|They do get a television set, if they behave. And some books and arts and crafts materials. But they have to stay in the cell for up to 23 hours a day.|
"Since opening in 1994, the ADX [United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado] has remained not just the only federal supermax but also the apogee of a particular strain of the American penal system, wherein abstract dreams of rehabilitation have been entirely superseded by the architecture of control.
The use of solitary confinement in the United States emerged as a substitute to corporal punishments popular at the end of the 18th century.
Inmates at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829, were completely isolated from one another in cells outfitted with skylights, toilets and access to private outdoor exercise yards, where they worked at various trades, took all meals and read the Bible.
Other US states tried, but quickly abandoned, the so-called Pennsylvania System, and an 1890 Supreme Court ruling against the use of solitary on Colorado’s death row noted that “a considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semifatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed.”
In 1983, after the assassination of two guards in separate attacks on the same day, by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Marion [Illinois] penitentiary was converted to the first modern all-lockdown facility, the entire prison now a solitary unit.
Beginning in 1989 with California’s Pelican Bay, states began building their own lockdown penitentiaries, inspired by the Marion model.
The renewed use of solitary coincided with the era of mass incarceration and the widespread closing of state-run mental health facilities.
The supermax became the most expedient method of controlling an increasingly overcrowded and psychologically volatile prison population.
A result of this unfortunate confluence has been a network of ever more austere and utilitarian penitentiaries, built specifically to seal off a significant portion of state and federal inmates, using methods that would shock many Americans.
According to a 2014 Amnesty International report, more than 40 states now operate supermax prisons.
On any given day, there are 80,000 US prisoners in solitary confinement.
Robert Hood, the warden of the ADX from 2002 to 2005, told me that when he first arrived on the campus, he was struck by “the very stark environment,” unlike any other prison in which he ever worked or visited — no noise, no mess, no prisoners walking the hallways.
When inmates complained to him, he would tell them: “This place is not designed for humanity,” he recalled.
“When it’s 23 hours a day in a room with a slit of a window where you can’t even see the Rocky Mountains — let’s be candid here. It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period.”
Hood was not trying to be cruel with such frankness. The ADX was built explicitly to house men often already serving multiple life sentences and thus facing little disincentive to, say, murder a guard or another prisoner.
In the past, Hood has memorably described the ADX as “a clean version of hell”.
Dr Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, testified that “a shockingly high percentage” of the prisoners in solitary confinement are mentally ill, “often profoundly so” — approximately one-third of the segregated prisoners on average, though in some units the figure rises to 50%.
The emptiness that pervades solitary confinement units “has led some prisoners into a profound level of what might be called ‘ontological insecurity,’” Haney, who worked as a principal researcher on the Stanford Prison Experiment while in graduate school, told the senators.
“They are not sure that they exist and, if they do, exactly who they are.”
According to David Cloud, a senior associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organisation dedicated to the reform of the criminal justice system, “The research is pretty conclusive: Since people started looking at this, even 200 years ago, when a guy named Francis Gray studied 4,000 people in ‘silent prisons,’ the studies have found that the conditions themselves can cause mental illness, stress, trauma.”
The devastating effects of solitary confinement, even on those who showed no previous signs of psychological problems, are now so broadly accepted by mental health professionals that policy makers are finally taking notice.
Last year the New York State attorney general approved a deal forbidding the placement of minors and mentally ill prisoners in solitary; in January, New York City banned solitary for anyone under 21."