Proliferation-Paul Rucker-US Prisons
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Jess Van Nostrand
Today marks the third day of a new hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison, where 1000 inmates in the supermax Security Housing Unit (SHU) are warehoused for lengthy periods of time and deprived of human contact and communication.
Keramet Reiter, University of California, Berkley, Department of Jurisprudence and Social Policy has written an excellent article titled Parole, Snitch or Die. There are now thousands of human beings in the United States locked in long-term sensory deprivation cells called solitary confinement cells. The article focuses on California in particular because two of the first and largest modern supermaxes, Pelican Bay and Corcoran State, are in California. California’s supermaxes can house more than 3300 people in extreme conditions.
Sumermax proliferation began in the late eighties. Now, almost every state has a supermax facility that is either some portion of a retrofitted prison or a structure designed specifically for that purpose. County jails also have sensory deprivation isolation cells and holes.
In Frog Gravy, I often mention ‘Harry.’ Harry was a mentally ill man in an isolation cell in the jail. None of us ever saw him. We would have seen him if he were allowed recreation in the outside cage because he would have walked down the hallway and by our small cell on the way to recreation. He had been in the isolation cell for many months with no human contact. He apparently smeared feces on the wall. The jail staff pepper sprayed him in the cell. I only knew the man existed because he shouted for help, all hours of the day and night.
It is difficult to estimate how many people are locked in these cells in this country. The paper estimates as many as 100,000. The detention is anything but brief.
Sometimes people liken these cells to Alcatraz. For example, ADX Florence, which is an all supermax federal prison in Colorado is sometimes called ‘The Alcatraz of The Rockies.’ However, today’s supermax sensory deprivation cells are actually worse in that the engineering and design includes soundproofing and disorienting entombment in steel and concrete.
Supermax prisons across the United States detain thousands in long-term solitary confinement, under conditions of
extreme sensory deprivation. They are prisons within prisons, imprisoning those who allegedly cannot be controlled
in a general population prison setting. Most supermaxes were built in a brief period, between the late 1980s and the
late 1990s. In 1988 and 1989, California opened two of the first and largest of the modern supermaxes: Pelican Bay
and Corcoran State Prisons. Today, California houses more than 3,300 prisoners in supermax conditions.
The original idea behind supermax detention in Pelican Bay State Prison was to address gang violence. There is, however, no conclusive data that correlates long-term sensory deprivation with a reduction in violence.
Placement into these extreme conditions is determined by prison staff and not by any court. If an inmate, for example, is believed to be a gang member, that alone can result in isolation detention. The criteria are not set, nor is the length of time that an inmate will spend in isolation.
Lengthy isolation detention is psychologically devastating. The damage is permanent.
Psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists have
documented the mental health impacts for prisoners consigned to supermaxes; all have found
dramatic and irreparable deterioration in mental health for prisoners in supermaxes, after even a
few months of solitary detention (Haney 2003; Kupers 1999; Rhodes 2004). Rehabilitation,
however, is not the goal of the supermax.
Supermax detention lengths are increasing. Eighteen months is not uncommon; multiple years are not uncommon. The only human contact is rough handling by guards. The only time outside cement is one hour each day in a different cage. (Actually, the one hour per day is not the case in many jail isolation cells.) Light torture is 24/7/365. Often, isolation inmates are deprived of glasses and stationery.
It is also interesting to note that many inmates are paroled directly from their supermax isolation cell into the community. How in the world can one who had been entombed in cement for months and years at a time with no human contact be expected to integrate into society?
Definitions of ‘gang’ membership are vague and entirely discretionary. Disciplinary infractions that result in isolation detention can be as minor as spitting to as serious as attempted murder.
Short-term disciplinary detention for violent acts and behavior problems is being replaced with indefinite torture. The outcome criteria- better or resolved behavior- are not met. In other words, the data does not support torture.
Why is this country planning more supermax facilities and more jails and prisons and jails and holes within prisons? There is no ‘correction’ in torture. In fact, there is no ‘correction’ or rehabilitation goal in America’s so-called correctional facilities today.
This is now day 4 of the new hunger strike and the state of California is threatening discipline for inmates joining the strike in solidarity. I suppose that means that a few thousand more people will now be tortured with the hole for an indefinite period.