Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘supermax

New York Times: “Prisons Rethink Isolation”

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In light of the recently filed lawsuit against Arizona alleging overuse of solitary confinement, the New York Times has some timely reporting on other states that have decided to reduce their use of isolation as punishment — including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Washington State, and most recently, California:

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

In particular, the article discusses the evidence that prolonged isolation can cause and/or exacerbate mental illness:  Read the rest of this entry »

“Prison walls do not form a barrier … from the protections of the Constitution”

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New York federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently ordered the Bureau of Prisons to transfer Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout out of solitary confinement and into the general population (h/t Solitary Watch).

Given this blog’s focus, I thought I’d excerpt here a portion of Scheindlin’s opinion that provides a useful short primer on how judges evaluate the constitutionality of prison regulations:

The standard for evaluating whether prison regulations impinge on a convicted prisoner’s constitutional rights is set forth in Turner v. Safley. In Turner, the Supreme Court held that to determine whether a prison regulation “burdens fundamental rights,” the reviewing court asks whether the regulation is “‘reasonably related’ to legitimate penological objectives, or whether it represents an ‘exaggerated response’ to those concerns.” Turner outlined a four-factor test for evaluating whether a prison regulation that allegedly violates a constitutional right is reasonably related to a valid correctional objective. The court must consider first whether there is a “valid, rational connection” between the regulation and the legitimate governmental interest used to justify it; second, whether there are alternative means for the prisoner to exercise the right at issue; third, the impact that the desired accommodation will have on guards, other inmates, and prison resources; and fourth, the absence of “ready alternatives.” …

In conducting this rational basis review, deference is accorded to the BOP’s determination. The Supreme Court has noted that courts are “‘ill equipped to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of prison administration and reform’” and that “separation of powers concerns counsel a policy of judicial restraint.” However, as previously noted, “[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution” and “‘[w]hen a prison . . . practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights.’”

Federal Judge: Illinois Supermax Procedures Violate the Fourteenth Amendment

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An Illinois federal judge has ruled that the procedures (or lack thereof) for sending prisoners to the Tamms supermax violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee. At Tamms, all prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. They spend 23 hours a day in their cells and, as “recreation,” are allowed one hour to walk around alone in a steel cage. U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy ruled this week that before inmates can be sent to Tamms, they must be afforded notice of why and a hearing at which they can challenge their transfer. Culminating ten years of litigation brought by Chicago’s Uptown People’s Law Center, Judge Murphy’s ruling emphasizes that it extends only to procedural issues and not to conditions in the prison, which he describes as “clean, excellently administered, and well staffed.” However, a local newspaper’s investigative report last year found that Tamms is often used as a de facto asylum for mentally ill inmates, and that many have been held in solitary confinement there for over 10 years. Psychiatrists suggest that solitary confinement longer than 90 days produces mental breakdown, and some argue it is tantamount to torture.

H/t: Solitary Watch, where you can find more information about this case.

“The Anti-Supermax Battle Broadens”

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That’s the headline from this article at The Crime Report, by Guggenheim Fellow Lance Tapley. The article discusses a shift in strategy from individual lawsuits challenging specific prisoners’ solitary confinement, to legislative reform campaigns and efforts to get supermax confinement declared torture under international law. From the article’s opening paragraphs:

New to the fight are the four-year-old National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and 24-year-old Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). In recent years both have played major roles in denouncing the federal government for torturing prisoners at locations overseas.

NRCAT, an alliance of more than 280 religious groups across the country which cut its political teeth on the Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib controversies, announced a drive early this year to end prison solitary confinement in the United States. Citing studies that show periods of enforced isolation can aggravate and even create mental illness among inmates in supermax prisons, NRCAT says it wants to be consistent in opposing torture at home and abroad.

Working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has a history of suing states on this issue, NRCAT is trying to get legislatures to require state corrections departments to rethink their dependence on solitary confinement. For years the ACLU has been part of a loose coalition — including Human Rights Watch and the American Friends Service Committee — attacking supermax conditions.

The ACLU’s and NRCAT’s first battleground was Maine, where their affiliates and other groups convinced the legislature on April 6 to order a study of solitary confinement.

DOJ Plans to Buy Illinois Prison Whether or Not It’s Approved for Terror Detainees

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According to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch, the Obama Administration will move forward with plans to purchase a prison facility in rural Thomson, Ill., whether or not Congress approves the transfer of Guantanamo detainees there. The DOJ has asked for $237 million in appropriations in next year’s budget to buy and begin using the facility to hold high-security federal inmates. Rep. Don Manzullo (R – IL), who represents northern Illinois in Congress, publicly supports the new federal prison as a way of creating jobs, but has been critical of plans to transfer Guantanamo detainees there, ostensibly for safety reasons.

Here I’ll just note a few related points; make of them what you will: 1) As I noted the other day, prisons actually haven’t been found to boost local economies, or to create as many jobs as hoped; 2) I’ve never quite understood why people are so worried about bringing the remaining Guantanamo detainees into the U.S., considering that the federal supermax in Colorado already holds some pretty dangerous folks; 3) Is this the start of a federal prison mini-boom? As the Pew Center on the States reported this week, although state prison populations have fallen in over half the states, the federal prison population is growing:

The survey found that the federal prison population continued to grow, rising by 6,838 prisoners, or 3.4 percent, to an all-time high of 208,118. Expanded federal jurisdiction over certain crimes and increased prosecution of immigration cases account for much of the increase.

A SHU By Any Other Name…

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CNN has this report today on Tommy Silverstein, who murdered a federal prison guard in 1983 and has been held in solitary confinement in Colorado’s federal supermax prison ever since — i.e., for 27 years. (So another way of putting it is that Tommy Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement for the exact number of years that your humble blogger has been on this Earth.) With the help of attorneys from the University of Denver’s Civil Rights Clinic, Silverstein is suing the federal government for violating his rights under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Anyway, the more chilling part of the article is the Bureau of Prisons‘ somewhat Orwellian insistence on word choice:

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons says “solitary confinement,” a term widely used by prison advocacy groups and attorneys, doesn’t exist in federal prisons. Instead, authorities call the isolated cells where inmates are housed the SHU: special housing units.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross estimates that on any given day, 11,150 of the 200,000 federal inmates are kept in special housing units. The reasons for confinement vary from protecting a witness to disciplinary measures.

It seems to me that if the BOP wants to defend the practice, that’s one thing, but it’s somewhat bizarre to deny that a person who is being held in a cell by himself, without contact with other people, is well within the dictionary meaning of “solitary confinement,” regardless of what term the BOP prefers to use for its own internal purposes. By the way, if you missed Atul Gawande’s must-read New Yorker article on the psychological ramifications of solitary confinement, you can download it here.

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