Solitary Confinement: Torture
in the U.S.
by Bonnie Kerness
http://sonic.net/, Fall 1998
Picture living in a cage the size of your
bathroom, with tiers of single cages above, below, and to either
side. You remain in this cage nearly 24 hours a day, day in and
day out, year in and year out. Ruchelle Magee lived under these
conditions in California for more than 20 years. Russell Shoats
has been living in various Pennsylvania isolation units for 17
years. Ojore Lutalo in the Management Control Unit (MCU) in New
Jersey just began his 13th year living in extended isolation--and
he has never been charged with an infraction.
The use of solitary confinement in U.S.
prisons began in 1829, based on the early Quaker religious philosophy
that solitary introspection would lead to penitence and reform.
It soon became clear that people in isolation often suffer mental
breakdown, so the general practice of isolation was abandoned.
However, isolation as a means of administrative control continued
and has grown to alarming proportions. In more recent times, abuse
of isolation is combined with behavioral modification programs,
including physical beatings, use of devices of torture, and psychological
In 1972, the first official "control
unit" was opened in Marion Federal Prison in Illinois as
a behavior modification experimental unit. Similar units began
opening in state prisons across the country including the Management
Control Unit in New Jersey. In 1983, in response to an isolated
incident of violence, the entire prison at Marion was "locked
down"--all prisoners locked in cells 24 hours a day without
human contact. That lock down has never been lifted.
In 1995, a new federal high tech prison
in Florence, Colorado, took over the "mission" of Marion
and purports to house the "most predatory" prisoners
in the U.S. Here, people are kept in nearly total isolation for
years, many in soundproof cells. There is little interaction with
anyone other than prison staff. Visits, telephone calls, and mail
from family and friends are severely restricted, as are educational,
recreational, and religious services. The federal model of control
units has been adopted by over 40 states throughout the country,
often taking the form of supermax, or maxi-maxi prisons.
Although litigation concerning control
units has been sporadic, ongoing, and not too promising, there
have been successes in the fight against them. In 1989, the women's
small-group isolation prison in Lexington, Kentucky, designed
specifically for women political prisoners, was closed by legal,
political, and moral battles waged by a broad coalition of people.
In January 1995, in Madrid v. Gomez, a federal court in California
condemned the pattern of brutality and neglect at Pelican Bay
Prison and called upon the state to discontinue excessive force
and punitive treatment such as cell extractions and shackling
prisoners to toilets and called for changes in grossly inadequate
medical and mental health care.
The development of control units can be
traced to the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement, during
which time many activists found themselves in U.S. prisons. We
believe this use of isolation stems directly from the brain-washing
techniques used during the Korean War. Sensory deprivation as
a form of behavior modification was used extensively for imprisoned
members of the Black Panther party, members of Black Liberation
Army formations, members of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement,
members of the American Indian Movement, white activists, jail
house lawyers, Islamic militants, and prison activists. At one
time or another, they all found themselves living in extended
isolation, sometimes for years on end. Many political prisoners
still live in isolation, not because they have received charges
for infractions, but because of who they are and what they believe.
The experiment in solitary confinement
expanded throughout the country in the form of supermax prisons--entire
prisons that force people to live in complete isolation. Prisoners
cannot see or hear another human being unless or until the administration
decides that they can. The fastest growing population living in
enforced solitude is perhaps youth of color imprisoned as a result
of the racist crack-cocaine laws. Most of these youngsters received
unconscionably long sentences. Their consequent anger tends to
lead them into real or imagined infractions shortly after their
imprisonment, resulting in their placement in sensory deprivation
The mentally ill are another population
increasingly placed in isolation. Many of them are not able to
cope with the rules of free society, and they fare far worse once
in prison. Unable to follow prison regulations, they end up being
charged with endless infractions, often receiving sanctions requiring
years in solitary confinement. In New Jersey, Frank Hunter died
in an isolation unit after being forced to commit sexual acts
for food. He didn't know who or where he was when he died. At
Pelican Bay in California, Vaughn Dortch, an emotionally disturbed
prisoner, was treated to a scalding "bath" by guards
to wash off excrement that he had spread over his body. That bath
burned off 30% of his skin.
The latest effort to multiply the number
of people living in isolation involves the alleged spread of the
"gang problem" in U.S. prisons. While most of us who
deal with prison issues know of gangs in prisons, we also watch
this "problem" being created, as well as enhanced, by
many facilities. New Jersey, for instance, is building a new 750
bed "gang unit." In order to fill this new unit, they
are rounding up people for interviews to determine "gang
membership." New Jersey has never had a gang problem. Prisoners
report that the Department of Corrections uses various counterintelligence
tactics to create one, and guards start rumors provoking one group
against another. This trend, repeated throughout the country,
results in more supermax prisons being built.
We have been told by Corrections personnel
that the nationwide move to expand the use of isolation is being
fostered to a great extent by guard unions, which now contribute
heavily to political campaigns of "law-and-order" candidates.
Various forms of lobbying secure the necessary support to build
new solitary confinement units or prisons. Guards report feeling
that these units provide a safe working environment. Advocates
and monitors of prisons report that control units also provide
a place in which prison staff can commit atrocities unobserved.
The goal of these units is clearly to
disable prisoners through spiritual, psychological and/or physical
breakdown. This is accomplished by arbitrary placement in isolation;
years of solitary or small group isolation from both prison and
outside communities; extremely limited access to education, worship,
or vocational training; physical torture, such as forced cell
extractions, strap-downs, hog-tying, beating after restraint,
and provocation of violence between prisoners; mental torture,
such as sensory deprivation, forced idleness, verbal harassment,
mail tampering, disclosure of confidential information, confessions
forced under torture, and threats against family members; sexual
intimidation and violence, usually against women prisoners by
male guards using strip searches, verbal sexual harassment, sexual
touching, and rape as a means of control.
In recent years, we have seen a duplication
of these horrendous conditions. Throughout the country, for instance,
when control unit prisoners leave their cage, they are strip-searched,
even when there is no contact with anyone but prison staff. Oscar
Lopez, a Puerto Rican political prisoner reported being searched
rectally three times going to a window visit and three times returning.
At the time, Oscar hadn't been in the direct company of another
human being for months. Prisoners at the Ohio women's prison report
the use of restraint tables for women who are "misbehaving."
Ray Luc Levasseur, now contained in the
Florence, Colorado ADX federal prison, testifies, "It seems
endless, each morning, behind the same gray door, listening to
the same grating noises provoked by steel bruising steel. At this
moment, there is someone in ADX, perhaps me, who suffers oppressive
weight that buckles the knees. He may be bent over, arms clasped
behind the back, pawed, prodded, stripped, commanded, gassed,
stunned by projectile gun, bar coded, boxed in concrete, or leaning
heavily against a plexiglass partition that prevents touching
grandmother, father, or child. The unnatural construction and
evil intent of ADX lies hidden at the rear of this federal complex.
You know where it is because you've followed the links in the
human chain thru the poorest communities, the darkest skin, the
youngest blood--straight to hell in the form of children's prisons,
penitentiaries, control units, and execution chambers."
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,
the American Friends Service Committee, the National Lawyers Guild,
California Prison Focus, and many other groups and individuals
have joined with the World Organization Against Torture to express
their concern. The World Organization Against Torture is currently
writing a report on United States' compliance with the United
Nations Covenants this country has signed. For instance, the U.S.
ratified the International Convention Against Torture in 1994,
but does not comply, continuing to use punitive violence and brutality
in control unit facilities, cell extractions, mistreatment of
the mentally ill, chemical sprays and dangerous methods of restraint.
The existence and scope of these conditions are also in opposition
to guidelines for treatment set in the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights as well as the UN Standard Minimum
Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Human rights monitors throughout the country
increasingly hear about use of torture devices--pepper spray,
mace, stun belts, head masks, and even restraint chairs and beds
described as having holes for voiding bodily wastes when prisoners
are tied down for days. One person reported being strapped down
in a restraint chair for 21 days. Women's prisons and juvenile
facilities report increasing use of these devices.
Unconscionable conditions exist in the
H-Unit at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Maximum Control Complex
at Westville, Indiana, Utah State Prison in Draper, the Maryland
Correctional Adjustment Center, and the Maryland House of Corrections
Annex. Reports from prisoners in the Q-wing and the Broward Institution
for Women in Florida and from Texas, Virgina, Connecticut, and
many other states confirm the spread of these inhuman conditions.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, an expert on the
results of living in extended isolation, has commented at length
on the psychiatric harm that can come to people subjected to long-term
isolation. He interviewed people who began to cut themselves just
so they can "feel" something and reports panic attacks
and a progressive inability to tolerate ordinary stimulation.
Isolation has been documented as a cause of paranoia, problems
with impulse control, extreme motor restlessness, delusions, suspiciousness,
confusion, and depression. I have treated a number of ex-control
unit prisoners who come out with serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic
The National Campaign to Stop Control
Unit Prisons (NCSCUP) held hearings throughout the country in
1996 and collected shocking testimony from ex-control unit prisoners,
current control unit prisoners via audio tape and written testimony,
family members, lawyers, activists and advocates. What was described
in these testimonies clearly violates the United Nations Standard
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, another Covenant,
which the United States has signed. NSCUP continues to monitor
conditions in isolation units throughout the country and has published
a 1997 report on the status of control units in the U.S. and The
Survival Manual, a pamphlet written by prisoners living in isolation
for prisoners living in isolation. NSCUP also continues to provide
analysis to the media as well as to lawyers preparing litigation.
Prisons are now one of the largest growth
industries in the United States. The use of extended isolation
is part of that growth pattern. The Prison Industrial Complex
now houses over 1.7 million people in state and federal prisons,
(excluding children's facilities, immigration detention centers,
and municipal lockups).
As a human rights advocate on behalf of
prisoners for over 20 years, I find it glaringly clear that, just
as slavery had economic and political functions, so do prisons.
People who are perceived as economic liabilities have been turned
into a major economic asset. The young male of color who is worth
less than nothing in this current economy suddenly generates between
30 and 60 thousand dollars a year in the "justice" system.
It is not accidental that the technological revolution has been
accompanied by the largest explosion of prison building in the
history of the world. Control units, supermax prisons, and maxi-maxi
prisons are the latest form of this growth. The politics of the
criminal justice system--the politics of the police, the politics
of the courts, the politics of the prison, and the politics of
the death penalty-is a manifestation of racism and classism.
We need to expand popular understanding
of what is happening in this country's justice system and make
it relevant to the lives of people that we know and touch. We
need to put a human face on those people living so alarmingly
out of sight of the rest of us. We need to press Congress to exercise
its oversight authority over the Bureau of Prisons. We need to
press the state criminal justice systems that operate these places
to examine the way control units function and study their effects.
The folks in prison are mostly the poor and the working class
who need jobs and education. Prison issues are class issues, and
until prisoner activists and outside organizers begin a more serious
level of opposition, neither prison administrators nor the U.S.
government will take our complaints seriously.
Prisons reflect both the structure of
society and the struggle against it. The wall of silence built
around prisons and prisoners must be broken down. Groups all over
the country are working on these issues. They need your help.
Please get in touch with one of these
American Friends Service Committee/National
Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons (972 Broad Street, Newark,
NJ 07102/(973) 643-3192).
The Committee To End the Marion Lockdown
(P.O. Box 578172, Chicago, IL 60657).
California Prison Focus (2489 Mission
#28, San Francisco, CA 94110).
Bonnie Kerness is Associate Director of
the American Friends Service Committee Criminal Justice Program
in New Jersey and the National Coordinator of the National Campaign
to Stop Control Unit Prisons.