Supermax prison cells and torture

Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 in Investigation

Supermax prison cells and torture

by Gina Hamilton

Lance Tapley, an award-winning Maine journalist known for his investigative reporting on Maine's prisons and mental institutions, has co-authored a new book on the disturbing subject of torture in America.

The book, "The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse," was published by New York University Press and edited by Marjorie Cohn. It describes the history and practice of torture in the U.S. and -- as facilitated by the American government -- outside the U.S., at places such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The book also discusses international law on torture, how the U.S. is violating that law, and the attempts to hold American officials responsible for torture.

Tapley's contribution to the anthology involves torture that occurs right under our collective noses--- at America's "supermax" prisons. He is no stranger to the murky world of the ill-treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. Over the last 5 1/2 years, he has been writing on prison abuses for the Portland Phoenix, Prison Legal News, The Crime, and The Boston Review.

During an interview with Tapley last week, he outlined some of the background that led to supermax prison cells in the first place, and created a culture of corrupting power in prisons, including in Maine's own prison at Warren, where the supermax prison cells are known as the Special Management Unit. There are over 130 of them, and they are nearly always full, Tapley says.

From reformatory to supermax

Originally, the purpose of prison, except for the most violent offenders, was to reform the prisoner and make him a productive member of society. Thus, prisons were called "reformatories" or "penitentiaries," reflecting the notion that some time spent out of society would create a penitent, reformed, and safe member of society. Prisoners were put to hard work that made them less likely to want to return to jail. Society was far more willing to give released prisoners a second chance, too. And the numbers seemed to bear out that such an approach seemed to work for most prisoners. In one Massachusetts study on Recidivism Trends (Daniel P. LeClair, 1985), the recidivism rate in 1971 was 25 percent. By 1973 it had dropped to 19 percent, and by 1975 it was still lower, at 15 percent. In 1979, however, the rate climbed to 26 percent. Although outside the scope of the LeClair study, the average recidivism rate has increased since, until now, the rate stands at 42 percent.

More than four in ten prisoners in Massachussetts return to prison after being released. Nationally, the number is about 43 percent. (Recidivism rates in Maine are unavailable.)

What happened? The LeClair study says that the four hypotheses the study looked at -- a higher risk population in prison, a policy change that released higher risks to parole, a policy change that made parole revocation more likely, or a policy change that occurred detrimental to reintegration programs -- did not fit the data the Massachusetts Prison System was seeing. 

But there is one significant correlation that study did not examine. In the late 1970s, and especially throughout the '80s and '90s, maximum security prisons in Massachussetts and elsewhere in the country took on an ominous new tone.

There was much more emphasis on law and order in society at large, with a strong "throw away the key" attitude, replacing the more benign "reformatory" focus of the past. This came into the prisons with guards, who began to violate prisoners and send them to solitary confinement for even minor infractions. Soon, prisoners who were disorderly in any way were sent to special units, in which they were often in solitary confinement 23 hours per day, and subject to beatings and physical and mental abuse at the hands of guards.

The torture of Michael James

One of the points that Tapley makes is that profound isolation causes mental illness. Removal to the Special Management Unit carries with it the loss of all privileges, including furthering one's education (one of the bright spots at Warren is a strong, free, college program for inmates). And many prisoners were mentally ill when they were brought into prison in the first place.

When asylums were closed across the country -- a good step, owing to institutional abuses of patients nearly everywhere in America -- community-based mental health programs were supposed to take their place. In many cases, this either didn't happen at all, or the programs were defunded during tough times, especially during the recession of the 1980s. But releasing patients who had nowhere to go created a homeless crisis virtually overnight, and many of them got into trouble just to stay alive.  Without help from the community, they were arrested for minor infractions and put into prison, which Tapley calls the mental hospital of last resort.

One of the lost mental patients that Tapley interviewed was a man named Michael James, who was incarcerated at Warren. Here is a bit of his story:

When you lay eyes on Michael James you first notice the scars on his shaved head, including a deep, horizontal gash. He got that by scraping his head on the cell door slot, which guards use to pass in food trays. "They were messing with me," he explained, referring to guards who taunted him. "I couldn’t stand it no more." He added: "I’ve knocked myself out by running full force into the wall."

James, who is in his twenties, has been beaten all his life, first by family members: "I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall." He began seeing mental-health workers when he was four and taking psychiatric medication when he was seven. He only made it through the second grade in public school, spending most of his early youth in homes for disturbed children. He said he was bipolar, and he also accumulated diagnoses of antisocial-personality, attention-deficit-hyperactivity, post-traumatic-stress, and oppositional-defiance disorders.

James got in trouble with the law as a juvenile, but his real trouble began after a doctor took him off his medications when he was 18. On the street, he got into "selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries." Soon he was handed a 12-year sentence. Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is "mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves," he said.

In addition to solitary confinement and physical brutality, the Maine Department of Corrections has tortured James in another way that recalls American treatment of Islamist detainees. It could be called legal torture. In 2007 James went on trial for 10 felony assaults on guards -- kicking, punching, throwing his feces at them. His court-appointed lawyer, Joseph Steinberger, tried what was apparently a novel defense and convinced a jury in Rockland, the nearest big town to the prison, to find James "not criminally responsible" by reason of insanity. Steinberger thought the verdict was a landmark because it called into question the state's practice of keeping men like James in solitary confinement. After the verdict, as the law required, the judge committed James to a state mental hospital.

But state officials saw the verdict as another kind of landmark. Never before in Maine had a prisoner been committed to the mental hospital after being tried for assault on guards. Apparently worried that inmates might attack guards as a ticket to the hospital, the Department of Corrections refused to send James there, arguing that he first had to serve out the remaining 10 years of his sentence.

University of Maine law professor Orlando Delogu said at the time he thought state officials were taking a page out of President George W. Bush’s legal books, which Delogu described as, "We only enforce the law that appeals to us." He saw a parallel between the state’s position in the James case and the Bush administration’s denial of normal U.S. legal rights to prisoners at Guantánamo.

After a year of legal appeals, the judge finally succeeded in getting James into the hospital, though he conceded to the state that James's time there would not count against his sentence, which he'll have to serve after he's cured, however long that takes.

At one point, Steinberger wrote about his client to Maine's Democratic governor, John Baldacci, begging him to intervene and send James to the hospital:

"He continually slits open his arms and legs with chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and his cell with feces, strangles himself to unconsciousness with his clothing. ... He also bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards."

The governor declined.

The dubious legality of the supermax

Lance Tapley says that Maine's supermax is typical. Inmates are alone 23 out of 24 hours a day, get perhaps one hour outdoors in good weather, are denied radios, televisions, and human contact from the outside except for calls from lawyers. Their cell lights are left on; food is shoved through a slot in the door. They get minimal health care and mental health treatment. Inmates are often deprived of sleep by the guards and the pandamonium of the surroundings, peopled by prisoners being driven insane.  "What a prisoner has to do to get out of the supermax is usually not revealed to him," Tapley said. 

If this scenario sounds like a prisoner-of-war camp run by a country not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, it is. But the U.S. is a signatory nation and these are not prisoners of war -- in many cases, they are our own citizens.

The United States is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Under that treaty, torture is official treatment that causes "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" when it's inflicted as punishment or for coercion. CAT specifies that torture "does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions." Such as the death penalty. That phrase was included to ensure America's participation.

According to Tapley, however, the suffering that occurs in a supermax prison does not arise from lawful sanctions. It is a consequence of an administrative decision, often made by a low-level guard, rather than a judge in a courtroom, and the inmate has little ability to lawfully challenge his or her placement or supermax conditions because of the severe restrictions placed on inmate lawsuits by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act.

"Severe pain and suffering as punishment are plainly the norm in a supermax," Tapley wrote in his chapter. Even when mental suffering alone is taken into consideration -- ignoring the physically abusive "cell extractions" which Tapley says are legal beatings -- the prolonged solitary confinement in American supermax units has increasingly been described by U.N. agencies and human rights organizations as cruel, inhuman, degrading, or torture.

And they're being diplomatic.

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