A cell in the supermax unit at Maine State Prison. Photo by Lance Tapley.
Under pressure from activists, lawsuits, and even a few reformers within the corrections system, several states have significantly reduced the number of people they hold in solitary confinement in their prison systems. These reductions, achieved largely through “reclassifying” prisoners and returning the least troublesome ones to the general population, have rightly been celebrated by opponents of solitary confinement.
In recent months, however, reports by organizations and investigative journalists have documented what happens to those who remain behind when the use of solitary is “reduced” rather than eliminated. In doing so, they show the pitfalls involved in opposing the “overuse” of solitary, rather than confronting all extreme isolation as torture.
A case in point is Maine, where the use of solitary confinement in the supermax unit of Maine State Prison has been reduced by more than 60 percent. The changes in Maine followed a grassroots campaign against solitary, the introduction (though not the passage) of legislation to limit solitary, and finally the appointment of a new corrections commissioner who decided to review and reduce the prison system’s use of solitary. Many advocates declared victory, some going so far as to call what had happened the “Maine miracle.”
Helping to spur these changes was a series of articles by Lance Tapley in the Portland Phoenix, exposing the hidden brutality inside the supermax. This week, Tapley has a new article in the Phoenix, along with a series of photographs. These are based on a visit he was permitted to make to the supermax unit where those who did not benefit from the “reduction” still languish.
Tapley was shown cells that had ”what looked like blood on the floor” and “faintly stank of shit,” and walked through cellblocks where he ”heard undulating cries and saw shadowy faces behind the steel doors’ tiny windows.” He writes:
Maine corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has reduced the typical number of prisoners in isolation from close to 100 to 40 or so in a 900-man prison. Of the supermax’s four cellblocks or “pods,” two, of Administrative Segregation, have 50 cells each, and one is now empty. The Mental Health Unit, where solitary confinement has never been total, has two pods of 16 cells each, one for “acute” prisoners, one for “stabilization.” Together they held 17 men the day I was there.
Stays in the supermax also are much shorter now, and there’s a lot less prisoner “cutting up” and fewer brutal cell “extractions” by guards to tie prisoners into the restraint chair. For his reforms, Ponte has deservedly received national attention…
But the Maine supermax is still there, and it’s still grim. While 40 prisoners may not sound like many, it’s the total, according to one report, that England and Wales, with 56 million inhabitants, keep in isolation — isolation less severe than in American supermaxes.
And the supermax is part of a prison from which I receive constant reports of guard cruelty, inadequate medical care, understaffing, deliberate mixing of predators and the vulnerable, and — currently — turmoil because scores more men are being forced to double-bunk. Corrections says the double-bunking is being done for proper “classification” of prisoners. Critics suspect it’s being done to save money…
Tapley notes that the state in fact has plans to open twenty more cells in the supermax’s Mental Health Unit to house ”violence-prone patients from the state’s chief psychiatric hospital” and “unconvicted jail inmates whom the courts have concluded should be examined for their sanity.”
Maine’s is not the only prison system that has been praised for its dramatic reductions in solitary confinement, but condemned for its treatment of those who still remain in isolation.
Mississippi has been held up as a “model of reform” in the area of solitary confinement after it reduced its use of solitary by approximately 75 percent and closed down a notorious supermax unit. In 2012 it’s corrections chief, Christopher Epps, was featured in the front-page story in the New York Times, and invited to testify before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on solitary to share his success story.
Yet a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center in May 2013 alleges a “massive human right violation” at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. One ACLU lawyer described the privately run prison, which is supposed to provide treatment for prisoners with mental illness, as a “cesspool,” and stated: ”When you combine solitary confinement, abuse, lack of basic medical and mental health care, and denial of basic human needs, it’s a recipe for disaster.” An ACLU press release details conditions at EMCF:
The lawsuit…describes a facility where prisoners are often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they are suffering from serious medical issues. Many cells lack light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climb over prisoners’ beds, and some prisoners capture the rats, put them on makeshift leashes, and sell them as pets to other inmates.
Although designated as a facility to care for prisoners with special needs and serious psychiatric disabilities, EMCF denies prisoners even the most rudimentary mental health care services….The prison also seriously underfeeds prisoners…a correctional health expert notified the Mississippi Department of Corrections of this problem after reviewing prisoner records that showed a pattern of prisoners losing significant amounts of weight at EMCF – some more than 20 or 30 pounds.
Despite evidence demonstrating the adverse effect of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners’ mental health, the prison continues to place prisoners in isolation for weeks, months or years at a time with little stimulation or access to showers and medical care. Prisoners in solitary confinement frequently set fires or flood their cells to get attention for medical treatment.
In Colorado the story is much the same. The state reduced the number of people it holds in solitary in the supermax Colorado State Penitentiary, under the leadership of corrections director Tom Clements–who, in an instance of grim irony, was murdered last spring by a man who had just been released directly from solitary onto the streets.
But those who remain in CSP–a majority of them suffering from mental illness–are “warehoused” in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, often for years, according to an ACLU report published in July. The report ”chronicles instances of solitary confinement driving untreated mentally ill prisoners to a psychotic state, leading them to attempt suicide, attack others, eat their feces, or ‘bang their heads against the wall in an effort to drown out the voices in their heads.’”
And then there is the federal prison system, which claims to have reduced the population of its Special Housing Units (SHUs) by about 25 percent following the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing and a scathing GAO report on the Bureau of Prisons’ extensive use of solitary. The federal government is responsible for some of the most brutally isolating prison conditions in the world, which have driven many individuals to madness and suicide.
Beyond this, it is far from clear where prisoners are going when they are removed from the SHUs. Some may be returning to the general population, but others apparently are being placed in other kinds of segregation units, like the Special Management Units (SMUs), where they are still locked down 23 hours a day, but with one or two others in the same cell. This allows the BOP to say it is reducing its use of solitary, while retaining prisoners in other forms of extreme isolation that are just as bad or worse.
Live from Lockdown–a site that publishes “authentic & uncensored voices from inside maximum security & supermax prisons & control units”–recently published this series of tweets based on messages from individuals in federal SMUs:
@lockdownlive Comrades are happy 2 hear of talk around #solitary but are quick 2 point out- inside it appears no one cares & things are getting worse
@lockdownlive For example, in all the real deal fed spots, not Camp Cupcake, #solitary aint solitary any more
@lockdownlive Now picture 2 and 3 people in a 5 x 9 cell 23 hours or more a day, yea we might be out of #solitary but shit aint get better
- In States That “Reduce” Their Use of Solitary Confinement, Suffering Continues for Those Left Behind (solitarywatch.com)
- Seven Days in Solitary [11/10/13] (solitarywatch.com)
- Percentage of NM prisoners in solitary confinement higher than national average (KOB.com)
- This Is America? Men Tortured in Solitary for Having the Wrong Tattoo or Political Books (alternet.org)
- Under Fire, the Federal Bureau of Prisons Audits Its Use of Solitary Confinement – and Buys a New Supermax Prison (solitarywatch.com)