confinement was admissible under certain circumstances, such as the protection of lesbian, gay or bisexual detainees or people who had fallen foul of prison gangs. But he said there was ‘no justification for using it as a penalty, because that’s an inhumane penalty.’”

Mendez made reference to the case of accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning, who spent after eight months in solitary at a military brig in Virginia before being moved to general population to await court-martial. Mendez said he “planned to issue a report on Manning and other cases in the next few weeks.”

Mendez also told reporters that he himself had spent three days in solitary in the 1970s in his native Argentina, then under military dictatorship, and they were “the three longest days in my life.”

Hunger Strike in the Supermax: Pelican Bay Prisoners Protest Conditions in Solitary Confinement

From SolitaryWatch:
June 30, 2011
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day, inmates in solitary confinement at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison are standing up for their rights in the only way they can–by going on hunger strike. The prisoners, who are being held in long-term and often permanent isolation, have sworn to refuse food until conditions are improved in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU).

Built in 1989, Pelican Bay is the nation’s first purpose-built supermax prison, and remains one of its most notorious. Constructed to house 2,280 of California’s “most serious criminal offenders,” Pelican Bay currently holds more than 3,400. About a third of them live in the X-shaped cluster of buildings known as the SHU, which CDCR describes as “a modern design for inmates who are difficult management cases, prison gang members, and violent maximum security inmates.”

NPR’s Laura Sullivan, one of the rare reporters to be granted entry to Pelican Bay, described the SHU in a 2006 report:

(From SolitaryWatch: Drawing in Support of Pelican Bay Hunger Strike by Rashid Johnson, prisoner at Red Onion supermax prison in Virginia)

Read the rest here.

On Bradley Manning, Solitary Confinement, and Selective Outrage

Please read this good article and understand that solitary confinement is widespread in the USA, and we have to keep on telling it until it stops, because it is torture:

From Solitary Watch
January 2, 2011
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway
Solitary Watch

For the past few weeks, progressive online media sources have been alive with outrage against the conditions in which accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning is being held. Manning (as we first noted on Solitary Watch back in July) is in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, denied sunlight, exercise, possessions, and all but the most limited contact with family and friends. He has now been in isolation for more than seven months. The cruel and inhuman conditions of his detention, first widely publicized by Glenn Greenwald on Salon and expanded upon by others, are now being discussed, lamented, and protested throughout the progressive blogosphere (ourselves included). Few of those taking part in the conversation hesitate to describe Manning’s situation as torture.

Meanwhile, here at Solitary Watch, we’ve been receiving calls and emails from our modest band of readers, all of them saying more or less the same thing: We’re glad Bradley Manning’s treatment is getting some attention, but what about the tens of thousands of others who are languishing in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails? According to available data, there are some 25,000 inmates in long-term isolation in the nation’s supermax prisons, and as many as 80,000 more in solitary in other prisons and jails. Where is the outrage–even among progressives–for these forgotten souls? Where, even, is some acknowledgment of their existence?

A few of the writers who champion Manning have, to be fair, mentioned in passing the widespread use of solitary confinement in the United States. A very few have gone further: One powerful piece by Lynn Parramore on New Deal 2.0, for example, uses the Manning case as an opportunity to document and denounce the brutal realities of solitary confinement. She urges readers to “remember the thousands of people being tortured in American prisons, including Bradley Manning, and let us send our own message back to our government: We are Americans…Most assuredly, we will not accept torture in our name. Not of the accused. Not of the mentally ill. Not even of convicted criminals.”

But Parramore’s piece is an anomaly. More often, progressive writers–and their readers, if comments are any measure–have gone to some lengths to distinguish Bradley Manning from the masses of other prisoners being held in similar conditions. Whether explicitly or implicitly, they depict Manning as exceptional, and therefore less deserving of his treatment and more worthy of our concern.

Frequently, writers and readers make the point that Manning is being subjected to these condition while he is merely accused , rather than convicted, of a crime. Perhaps they need to be introduced to the 15-year-old boy who, along with several dozen other juveniles, is being held is solitary in a jail in Harris County, Texas, while he awaits trial on a robbery charge. He is one of hundreds–if not thousands–of prisoners being held in pre-trial solitary confinement, for one reason or another, on any given day in America. Most of them lack decent legal representation, or are simply too poor to make bail.
We have also seen articles suggesting that the treatment Manning is receiving is worse than the standard for solitary confinement, since he is deprived even of a pillow or sheets for his bed. Their authors should review the case of the prisoners held in the St. Tammany Parish Jail in rural Louisiana. According to a brief by the Louisiana ACLU, “After the jail determines a prisoner is suicidal, the prisoner is stripped half-naked and placed in a 3′ x 3′ metal cage with no shoes, bed, blanket or toilet…Prisoners report they must curl up on the floor to sleep because the cages are too small to let them lie down. Guards frequently ignore repeated requests to use the bathroom, forcing some desperate people to urinate in discarded containers…People have been reportedly held in these cages for days, weeks, and months.” The cells are one-fourth the size mandated by local law for caged dogs.

There is, rightly, concern over the damage being done to Manning’s mental health by seven months in solitary. Seldom mentioned is the fact that an estimated one-third to one-half of the residents of America’s isolation units suffer from mental illness, and solitary confinement cells have, in effect, become our new asylums. Witness the ACLU of Montana’s brief on a 17-year-old mentally ill inmate who “was so traumatized by his deplorable treatment in the Montana State Prison that he twice attempted to kill himself by biting through the skin on his wrist to puncture a vein.” During his ten months in solitary confinement, he was tasered, pepper sprayed, and stripped naked in view of other inmates, and “his mental health treatment consists of a prison staff member knocking on his door once a week and asking if he has any concerns.”

Finally, many have argued that the nature of Manning’s alleged crimes renders him a heroic political prisoner, rather than a “common” criminal. Those who take this line might want to look into the “Communications Management Units” at two federal prisons, where, according to a lawsuit filed last year by the Center for Constitutional Rights, prisoners are placed in extreme isolation “for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system.” Or they might investigate the aftermath of the recent prison strike in Georgia, in which several inmates have reportedly been thrown into solitary for leading a nonviolent protest against prison conditions.
All of these cases are “exceptional,” but only in that they earned the attention of some journalist or advocate. Most prisoners held solitary confinement are, by design, silent and silenced. Most of their stories–tens of thousands of them–are never told at all. And solitary confinement is now used as a disciplinary measure of first resort in prisons and jails across the country, so its use is anything but exceptional.

All across America, inmates are placed in isolation for weeks or months not only for fighting with other inmates or guards, but for being “disruptive” or disobeying orders; for being identified as a gang member (often by a prison snitch or the wrong kind of tattoo); or for having contraband, which can include not only a weapon but a joint, a cell phone, or too many postage stamps. In Virginia, a dozen Rastafarians were in solitary for more than a decade because they refused to cut their dreadlocks, in violation of the prison code. In many prisons, juveniles and rape victims are isolated “for their own protection” in conditions identical to those used for punishment. And for more serious crimes, the isolation simply becomes more extreme, and more permanent: In Louisiana, two men convicted of killing a prison guard have been in solitary confinement for 38 years.

Moreover, if solitary confinement is torture–or at the very least, cruel and inhuman punishment–it shouldn’t matter what a prisoner has done to end up there. As Lynn Parramore writes, “The placement of human beings in solitary confinement is not a measure of their depravity. It is a measure of our own.”
The treatment of Bradley Manning, which has introduced many on the left to the torment of solitary confinement, may present an opportunity for them to measure their own humanity. They might begin by asking themselves whether prison torture is wrong, and worthy of their attention and outrage, only when it is committed against people whose actions they admire.

http://solitarywatch.com/2011/01/02/on-bradley-manning-solitary-confinement-and-selective-outrage/

See for instance: Russell Maroon Shoats: 21 years in solitary confinement

The Worst of the Worst: Supermax Torture in America

SolitaryWatch published an article mentioning this article:
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010
By Lance Tapley
Boston Review
For photo and video, please go to the original article.
Mike James, photographed by Lance Tapley.

“They beat the shit out of you,” Mike James said, hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison.

“They push you, knee you, poke you,” he said, his voice faint but ardent through the speaker. “They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you’re cuffed.” He lifted his manacled hands to a scar on his chin. “They split it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”

When you meet Mike James you notice first his deep-set eyes and the many scars on his shaved head, including a deep, horizontal gash. He got that by scraping his head on the cell door slot, which guards use to pass in food trays.

WARNING: This video may disturb some viewers.

This video, leaked to Lance Tapley, shows a cell extraction at the super-maximum security unit of the Maine State Prison in Warren. Each such extraction is videotaped by guards to prove that mistreatment does not occur. The mentally ill prisoner is maced while he is forcibly moved from his cell, denuded, and placed in a restraint chair.

“They were messing with me,” he explained, referring to the guards who taunted him. “I couldn’t stand it no more.” He added, “I’ve knocked myself out by running full force into the wall.”

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.

Despite a judge’s order, officials refused to send Mike James to the hospital, arguing he had to serve his full sentence first.

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.

Can supermax treatment legitimately be called torture? The most widely accepted legal definition of torture is in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment—a treaty to which the United States is party, and is therefore U.S. law. In this definition, torture is treatment that causes “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” when it is inflicted by officials for purposes of punishment or coercion.

Severe pain and suffering as punishment are plainly the norm in supermaxes, and prison officials use isolation to coerce inmates into ratting on each other or confessing to crimes committed in prison. (A Maine prisoner told me about a deputy warden who threw him in the most brutal cellblock of the supermax and repeatedly interrogated him about an escape plot, which he denied any knowledge of.) Even in the careful words of diplomacy, and even when only mental suffering is considered, supermax conditions, especially solitary confinement of American prisoners for extended periods, have increasingly been described by UN agencies and non-governmental human rights organizations as cruel, inhuman, degrading, verging on torture, or outright torture. In 2008 the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, recommended that solitary confinement “be kept to a minimum, used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort”—limits that U.S. supermaxes violate in the course of normal operation. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which has been active in opposing abuses at Guantánamo, recently began describing supermax conditions as torture. And American judges have recognized solitary confinement of the mentally ill as equivalent to torture. A key case is the 1995 federal court ruling in Madrid v. Gomez that forbade keeping mentally ill prisoners in the notorious Security Housing Unit of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

This American system of administrative punishment has no counterpart in scale or severity.

Solitary confinement is by far the worst torture in the supermax. Human minds fare poorly in isolation, which “often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before,” Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and authority on solitary confinement, writes in a brief for the Madrid case. Grassian believes supermaxes produce a syndrome characterized by “agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.” He also notes memory lapses, “primitive aggressive fantasies,” paranoia, and hallucinations.

Grassian’s is the consensus view among scholars concerned with solitary confinement. Peter Scharff Smith of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, who has surveyed in depth the literature concerning solitary confinement, writes, “Research on effects of solitary confinement has produced a massive body of data documenting serious adverse health effects.” Those effects may start within a few days, involve as many as three-quarters of supermax inmates, and often become permanent. Another expert on supermax confinement, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, writes, “being held in isolated confinement for longer than three months causes lasting emotional damage if not full-blown psychosis and functional disability.”

Video still of a cell extraction in progress.

The throwing of feces, urine, and blood at guards; self-injury; and suicide attempts are common. A 2009 investigation of Illinois’s Tamms supermax by the Belleville News-Democrat depicted Faygie Fields, a schizophrenic imprisoned for killing a man in a drug deal. Fields regularly cut his arms and throat with glass and metal, swallowed glass, and smeared feces all over his cell. The prison reaction to this kind of behavior was predictable:

Prison officials charged him $5.30 for tearing up a state-owned sheet to make a noose to kill himself. . . . If he hadn’t been charged with crimes in prison, Fields could have been paroled in 2004 after serving 20 years of a 40-year sentence. But Fields must serve all the extra time for throwing food, urine and committing other offenses against guards. That amounts to 34 years, or 54 years total, that he must serve before becoming eligible for parole in 2038, at age 79.

This American system of administrative punishment—except in extremely rare cases, prison staff, not judges, decide who goes into the hole—has no counterpart in scale or severity. There are solitary-confinement cells in other countries’ prisons and the odd, small supermax, such as the Vught prison in the Netherlands, but they are few. When Corey Weinstein, a San Francisco physician, toured prisons in the United Kingdom in 2004 on behalf of the American Public Health Association, he was shown “eight of the forty men out of 75,000 [in England and Wales] considered too dangerous or disruptive to be in any other facility.” Seven of the eight

were out of their cells at exercise or at a computer or with a counselor or teacher. . . . With embarrassment the host took us to the one cell holding the single individual who had to be continuously locked down.

The British and other Europeans did use solitary confinement starting in the mid-nineteenth century, taking as models the American penitentiaries that had invented mass isolation in the 1820s. But Europe largely gave it up later in the century because, rather than becoming penitent, prisoners went insane. A shocked Charles Dickens, after visiting a Pennsylvania prison in 1842, called solitary confinement “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” Americans gave it up, too, in the late 1800s, only to resurrect it a century later.

Officially called the Special Management Unit or SMU, Maine’s supermax opened in 1992, hidden in the woods of the pretty coastal village of Warren. Ten years later the new, maximum-security Maine State Prison was built around it. Literally and metaphorically, the supermax’s 132 cells are the core of the stark, low, 925-inmate complex with its radiating “pods.” Maine’s crime and incarceration rates are among the lowest in the country, but its supermax is as brutal as any. After allegations of beatings by guards and of deliberately withheld medical care, the state police are currently investigating two inmate deaths in the SMU. Grassian has told a legislative committee that Maine’s supermax treats its inmates worse than its peers in many states.

Still, supermaxes are more alike than different. As America’s prisoner population exploded—the U.S. incarceration rate now is nearly four times what it was in 1980, more than five times the world average, and the highest in the world—overcrowding tossed urban state prisons into turmoil. The federal system provided a model for dealing with the tumult: in 1983 mayhem in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, resulted in a permanent lockdown and, effectively, the first supermax. “No evidence exists that states undertook any rigorous assessment of need,” Mears, the Florida State criminologist, writes of supermax proliferation, but the states still decided they would segregate whomever they deemed the most troublesome inmates. Maine’s supermax is a case in point, constructed in the absence of prisoner unrest. George Keiser, a veteran prisons official who works for the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections, puts it bluntly: supermaxes became “a fad.”

An expensive fad. American supermax buildings are so high-tech and the management of their prisoners is so labor-intensive that the facilities “typically are two to three times more costly to build and operate than other types of prisons,” Mears writes. Yet, according to Keiser, tax money poured into supermax construction because these harsh prisons were “the animal of public-policy makers.” The beast was fed by politicians capitalizing on public fears of crime incited by increasing news-media sensationalism.

‘This place breeds hate,’ one inmate said, ‘What they’re doing obviously isn’t working.’

There was no significant opposition to the supermaxes, even when it became clear that the mentally ill would be housed there. Legislatively mandated deinstitutionalization meant patients were thrown onto the streets without enough community care, and eventually many wound up in jails and prisons. Also, “for a time,” Keiser said, “there was a thought that nothing worked” to rehabilitate prisoners. With conservative scholars such as James Q. Wilson leading the way in the 1970s, “corrections” was essentially abandoned.

The supermax experiment has not been a success.

Norman Kehling—small, balding, middle-aged—is serving 40 years in the Maine State Prison for an arson in which, he told me, no one was hurt. When I interviewed him, he was in the supermax for trafficking heroin within the prison. I asked him about the mentally ill men there. “One guy cut his testicle out of his sack,” he reported, shaking his head. “They shouldn’t be here.” He added, “This place breeds hate. What they’re doing obviously isn’t working.”

Wardens continue to justify supermaxes by claiming they decrease prison violence, but a study published in The Prison Journal in 2008 finds “no empirical evidence to support the notion that supermax prisons are effective” in meeting this goal. And when enraged and mentally damaged inmates rejoin the general prison population or the outside world, as the vast majority do, the result, according to psychiatrist Kupers, is “a new population of prisoners who, on account of lengthy stints in isolation units, are not well prepared to return to a social milieu.” In the worst cases, supermax alumni—frequently released from solitary confinement directly onto the street—“may be time bombs waiting to explode,” criminologist Hans Toch writes.

The bombs are already going off. In July of 2007 Michael Woodbury, then 31, walked into a New Hampshire store and, in a botched robbery, shot and killed three men. He had just completed a five-year stint at the Maine State Prison for robbery and theft and had done much of his time in the supermax. When he was being taken to court he told reporters, “I reached out and told them I need medication. I reached out and told them I shouldn’t be out in society. I told numerous cops, numerous guards.” While in prison, he said, he had given a four-page “manifesto” to a prison mental-health worker saying he “was going to crack like this.” Woodbury pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. Unsurprisingly, a Washington state study shows a high degree of recidivism among inmates released directly to the community from the supermax.

Summing up the major pragamatic arguments, Sharon Shalev of the London School of Economics and author of a recent prizewinning book, Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, says, “Supermax prisons are expensive, ineffective, and they drive people mad.”

So what can be done?

Legally, solitary confinement is not likely to be considered torture anytime soon. According to legal scholar Jules Lobel, when the Senate ratified the Convention Against Torture, it qualified its approval so much that under the U.S. interpretation “the placement of even mentally ill prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement would not constitute torture even if the mental pain caused thereby drove the prisoner to commit suicide.” And despite the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” courts have refused to see supermax confinement per se as unconstitutional. Lawsuits on behalf of the mentally ill have had more success. In New York a suit brought about the creation of a residential mental-health unit for prisoners, with another on the way, plus more time out of the cell for the mentally ill. Still, fifteen years after Madrid v. Gomez, court-ordered reform has been infrequent and its implementation contested.

Read the rest here.

This article is adapted from The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse, forthcoming from New York University Press, and based on five years of reporting for the Portland Phoenix.

US Prisons are Challenged in European Court of Human Rights…and Lose the First Round

Supermax Takes a Hit

By JEAN CASELLA and JAMES RIDGEWAY
July 12, 2010
In: Counterpunch

The Federal Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (“ADX”) in Florence, Colorado, where conditions may violate the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibition against “torture or inhuman and degrading treatment”

For years, four British nationals have been fighting against their extradition to the United States to face various terrorism charges, arguing that such a move would place them at risk of human right violations, as defined by the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. When courts in the UK ruled against the four men, they took their cause to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Among other things, the British suspects have argued that if extradited, they could face a lifetime of solitary confinement under “special administrative measures” (SAMs), most likely at ADX Florence, the notorious federal supermax prison in Colorado. Such confinement, they contend, would violate Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The UK sought to have the suspects’ complaint dismissed. But today, the European Court of Human Rights “declared admissible” the portions of the complaint dealing with supermax conditions, as well as with life sentences without the possibility of parole.

A press release issued earlier today by the Registrar of the European Court summarized the case (Babar Ahmad and Others v. the United Kingdom) this way:

The applicants alleged in particular that, despite the diplomatic assurances provided by the United States, they were at risk, if extradited, of being subjected to an unfair trial–due to the use of evidence obtained through torture and/or of coercive plea bargaining–at the conclusion of which they could be designated as enemy combatants. They also alleged that, once extradited, they were at risk of extraordinary rendition and life imprisonment without parole and/or extremely long sentences in a “supermax” prison such as ADX Florence where special administrative measures would be applied to them. They relied on Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), 5 (right to liberty and security), 6 (right to a fair trial), 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination).

Based on promises made by the United States, the Court ruled that if extradited, the British suspects would not be at risk of extraordinary rendition, of being tried as enemy combatants, or of unfair trials or discrimination. It had also received assurances that the suspects would not face the death penalty. When it came to confinement for life in Florence ADX, however, the Court found a credible case could might be made that such punishment would violate the European Convention.

The Court requested further briefing on a number of questions, including the following, before it issues its final ruling:

Given the length of the sentences faced by [three of the four suspects] if convicted, would the time spent at a “supermax” prison, the US Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum, Florence, Colorado (“ADX Florence”), amount to a violation of Article 3?

Does the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution (prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment”), as interpreted by the federal courts, provide protection equivalent to Article 3 of the Convention?

The four British terrorism suspects are represented by the firm of renowned British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce (who wrote about the case here). The information presented to the European Court on Human Rights on their behalf reads like a rundown of evidence for the torturous nature of solitary confinement in general, and lockdown at ADX Florence in particular.

Following are the relevant paragraphs from the Court’s decision.

90. The applicants relied on a series of newspaper articles on ADX Florence, including a Time magazine article of 5 November 2006 described spartan cells and almost no contact between prisoners and other people, since food, mail and laundry were passed through a slot in the cell door. Prisoners were strip-searched before they were allowed to exercise. There were also staff shortages which caused irregular meal times, reduced telephone calls and exercise time. A television interview with a former warden also described frequent force-feeding as a result of hunger strikes by prisoners in protest at their conditions.

91. The applicants also provided a report by a psychiatrist, Dr Terry Kupers, which had been prepared specifically for the present proceedings. He considered that a supermax prison regime did not amount to sensory deprivation but there was an almost total lack of meaningful human communication. This tended to induce a range of psychological symptoms ranging from panic to psychosis and emotional breakdown. All studies into the effects of supermax detention had found such symptoms after sixty days’ detention. Once such symptoms presented, it was not sufficient to return someone to normal prison conditions in order to remedy them. If supermax detention were imposed for an indeterminate period it also led to chronic despair. Approximately half of suicides in prison involved the 6-8% of prisoners held in such conditions. The effects of supermax conditions were worse for someone with pre-existing mental health problems. Dr Kuper’s conclusions were supported by a number of journal articles by psychologists and criminologists, which the applicants provided.

92. The applicants also provided a copy of the Istanbul statement on the use and effects of solitary confinement, which was adopted at the International Psychological Trauma Symposium in December 2007. Its participants included the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. The statement included the following on the effects of solitary confinement:

“it has been convincingly documented on numerous occasions that solitary confinement may cause serious psychological and sometimes physiological ill effects. Research suggests that between one-third and as many as 90 per cent of prisoners experience adverse symptoms in solitary confinement. A long list of symptoms ranging from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and psychosis has been documented. Negative health effects can occur after only a few days in solitary confinement, and the health risks rise with each additional day spent in such conditions.

Individuals may react to solitary confinement differently. Still. a significant number of individuals will experience serious health problems regardless of the specific conditions, regardless of lime and place, and regardless of pre-existing personal factors. The central harmful feature of solitary confinement is that it reduces meaningful social contact to a level of social and psychological stimulus that many will experience as insufficient to sustain health and well-being.

The use of solitary confinement in remand prisons carries with it another harmful dimension since the detrimental effects will often create a de facto situation of psychological pressure which can influence the pretrial detainees lo plead guilty. When the element of psychological pressure is used on purpose as part of isolation regimes such practices become coercive and can amount to torture.”

93. The applicants also submitted a report from the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Denver, which had acted for a number of prisoners at ADX Florence. The report noted that conditions were even more severe for those prisoners who were subjected to special administrative measures. For example, such prisoners could only communicate with his “attorney of record”. This made it impossible to contact an attorney to request representation to challenge special administrative measures. Requests made directly to the court to have an attorney appointed were denied. There had been no successful challenges to designation to ADX Florence and challenges could only succeed where confinement in supermax affected the prisoner’s date of release or where he was severely mentally ill. The report accepted that the step-down programme could take a minimum of three years but prisoners could be removed from it and returned to “general population” if they were found guilty of misconduct or for “administrative reasons”. The report highlighted the cases of several Muslim prisoners who had fulfilled all of the criteria for admission to the step-down programme except for the requirement that the original reasons for placement at ADX Florence be “sufficiently mitigated”. However, several prisoners had only been transferred from lower security prisons to ADX Florence after 11 September 2001 (despite no evidence of their involvement in the attacks) and thus it was difficult for them to demonstrate that the reason for their placement had been mitigated. Two Muslim clients of the Civil Rights Center had spent respectively five and ten years in general population units but had not been admitted to the step-down programme. Another had spent five years in a general population unit and had only been admitted after retaining the Center in a lawsuit.

94. Both the applicants and Government made reference to a letter dated 2 May 2007 from Human Rights Watch to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons which followed a tour the organisation had been given of ADX Florence. The letter expressed concerns that a number of prisoners convicted of terrorism offences had been sent to the prison based on the nature of their crimes and, despite good conduct since their arrival, had remained in general population units and thus outside the step-down programme for up to nine years. The letter made suggestions for improvement in respect of recreation, mail, telephone use, the library. It also noted that progress was to be made on better meeting prisoners’ religious needs, such as the provision of a full-time imam and commended the educational programmes available through the prison’s television system. The letter urged the prison authorities to investigate reports of retaliation against prisoners who were on hunger strike in the form of transfer to harsher cells. The letter also said that Human Rights Watch was extremely concerned about the effects of long-term isolation and highly limited exercise on the mental health of prisoners and criticised reports of rushed consultations between prisoners and psychologists, as well as the fact that evaluations were carried out via closed circuit television.

95. The applicants obtained a second letter from Human Rights Watch, dated 21 August 2008, which stated that Human Rights Watch considered conditions at ADX violated the United States’ treaty obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. It was unremarkable that “minor adjustments” had been made to the regime but it remained in essence one of “long-term and indefinite incarceration in conditions of extreme social isolation and sensory deprivation”.

96. Human Rights Watch’s second letter also provided extracts from two United Nations reports from 2006 on supermax detention. In the first, the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated:

“The Committee reiterates its concern that conditions in some maximum security prisons are incompatible with the obligation contained in article 10 (1) of the Covenant to treat detainees with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. It is particularly concerned by the practice in some such institutions to hold detainees in prolonged cellular confinement, and to allow them out-of-cell recreation for only five hours per week, in general conditions of strict regimentation in a depersonalized environment. It is also concerned that such treatment cannot be reconciled with the requirement in article 10 (3) that the penitentiary system shall comprise treatment the essential aim of which shall be the reformation and social rehabilitation of prisoners. It also expresses concern about the reported high numbers of severely mentally ill persons in these prisons, as well as in regular in [sic] U.S. jails.

The State party should scrutinize conditions of detention in prisons, in particular in maximum security prisons, with a view to guaranteeing that persons deprived of their liberty be treated in accordance with the requirements of article ID of the Covenant and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”

97. The second report was from the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which stated:

“The Committee remains concerned about the extremely harsh regime imposed on detainees in ‘supermaximum prisons’. The Committee is concerned about the prolonged isolation periods detainees are subjected to, the effect such treatment has on their mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (art. 16). The State party should review the regime imposed on detainees in ‘supermaximum prisons’, in particular the practice of prolonged isolation.”

For more on ADX Florence, see 60 Minutes, “Supermax: A Clean Version of Hell” and the ADX page at Supermaxed.com.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway edit Solitarywatch, where this article originally appeared.