Prisoners Tortured Daily in New York State

This is an article in the February issue of Peace Newsletter, posted by the Syracuse Peace Council:

From the February 2013 PNL #821
by Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre

In March 2012 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture called for a near-total ban on solitary confinement. Juan Mendez stated that “solitary confinement itself can amount to … torture as defined in Article 1 of the Convention against Torture.” The cited article defines torture as “… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” Mendez contends that after 15 days some psychological effects resulting from solitary confinement (also called isolation or segregation) are irreversible.

Mendez also specifically condemned US reliance on the practice, which is utilized in all sectors of the US detention system. From immigration detention centers to psychiatric institutions, military prisons to even juvenile detention centers, solitary confinement is a standard feature of the imprisoned landscape. And the nation’s penal system is no exception.

There are 45 “super-max” prisons in the US. A super-max is a prison facility wholly devoted to holding inmates in solitary confinement. 44 of these are state-run and the lone federal super-max is in Florence, CO. In 2000, the US Department of Justice estimated that an average of 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement at any one time.

Solitary in NYS

NYS is the home of two super-max prisons, Southport in Chemung County (789 beds) and Upstate in Franklin County (1,040 beds). Additionally, there are around 3,000 Special Housing Unit (SHU) beds dispersed among 37 other prisons in New York. A 2012 snapshot of the solitary confinement population found 402 inmates under 20 years old, 83 of them 18 or younger. 86% of the prisoners at Southport and Upstate are Black or Latino. Many have been diagnosed with mental illness before or after their arrival in isolation. LGBTQ prisoners are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory isolation across the detention spectrum.

[24 hours in solitary]
Inmates in solitary are permitted one hour per day of
“recreation” in an outdoor cage. Image: NYCLU & Amelia
Ramsey-Lefevre

Inmates in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in a small cell alone or in close quarters with one other person (a condition given the conflicted name “double solitary”). One hour per day is allowed for “outdoor recreation.” Prisoners may go in handcuffs to a caged area smaller even than their cell, where other inmates can be heard but not seen. Some inmates reported to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) that they declined recreation to avoid hearing the screams of other solitary inmates in the recreation cell.

Prisoners receive no training, work, or rehabilitation services and report insufficient access to medical and psychological care while in solitary confinement. No transitional services are available for those in solitary, even when inmates will be directly released from isolation. Despite the lack of services, SHUs and super-maxes are expensive to staff. NYS spends about $76 million each year to staff segregation units.

How does an inmate get to solitary?

Roughly 90% of placements in isolation are for disciplinary reasons, though solitary confinement can also be imposed if the inmate is perceived to be vulnerable or a threat to prison safety. The punitive system in NYS prisons allows each class of violation to be rated at varying levels of severity, granting corrections officials (COs) wide discretion as to the severity of the punishment. In fact every single rule violation in NYS prisons has the potential to be met with a solitary confinement sentence.

There is no limit to the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement. Once in isolation, an inmate’s sentence in the SHU can be extended to punish subsequent rule infractions. If the solitary sentence exceeds the remainder of the entire sentence, COs are authorized to enforce further punishment through deprivation of haircuts, clothing, recreation, and even nutritional food.

It is well documented that prolonged solitary confinement often leads to mental illness in previously healthy individuals and almost always exacerbates mental illness where it already exists. Inmates in isolation have higher rates of suicide and self-harm. COs also report adverse effects from working in such tension including depression, alcoholism and family problems.

Why solitary?

The question remains why solitary confinement is so heavily relied upon in the US despite its costliness compared to conventional prisons, its negative effects on inmates and COs, and its ineffectiveness in reforming criminals. How did we get to where we are today?

In 1890, the US Supreme Court concluded that “solitary confinement left prisoners in a semi-fatuous condition.” The practice was virtually abandoned in the US for nearly 90 years. Then, in 1983 a riot in a federal prison in Marion, IL prompted a state of emergency and permanent solitary lockdown for all inmates that lasted 23 years. By 1991, over 35 states had built or repurposed facilities to emulate the conditions at Marion. Between 1995 and 2000, the total US prison population grew by 28%; the population in isolation grew 40%. By 2000, the Justice Department estimated there were 80,000 prisoners being held in solitary at any one time in the US. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons claims the real number is much higher.

There is a clear connection between the invented Drug War and the resurgence of solitary confinement as an acceptable form of punishment. The NYCLU reports that the 346% increase in the prison population between 1973 and 1993 (correlated with vastly increased prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders) stressed the prison system with overcrowding that led to unprecedented management and control problems. Prisons responded to this stress by putting inmates in isolation.

Insubstantial Myths

Increased dependence on solitary confinement also mirrored a larger trend in the penal system toward punishment as opposed to rehabilitation. Just as policymakers waxed poetic about how they were “cracking down” on “hardened criminals”—language intended to make racist laws palatable to the public, as Michelle Alexander argues in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow—prison officials welcomed the construction of isolation units as proof of how “tough” their institutions were.

We are told that isolation is reserved for the “worst of the worst”—the most dangerous individuals in the prison population. Even the name of the solitary confinement prison—“super-max”—supports the notion that an extreme level of security is required to handle an extreme level of danger. But how can that be true if any violation can be punished with isolation? The NYCLU found that five out of six punitive isolation sentences are handed down for nonviolent rule infractions. The “worst of the worst” myth is simply not true.

Profit is the bottom line

The need for solitary confinement is a myth that supports a profit-driven prison system. Research shows that people released directly from solitary confinement are more likely to reoffend (and end up back in prison) than comparable general population prisoners. These crimes are also more likely to be violent and therefore garner a longer prison sentence.

This state of affairs is tragic, but it’s not surprising. The US prison system locks people up with no human contact and no meaningful work, denies them access to mental health care, and then releases them with no transitional programming whatsoever. The only beneficiary in this warped system is a prison system that profits from holding more inmates.

New Yorkers, our task is clear. We must stop torturing our fellow New Yorkers. We must reject the punitive, profit-driven imprisonment culture, and we must end the racist Drug War.

——

References

-National Religious Campaign Against Torture – www.nrcat.org; also powerpoint presentation in Columbus, GA in November 2012; also their film, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard.” SPC owns a DVD copy of this film. Contact Amelia to watch or organize a viewing.

-“Boxed In,” published by NYCLU, 2012, http://www.boxedinny.org/report/

– NYT Mar 10 2012 “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/rethinking-solitary-confinement.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

-“Invisible in Isolation: The Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Immigrant Detention,” published by the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigration Justice Center & Physicians for Human Rights, 2012, http://www.immigrantjustice.org/publications/report-invisible-isolation-use-segregation-and-solitary-confinement-immigration-detenti#.UPHRXPLDkm8

-The Passion of Bradley Manning, Chase Madar, 2012.

-The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, 2010.

Amelia’s education in prison justice was catalyzed by the tragic murder of Troy Anthony Davis on September 21, 2011. Thanks also to the inmate who wrote to the PNL recommending NYCLU’s report “Boxed In.”

Prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison on hunger strike

From: SF Bay View
May 27, 2012
by Mary Ratcliff, SF Bay View

On May 22, brave prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison began a hunger strike. Their decision to starve themselves in an effort to be heard is the latest in a recent series of prison strikes, one of the very few forms of peaceful recourse available to prisoners to protest intolerable conditions.

The series started Dec. 9, 2010, with a sit-down strike by thousands of prisoners in Georgia, tired of being forced to work for free like slaves, followed by Lucasville prisoners’ hunger strike at Ohio State Penitentiary in January 2011 and the mass hunger strikes in California beginning July 1, 2011, that involved 12,000 prisoners in 13 prisons simultaneously refusing food at their peak. Hunger strikes worldwide, from Palestine, where prisoners acknowledged being inspired by their peers in California, to Kyrgysztan, where prisoners literally sewed their mouths shut, have followed.

Red Onion State Prison in rural Virginia sits in the barren crater of a formerly lush green mountain whose top was blown off to remove the coal that used to be mined the old-fashioned way. Built in 1998, it’s the new economic development model for Appalachia: mountaintop removal covered by prisons and Wal-Marts, now the only job options for out-of-work miners and their families, according to JJ Heyward, a veteran activist who volunteered at the Bay View before moving to the East Coast.

Now the miners who used to mine “black gold” – coal – mind Black prisoners. Heyward says that Washington, D.C., has no prisons, so anyone sentenced to five years or more is shipped out of state, often to Red Onion, culturally a world away. Creative activists to the rescue, the staff of WMMT Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, broadcast a show connecting prisoners and their families back home that can be heard in Red Onion and seven more state and federal mountain prisons plus many regional jails and detention centers.
[photo:]
“Red Onion State Prison was opened a dozen years ago amid a major prison-building effort in Virginia. It was designed to confine the most dangerous criminals – often in solitary cells where they have almost no interaction with others,” reads the caption published with this photo by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

“In recent years, central Appalachia has seen a boom in prison construction, and many of those who have subsequently been incarcerated in our region’s growing prison system come from places far, far away from the coalfields,” explains WMMT. “Due to this distance and the often prohibitive cost of phone calls in prison, many have no contact with their friends and family, being far outside of a travel range that many loved ones can afford. In response, WMMT began the Holler to the Hood project 10 years ago in an effort to connect those in prison to their families, friends and the outside world.”

The show, now called Hot 88.7 – Hip Hop from the Hilltop and Calls From Home, airs Mondays 9-10 p.m. Eastern Time (6-7 p.m. Pacific Time). Go to WMMT to listen live. This week’s show will focus on the Red Onion hunger strike. Call 1(888) 396-1208 to record your message between 7-9 p.m. (4-6 p.m. PT) on Monday for broadcast that night. [links for WMMT do not appear to work: http://appalshop.org/wmmtfm/ – VA PW]

A statement released by one of the hunger strike representatives says: “Regardless of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, there are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We the oppressed are coming together. We’re considered rival gang members, but now we’re coming together as revolutionaries. We’re tired of being treated like animals.”

After exhausting legal and administrative remedies, the Red Onion prisoners issued 10 demands (printed in full below) and vowed to starve themselves until their demands are met. They include the right to have fully cooked meals, the right to clean cells, the right to be notified of the purpose and duration of their detention in segregation and a call for an end to indefinite segregation. Red Onion has been repeatedly criticized since it opened in 1998. A 1999 Human Rights Watch report on Red Onion concluded that the “Virginia Department of Corrections has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment.”

Torture, Red Onion style

I first heard of Red Onion when Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a nationally known prison writer and artist often compared to George Jackson, designed what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes. It shows black, brown and white arms clasped together indicating racial unity around a fork and spoon on a map of California crossed out as in a “no smoking” sign.
Rashid Johnson, who drew this self portrait, is a founding organizer of the New African Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC) and author of the book “Defying the Tomb.” With a foreword by Russell “Maroon” Shoats and afterword by Sundiata Acoli, renowned political prisoners, the book has been banned as “gang literature” by Pelican Bay State Prison.
Rashid’s acclaim did not protect him at Red Onion, where, in one of countless episodes of torture, he was assaulted by staff on Dec. 12, 2011. They dislocated his shoulder and pulled a 3-inch by 7-inch swath of his dreadlocks out by the roots. This occurred when he refused to turn his back on an officer as he came out of the exercise cage.

Mac Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion for 14 years released only last June, was interviewed May 22, the day the hunger strike began, on Voices with Vision on Pacifica station WPFW in Washington, D.C. Listen to the show here and read the transcript of the entire interview below, following the 10 demands.

Mac discusses torture at Red Onion: “having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. …

“Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed. …

“So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison.

“They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

“You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

“When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.
John “Mac” Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion State Prison for 14 years, was released just last June.
“My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken. …

“I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. …

“At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. …

“He said, ‘We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.’ …

“Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.”

How you can help

Call WMMT’s Calls From Home show to give a shout out of support to the hunger strikers. The Monday, May 28, show is especially critical; it’s the first since the strike began and will air the 10 demands of the hunger strikers. Prison officials are likely to respond by removing all prisoner radios before the next Monday show, so this will be the last chance to let these brave men know we are out here standing in solidarity with them and doing our best to make their voices heard.

In order to preserve the longevity of the show – which is an important method by which men receive messages weekly from their loved ones back home – WMMT is asking everyone calling in to be conscious of some constraints on what you say:

Don’t mention the pending ROSP hunger strike directly.
No cursing!
Don’t mention any of the men by name.
Don’t make your statement a call to action; this is considered inciting a riot by officials and will give them fuel to impose restrictions on access to the show in the future

They suggest that you:

– read a quote from a hunger striker in California, Ohio, Palestine or elsewhere.
– offer vague solidarity and support for the “struggle”; those who need to know will know what you’re talking about.
– read a short quote from George Jackson, their most beloved revolutionary, or other revolutionary figure.
– keep it short; 50 short messages will be a more powerful display of support than fewer long messages. The men need to know that there are many people out here standing in solidarity.

Calls are taken and recorded from 7-9 p.m. ET (4-6 PT) and then these calls are aired from 9-10 p.m. ET (6-7 p.m. PT). The number to call is (606) 633-1208 or 1(888) 396-1208 to give a shout out. You can listen to the show live at http://appalshop.org/.

Write to Virginia prisoners to spread the word. Red Onion is a supermax prison; prisoners are isolated and communication among them is difficult. Supporters are calling for volunteers to send short, personal, creatively written letters into everyone in the Virginia prison system they have contact information for to inform them of what’s going on. Email katherinecolespiper@gmail.com or JJ Heyward at tortakin@gmail.com for prisoners’ names and addresses. The VDOC (Virginia Department of Corrections) will try hard and fast to silence this and keep the hunger strike from spreading as it did in California. We need to be harder and faster.

Call Virginia officials who have the power to meet the hungers strikers’ demands:

Gov. Bob McDonnell, Robert.F.McDonnell@Governor.Virginia.Gov, (804) 786-4273
Virginia Corrections Director Harold W. Clarke, Harold.Clarke@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3118
Red Onion State Prison Chief Warden Randall Mathena, Randall.Mathena@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (276) 796-7510
Western Region Corrections Operations Chief G.K. Washington, GK.Washington@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3612

Sample phone call or email: Hello, I’m calling to express my support for the hunger strikers in Red Onion State Prison. These men are on hunger strike to call attention to inhumane conditions at Red Onion, from fully cooked meals and medical attention to sanitary living conditions and an end to solitary confinement. We demand an immediate response to the strikers’ demands. Red Onion has a long history of public scrutiny for conditions, and we, the broad movement to support the Red Onion hunger strikers, won’t let up until their demands are met and until Red Onion guarantees that there will be zero retaliation on the hunger strikers.

Sign the petition in support of the Virginia hunger strikers at http://www.change.org/petitions/grant-the-ten-demands-of-the-hunger-strikers-at-red-onion-state-prison. Sign and share!

Stay updated at http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com/ and, on Facebook, Solidarity for Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers.

The Red Onion hunger strikers, like those who preceded and will inevitably follow them, are dead serious. Their support website, Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers, reports the participants are in good spirits and are encouraged by the outside attention and response to their call for solidarity and support from their communities.

In addition to refusing to eat, the men are also refusing the three weekly showers they are allowed and the one hour of recreation they are permitted each day. They do not want to leave their cells until they are able to talk with a third party outside observer.

On the first day of the strike, strikers in one of the segregation pods were informed that the phone in their pod had “broken.” The same day, one striker was moved from his pod to a different pod in segregation and was threatened with losing his prison job and being charged with a false charge if he did not stop striking.

Strikers expect they will soon be split apart into separate pods (or cell blocks) in an attempt to break the strike. While being separated is not ideal, strikers also realize this could help them to spread word about the strike.

In the words of veteran prisoner advocate Marpessa Kupendua, “We must support these courageous comrades who are actively revolting against the incarceration nation. Go to http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com and take action!”
Ten demands of ROSP hunger strikers

We (prisoners at Red Onion State Prison) demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state!

1. We demand fully cooked food and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, we demand increased portions on our trays, which allow us to meet our basic nutritional needs as defined by VDOC regulations.

2. We demand that every prisoner at ROSP have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork we may request.
The New York City Ad-Hoc Committee staged a solidarity action May 25 with the Red Onion prisoners on hunger strike.
3. We demand better communication between prisoners and higher-ranking guards. Presently higher-ranking guards invariably take the lower-ranking guards’ side in disputes between guards and prisoners, forcing the prisoner to act out in order to be heard. We demand that higher-ranking guards take prisoner complaints and grievances into consideration without prejudice.

4. We demand an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation. We demand that prison officials completely adhere to the security point system, insuring that prisoners are transferred to institutions that correspond with their particular security level.

5. We demand the right to an adequate standard of living, including access to quality materials that we may use to clean our own cells. Presently, we are forced to clean our entire cell, including the inside of our toilets, with a single sponge and our bare hands. This is unsanitary and promotes the spread of disease-carrying bacteria.

6. We demand the right to have 3rd party neutral observers visit and document the condition of the prisons to ensure an end to the corruption amongst prison officials and widespread human rights abuses of prisoners. Internal Affairs and Prison Administrator’s monitoring of prison conditions have not alleviated the dangerous circumstances we are living under while in custody of the state, which include, but are not limited to: the threat of undue physical aggression by guards, sexual abuse and retaliatory measures, which violate prison policies and our human rights.

7. We demand to be informed of any and all changes to VDOC/IOP policies as soon as these changes are made.

8. We demand the right to adequate medical care. Our right to medical care is guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and thus the deliberate indifference of prison officials to our medical needs constitutes a violation of our constitutional rights. In particular, the toothpaste we are forced to purchase in the prison is a danger to our dental health and causes widespread gum disease and associated illnesses.

9. We demand our right, as enumerated through VDOC policy, to a monthly haircut. Presently, we have been denied haircuts for nearly three months. We also demand to have our razors changed out on a weekly basis. The current practice of changing out the razors every three weeks leaves prisoners exposed to the risk of dangerous infections and injury.

10. We demand that there be no reprisals for any of the participants in the Hunger Strike. We are simply organizing in the interest of more humane living conditions.
Interview with recently released Red Onion prisoner John ‘Mac’ Gaskins

This interview was broadcast on Pacifica station WPFW’s Voices with Vision, Washington, D.C., May 22, 11 a.m. It was transcribed by human rights advocate Kendra Castaneda.

Ryme Katkhouda: Good morning, Naji. Share with listeners what has been going on with the mobilizations about prisoners?

Naji Mujahid: As we speak, there’s a press conference going on in Richmond, Virginia, to announce the beginning of a hunger strike at Red Onion State Prison. Red Onion State Prison is a maximum security Virginia state prison down in the southwestern corner of the state where there has been a longstanding problem of abuse.
While in the torturous Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, Rashid Johnson drew what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes.
The prisoners, I would assume, have been inspired by other hunger strikes that have been going on around the country for the past year. We’ve seen them in Ohio, California; there was the work stoppage in Georgia. Also the Palestinian prisoners in Israel have been on strike for some time now. So it’s activity that has been gaining traction; what it seems to be is an attempt at the folks down there to tap into that.

In the studio with us we have John “Mac” Gaskins of the D.C. chapter of SPARC, Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change, and also somebody who has first-hand experience, having been at Red Onion, and he can speak further to that.

There is a list of 10 demands and the headline of them reads: “We the prisoners at Red Onion State Prison demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state.” And running down the list of demands is real basic stuff; it’s stuff that people shouldn’t have to ask for.

I guess, Mac, you can begin by explaining some of the demands; and one thing that strikes me, having known you and having discussed some of the things going on at Red Onion, you know, this list is kind of tame. It could be miles long but it’s just this basic stuff like toothpaste.

John “Mac” Gaskins: Right, in those prisons, not only in Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, in all those prisons in Southwest Virginia, you’re denied access to basic necessities such as toothpaste, soap. The toothpaste they sell is such low quality they actually sell it in a packet – it’s like a packet of ketchup – and it’s like a dollar. It will last you a couple of days – two days tops. That’s maybe brushing once a day.

All these things from having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. So this list is pretty basic. I feel that on this list, medical should be up at the top.

Ryme: What do you mean exactly by medical, Mac? For some listeners, they don’t have a clue about how bad it can be on the inside.

Mac: Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed.

The guards, which is common practice, they abuse prisoners. One of the demands on here is better communication with prisoners and higher ranking guards. They are demanding that the guards, the higher ranking officials, at least take prisoners complaints into consideration. Because right now they are basically forced to act out in order to get these guys’ attention.

So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison. It’s totally nonexistent.

Ryme: We always see in the movies, Mac, and for some people that’s their only reference, that there is an infirmary, that there are nurses that are very well dressed and ready to serve you, doctors, and everything looks fine. And we always have this scene – until there is a major uprising – of a really smoothly running prison.

And here you are talking about broken bones and whatever. Where was everybody when your bones were broken? What was going on? Still, give people the story. I know it’s painful, but we need to hear painful. This idea of sugarcoating the world so we don’t see blood about the wars, we don’t hear the pain about what goes on in the prison keeps people complacent and they are not giving support on the outside.

Mac: Yes, yes, I totally agree. So one scenario: Maybe some guy is denied his tray at Red Onion, his meal tray, so he asks for a complaint form, which is totally denied to him. You have to go through the sergeant. They’re not accessible in the office or anything like that. You have to go through the sergeant, and he determines if your complaint is valid or not, which most of the time he’s going to say it isn’t. So maybe this guy floods his cell, which I’ve done, floods his cell or kicks his door to bring attention on himself.

Naji: About flooding his cell, what do you mean, like clogging up the toilet?

Mac: Clogging up the toilet, yeah, and like flooding his cell.

They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.

My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken.

The medical staff at the prison, they lie to protect the higher ranking officials at the prison. They would not allow me to go out to see an outside doctor. I never had an x-ray done on my hand, any of that.

So the medical staff there, I mean it’s like they are totally in cahoots with the corruption that’s going on inside the prison. There was another guy where the bone in his hand had been totally snapped in half, and only because of that where they forced to take him to the hospital. His family had come in, they saw it, they made a big fuss about it; but only in extreme cases do you have access to doctors or any sort of adequate medical care in prison. At Red Onion, it’s nonexistent.

They have this guy Ron D’Angelo – they asked him once how do you justify keeping a man in these sorts of conditions? Taking them outside to recreation cages that are like dog kennels. If you are about 6 feet tall, you have to duck down to get inside of this cage – very small, maybe half of this booth, not even that. And you go out there maybe four times a week, for about 45 minutes. And that’s at the discretion of the guards, since they have to get two officers, stripsearch you, handcuff you, both walk you outside, so maybe they don’t feel like giving you rec, so they don’t give you rec that day.

Ryme: And this means time to be in the yard outside your cell, right?

Mac: Yes, but not a yard, not a yard. They have this illusion that you’re outside on the yard. At Red Onion there is no yard; they have dog kennels which are inside of the building. They do have the roof cut off where it looks like you are outside, but you are in this plexiglas enclosure that is surrounded by fence, so you’re not outside.
This drawing by Rashid is called “Control Unit Torture.” To see a mind-blowing display of his work – all of it done while he himself is being tortured in a control unit – go to http://rashidmod.com/art/. Rashid encourages the use of his art for free. You’ll find a drawing on almost every topic you care about. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson
At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. He said in response, “We didn’t bring these guys …”

Ryme: What does that do to men mentally?

Mac: It destroys them. I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. I think all of us, I don’t think you can live under those sorts of conditions and not be damaged by that to some degree, so I think you slip in and out of insanity. For someone like me, I just happened to escape and still have some sense of sanity but …

Naji: What were you about to say about what Ron D’Angelo said?

Mac: He said, “We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.”

There’s this good video – if anyone listening hasn’t seen it, they need to see it – it’s called “Up the Ridge.” They have this footage of when they are doing the ribbon cutting for Wallens Ridge State Prison; there’s this big sign on top of it that says something like Future Home of Virginia’s Exiles, basically meaning all of the guys who can’t fit in the legitimate framework of society, this is where we exile them to, a supermax prison

Ryme: You are listening to Voices with Vision on WPFW, Washington D.C., 89.3FM on your dial. We have with us Mac, who is talking to us about the prisoners’ strike and about Red Onion. This was heavy, so you said there are the medical conditions and there’s also the mental pressure that’s put on the men?

Mac: Yes, and there’s nothing. At one point you couldn’t be sent to Red Onion because they didn’t have any sort of services that accommodated someone with a mental illness. But, in the interest of money, even though it’s a state prison, it’s pretty complicated, because Virginia is building prisons to hold prisoners from other states. That’s what this video “Up The Ridge” is all about.

They have one prison called Green Rock, which only has Pennsylvania prisoners. They don’t hold Virginia prisoners. And Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, was doing that to some degree for a while. They had prisoners from New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Virgin Islands, so they wanted to fill those beds.

When they first built the prisons, there was a criteria: You had to be one of the most violent prisoners in the state. But the guys weren’t really meeting that criteria to fill 1,500 beds or something, so they just started lowering what the required criteria was to be sent to a supermax prison so anyone could go.

Naji: I saw the Wallens Ridge documentary; if I remember correctly, like you said it is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. But you ended up having people come in there for nonviolent offenses and so forth. I think there was a kid from Connecticut, you know they were bringing guys all the way down from Connecticut to Virginia with relatively minor charges. You know, poor fellow ended up committing suicide from the stress that was put on him. I think you told me before, suicide – successful suicides and suicide attempts – is not at all uncommon.

Ryme: There is also a masquerade around suicides that all of us all know just too well, which is when somebody just needs to disappear, there’s suddenly a so-called suicide. This is pretty sad and intense. What besides these two conditions, Mac, are the demands of the prisoners that are on strike?

Mac: The prisoners’ first demand is the demand for fully cooked food and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables, in addition to increased portions on their food trays. This is a minimal request just to meet their basic nutritional needs as defined by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The food that you get – I can’t explain in words the poor quality of this food – you probably wouldn’t feed this food to your dog, not that a dog is anything less than a human being, that a dog deserves less. You wouldn’t even feed to an animal the food they are feeding to prisoners.

The second demand is that every prisoner at Red Onion State Prison have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork they may request. They will give you a grievance form but not a complaint form, and you have to have a complaint form in order to write a grievance form. So if you write the grievance, send that out to the regional director or whatever, he’s going to send it back saying you didn’t take the proper steps first. You’ve got to go through the warden first, but if they are denying you access to complaint forms, then it’s useless to have a grievance form.

Third, we talked about better communication between prisoners and guards.

The fourth, which is very important: “We demand an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation.” When you go to Red Onion State Prison, it’s not like the typical solitary confinement situation. When you go to Red Onion State Prison, we are talking years no matter what you go there for; everyone goes to segregation. You have to stay in segregation for multiple years. There are guys that have been in segregation since they built the place in 1998.

Naji: Can you explain what segregation is for those who are unfamiliar with it?

Mac: Segregation is, I guess we could, to make it easier, call it solitary confinement, where you are placed in a cell all by yourself for a minimum 23 hours a day, sometimes 23½. You have restricted access to books, media. Your food choices are a lot worse; you get the worst of the food that they serve at the prison. Even though all food they serve at the prison is horrible, in segregation it’s worse. You are only able to take showers three days a week. Your visits are restricted.

You are in this box and the conditions are horrible: sensory deprivation, no windows in the cell. When I came out, Naji, not to get released from prison but to go into a general population setting, it felt like I was getting released from prison.

One, because I had not smelled fresh air in six years because I had been in this cell for six years straight. I had not seen a tree or anything related to nature in years. It doesn’t mean that much until it’s taken away, where you are in some box 23½ hours a day in five or six years.

You haven’t seen another person other than guards that come to the door, and they are totally hostile towards you. Every time that you move from your cell, whether it’s from a visit or to go see a doctor or go to the dog kennels, whatever it is you have to strip naked to go through this humiliating process, bend over, spread your buttocks, open your mouth. They are going to make you do this multiple times until they’re satisfied with your level of humiliation.

Then they are going to chain you up – your wrists, your ankles – and put this belt around your waist, then put this dog leash on – that’s literally a dog leash – to the handcuffs wrapped around your hands. So it’s about a 2- or 3-inch span between you and the officers, like right up on your back, and they march you outside typically at a speed faster than you can walk, so the shackles scrape your legs. It’s horrible conditions, man; that’s solitary confinement.

Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.

Ryme: So much is going on and so much is going on without us realizing it, while really it’s our tax dollars and other countries’ goods and assets that are being pulled to do these things. When we learned that it was happening in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, we said that it is torture and we said it was unacceptable. And here we are in the back yard of the United States, where we sit comfortably in our houses looking at TV and crying over what happens to prisoners abroad, and this is going on.

The strike started this morning. Can you tell the listeners what exactly they can do to support it and for how long is it going to be going on?

Mac: It is going to be going on for a minimum of four days, about four days, Naji?

Naji: I’m not certain.

Mac: In any case, in any hunger strike we want it to be as brief as possible. These are men’s lives we are talking about here. After a couple of weeks, organs start to shut down and men start to die. The hunger strike in any case is a short campaign. It can’t go on forever.

Ryme: How can people get to know more about what’s going on?

Mac: Well, there is some contact information.

Naji: is the website up?

Mac: Yes, contact Virginiasolidraity@gmail.com and the website is Virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com.

Naji: There is also a group on Facebook dedicated to solidarity and support of the Virginia hunger strikers. There are tweets coming out at hashtag VA hunger strike.

Ryme: And also, for full disclosure, all the producers and hosts of this show and co-hosts are with the prisoner solidarity movements in different ways. I’m with Stop Mass Incarceration. Naji and Netfa [Freeman] also work on that. This issue is so serious that you’ve got to cross the line, and is there really a line? We are people and this is Voices with Vision.

Mac: I want to add something else. I want folks to, even in your personal space, start to humanize prisoners. There’s this widespread belief that most prisoners are in prison for some heinous violent act, and that is totally untrue. Most of these guys are in prison for drugs and drug related offenses, property crimes.

I was having a discussion a couple nights ago and I said that for me, I want to redefine what it means to be a political prisoner. Not just because you are in prison because of a political act, but most folks in prison are political prisoners because the basis of their incarceration is all built around a political agenda: The war on poverty, that’s a political agenda. The war on drugs, that’s a political agenda. So these guys are political prisoners. Even though they don’t know it, they are political prisoners.

So the way we stay in solidarity, man, is getting involved with whatever efforts folks doing on the ground – standing in solidarity with that – maybe even doing a hunger strike ourselves out here on the outside. Contact your legislators. Wherever you are, man, do whatever you can to show support to prisoners, because this isn’t a Virginia issue; this is a human rights issue.

This thing with Wells Fargo is still going on, so we’ve got to ramp that up a little bit.

Ryme: Well Fargo funding private prisons?

Mac: Wells Fargo, the biggest funder of Geo Group, the second largest provider of private prisons in this country.

Ryme: Thank you, Mac. This is really important to keep in the consciousness in the people.

Naji: Mac mentioned to contact the legislators. You can contact the state legislators in Virginia, or even if you don’t live in Virginia, the state legislators here. In Washington, the senators. Also send this out to different media outlets. Just support by getting the word out and by getting in touch with people whom you know to be possibly influential and helpful in this situation.

Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at editor@sfbayview.com or (415) 671-0789.

Colorado closing Canon City Super-Max prison

Via The Real Cost of Prisons, on CBS:

March 19, 2012

DENVER — Colorado will close a second state prison in two years because of a declining inmate population, the state Department of Corrections announced Monday.

About 200 jobs at Colorado State Penitentiary II in Canon City, also called the South Tower of Centennial Correctional Facility, will be cut or moved to other prisons.

The facility, known as “CSP II,” has 316 high-security beds. The state said CSP II would be closed by February 2013, for a savings of $4.5 million next year.

The Department of Corrections cited the declining state inmate population and less use of solitary confinement, or “administrative segregation,” which was the main use of CSP II. Colorado’s total inmate population fell to 21,562 last month from a peak of 23,220 in July 2009.

Officials have attributed the inmate decline to revised sentencing laws that reduce penalties for certain drug convictions. They also credited efforts to keep paroled prisoners from having to be sent back to prison.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper lauded the prison closure Monday.

“Let’s hope that this continues, that we have less folks in prison,” Hickenlooper said. “This is good news. It means we have some difficult decisions, but this is good news.”

Officials said some 213 jobs would be “reassigned” to vacant positions in Fremont County prisons. The larger Centennial Correctional Facility in Canon City will remain open.

A union that represents public employees including prison guards raised questions about the prison closure Monday. Colorado Workers for Innovations and New Solutions said prisons are understaffed.

“Frontline workers need a seat at the table” in budget decisions, said Scott Wasserman, executive director or Colorado WINS.

CSP II will be the second prison in two years closed to save money. Earlier this year, the state shuttered the former Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Bent County. The state has since scrambled to find a use for that facility and is considering using part of a national mortgage settlement payment to turn the former prison into transitional veterans’ housing.

Hickenlooper said Monday that CSP II was chosen for closure in part because Canon City, he said, is less dependent on prison employment than Las Animas, home of Fort Lyon.

“It’s not as destructive to the community,” Hickenlooper said of the CSP II closure.

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505245_162-57400384/colorado-closing-canon-city-prison/

Solitary Confinement in Virginia’s Prisons

From: SolitaryWatch
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
Jan. 9th 2012

For anyone who missed it, this front page article in Sunday’s Washington Post gives excellent coverage to the widespread use of solitary confinement in Virginia’s state prisons. It begins with a glance at one of the nation’s most notorious supermax prisons, Red Onion, and then goes on to discuss efforts to limit the use of solitary in Virginia–which include both a lawsuit and a possible legislative initiative.

At Red Onion State Prison, built on a mountaintop in a remote pocket of southwest Virginia, more than two-thirds of the inmates live in solitary confinement.

In a state where about 1 in 20 prisoners are held in solitary, Red Onion, a so-called supermax prison, isolates more inmates than any other facility, keeping more than 500 of its nearly 750 charges alone for 23 hours a day in cells the size of a doctor’s exam room…

As more becomes known about the effects of isolation — on inmate health, public safety and prison budgets — some states have begun to reconsider the practice, among them Texas, which, like Virginia, is known as a law-and-order state…

Now critics have set their sights on Virginia, where lawyers and inmates say some of the state’s 40,000 prisoners, including some with mental-health issues, have been kept in isolation for years, in one case for 14 years…

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents 12 inmates in isolation in Virginia, has requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently launched a probe into a 1,550-bed Pennsylvania prison where inmates complain of long periods of isolation and a lack of mental-health treatment…

A group of legislators…have been visiting prisons, including Red Onion, to examine how their most violent inmates are treated. Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who is leading the effort, said he will urge the General Assembly to study ways to limit the use of solitary confinement and offer more treatment before inmates are released.

The story does a good job of explaining how solitary confinement became common practice in Virginia–and throughout the United States. Factors include the explosion in sentencing–and with it the boom in prison building–as well as the increasing criminalization of the mentally ill.

Although solitary confinement has long been a tool of prison discipline (and a staple of pop culture depictions of prison life), the use of solitary became increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, many legal and medical experts have argued that inmates in isolation for long periods suffer from higher suicide rates, increased depression, decreased brain function and hallucinations…

Virginia opened Red Onion — deep in coal country and about 400 miles from Richmond — a dozen years ago as part of a major prison-building effort after the abolishment of parole and the lengthening of prison sentences. Like many other supermax prisons, Red Onion was designed to confine — but not necessarily rehabilitate — the most-dangerous criminals.

As of October, 505 of 745 inmates at Red Onion were in solitary, according to the state. When legislators toured Red Onion on Sept. 1, prison officials told them that 173 inmates in solitary there were considered mentally ill.

State officials said they do not keep statistics on the length of isolation stays, but they told Hope in a recent memo that Red Onion inmates have been isolated from two weeks to almost seven years, with an average stay of 2.7 years.

Unsurprisingly, Post reporter Anita Kumar encountered resistance and obfuscation when she sought information for the story: “Virginia officials were reluctant to answer questions from The Washington Post about the practice of solitary confinement. In some instances, they provided contradictory information to The Post and legislators; at other times, they declined to talk about the use of solitary confinement.”

Read the full article here.

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.

Oregon Converts Supermax Unit to Treat Prisoners With Mental Illness

From: SolitaryWatch
June 4, 2010

by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

A reader recently called our attention to an article that appeared back in April in the Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal, titled “Oregon State Penitentiary Adapts to Mental Illness.” According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, about half of the state’s 14,000 prisoners— 6,797—are mentally ill. This is ten times greater than the population of the state’s primary psychiatric hospital, the 627-bed Oregon State Hospital in Salem–which happens to be located just north of the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem, the state’s only maximum security prison.

Now, the Department of Corrections has announced plans to convert the OSP’s “supermax” unit, which is officially called the “Intensive Management Unit,” will be converted into what the Statesman Journal calls ”three therapy-minded units.”

For two decades, the IMU has operated as a tightly controlled compound within the now-2,000-inmate prison. It corrals belligerent and disruptive inmates–some mentally ill–in their cells for more than 23 hours per day.

By the end of this year, the two-story IMU facility will get a facelift to soften its austere environment, and will begin serving a therapeutic role….Mental health services are planned for three of the four units in the IMU building:

• A 49-bed mental health infirmary will provide “crisis stabilizing” treatment for acutely mentally ill offenders, including inmates who attempt suicide or commit other acts of self-harm.

• A 65-bed day-treatment unit will provide mental health services for inmates coming out of the crisis-care unit. The so-called “step down” program also will provide preventative mental health services for inmates, designed to help them cope with their illnesses and avoid crises.

• A 73-bed behavioral unit will provide specialized services and supervision for disruptive mentally ill inmates who otherwise might end up in isolation cells.

The plan is far from perfect: Creating 187 new places in a system with 7,000 prisoner suffer from mental illness is a drop in the bucket, and it’s too soon to say how effective the mental health units will be. (In addition, the renovation calls for Oregon’s death row to occupy one part of the former IMU.) But any provision for prisoners with mental illness–especially one that replaces solitary confinement cells–has to be viewed as progress.

The article provides a brief (and all too typical) history of how mentally ill prisoners have fared in Oregon’s prisons. Its author, Alan Gustafson, investigated prison suicides–most of which took place in the IMU–back in 2007; his extensive reporting on that subject is well worth reading as well.

Demand Maine Stop State-Sponsored Torture

Targeting: The ME State Senate and The ME State House
Started by: Elizabeth Renter

Solitary confinement is overused and under-regulated. In fact, solitary confinement — spending nearly every hour of every day locked in a small cell with limited contact and mind-numbing idleness — amounts to a kind of torture, with prisoners subjected to the treatment often exhibiting precisely those symptoms of those who’ve been tortured. It’s hard to see where solitary confinement leaves off and cruel and unusual punishment begins. In fact, several federal cases have suggested that isolating the mentally ill in confinement produces such “extreme suffering” that doing so violates the Eighth Amendment.

Currently, lawmakers in Maine are considering a law to regulate solitary confinement conditions in the state prison system. If the law passes, it’d be a giant step forward — one that could pave the way for other states to follow suit. Urge Maine legislators to pass the law now to protect the state’s citizens against cruel and unusual punishment. Take action by signing the petition below.

Petition Text:

“Greetings,

I am writing you in regards to proposed legislation LD 1611, An Act to Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners. While the safety and security of Maine’s prisons must be at the forefront of your concerns, I believe that the passing of this bill could mean an increased level of integrity for the state’s Department of Corrections and better care for those people in its custody.
The use of solitary confinement is widely and perhaps over-used in prisons across the United States. Too often it is seen as a way to get troublesome inmates out of the way, rather than as a last resort. By passing this legislation you could show that while Maine supports safety in prisons, it understands that basic human rights make tight standards and procedures a necessity. Because the use of solitary confinement involves such extreme isolation, I believe this type of regulation is necessary.
Prisoners housed in Maine’s special management units should have access to regular mental health evaluations and a hearing if their confinement is expected to last more than 45 days. Those inmates deemed to be suffering from a serious mental illness should not be housed in such extreme segregation at all as several experts and federal judges have equated this with cruel and unusual punishment. These procedural standards outlined in LD 1611 are basic fundamental protections for people incarcerated within the prison walls and also serve to give prison personnel more clear cut regulations to adhere to.
I encourage you to promote humane and fair treatment within Maine’s special management units by helping to pass LD 1611. The procedural safeguards outlined in An Act to Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners are common sense and long overdue.”

Sign Petition Here