There was a stain of what looked like blood on the floor of the otherwise shiny-clean, empty Mental Health Unit isolation cell. “It’s Kool-Aid,” said my minder, a deputy warden. He smiled. But, as the saying goes, I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. The cell faintly stank of shit. Mentally ill prisoners and those made mentally ill by prolonged solitary confinement are driven to cut themselves and to try to throw their feces at guards. In one of the Administrative Segregation cellblocks — pure solitary confinement — I heard undulating cries and saw shadowy faces behind the steel doors’ tiny windows. The Maine State Prison “supermax,” or Special Management Unit, is an ugly place. Are my photos ugly enough? Trying to fit form to content, I used an old film camera and grainy-image-producing 400-speed, black-and-white film shot usually without a flash under fluorescent lights. There were big limitations. I was not supposed to photograph prisoners, and my tour was rapid. That said, I was, possibly, the first journalist to visit and photograph the supermax — after eight years of writing about it. Super-harsh supermax (super-maximum-security) prisons and their central feature of solitary confinement became a correctional craze 30 years ago. They became dumping grounds for the mentally ill and others who couldn’t follow prison rules or who simply irritated guards. At least 80,000 human beings are held in them nationwide. Maine opened its supermax in the coastal town of Warren in 1992. Ten years later it built the new state prison around it. The supermax’s unforgiving conditions are not helpful, to put it mildly, in improving prisoner behavior. The evidence is overwhelming, in fact, that protracted solitary confinement damages or destroys prisoners’ minds. Human-rights groups consider it torture. And it costs taxpayers twice as much as “general population” incarceration.
POSTED: 5:07 pm MST February 15, 2011 UPDATED: 6:56 pm MST February 15, 2011
PHOENIX — A private-prison watchdog group says questions about safety and cost should prompt state leaders to cancel a plan to privatize 5,000 prison beds.
Representatives of the American Friends Service Committee met with state leaders Tuesday to hand over research they’ve conducted about private prisons in Arizona.
The group’s findings include revelations that Arizona pays private prison companies $55 per night for medium security inmates, while it only costs $48 for the same inmates in state-run facilities.
“And the evidence overwhelmingly shows that for-profit prisons are more expensive, less safe and are not accountable to the tax payers,” said Caroline Isaacs, who is the AFSC Arizona program director.
Last summer, the Arizona Department of Corrections canceled a plan to privatize 5,000 prison beds, after three inmates escaped from a for-profit prison in Kingman. The prison break resulted in a multistate manhunt. Authorities say two of the escapees murdered a man and woman in New Mexico while on the run.
At the end of January, the state reopened the contract process for the 5,000 prison beds after the director of the Department of Corrections issued new rules for oversight of private prisons.
Isaacs said the state needs new laws that tighten private prison reporting requirements to ensure the facilities are safe and economical. She also called on Gov. Jan Brewer and state leaders to scrap the plan to expand the private prisons already operating in Arizona.