Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Supermax Prisons and the “Field of Dreams” Problem: If You Build It, They Will Come

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David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, has an op-ed at Huffington Post on whether America’s supermax prisons violate international human rights law. The fact that extended isolation produces psychosis in humans has been recognized since America’s first (failed) experiments with solitary confinement at Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1830s. The idea was that prisoners kept in cells by themselves would have nothing to do but think about what they’d done wrong. In reality, as quickly became apparent to prison wardens, they simply went crazy. Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article remains the best general-audience summary of the case for defining solitary confinement as torture.

Fathi’s op-ed provides some essential historical background on just how the U.S. came to have tens of thousands of inmates in extended solitary confinement. As won’t surprise students of the past 30 years in criminal justice policy, it’s a story that combines “tough-on-crime” demagoguery, the criminalization of mental illness, distorted legislative and executive incentives, and a heavy dose of path dependence:

In the 1990s [supermax prisons] were a raging fad, yet another round in the perpetual “tough on crime” political bidding war. Suddenly every state had to build one — Virginia was so tough it built two. By the end of the decade, more than 30 states, as well as the federal government, were operating a supermax facility or unit. …

The official line is that these prisons are reserved for the “worst of the worst” — the most dangerous and incorrigibly violent — but most states have only a few such prisoners. In overcrowded prison systems, the typical response has been to fill the remaining supermax cells with “nuisance prisoners” — those who file lawsuits, violate minor prison rules, or otherwise annoy staff, but by no stretch of the imagination require the extremely high security of a supermax facility. Thus in Wisconsin’s supermax, one of the “worst of the worst” was a 16-year-old car thief. Twenty-year-old David Tracy hanged himself in a Virginia supermax; he had been sent there at age 19, with a 2 ½ year sentence for selling drugs.

The mentally ill are vastly overrepresented in supermax prisons, and once subjected to the stress of isolated confinement, many of them deteriorate dramatically. Some engage in bizarre and extreme acts of self-injury and even suicide. In an Indiana supermax, a 21-year-old mentally ill prisoner set himself on fire in his cell and died from his burns; another man in the same unit choked himself to death with a washcloth. It’s not unusual to find supermax prisoners who swallow razors and other objects, smash their heads into the wall, compulsively cut their flesh, try to hang themselves, and otherwise attempt to harm or kill themselves.

The good news is that it’s quite possible for states to turn back from this path. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, Mississippi slashed the number of inmates in solitary confinement from 1,500 to 150.

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