Supermax prisons: 21st century asylums

Solitary confinement in the new dungeons of the US trigger mental illness in prisoners.

woman holds placard in protest over prison conditions
Lucy Flores, whose husband spent four years in Pelican Bay, at a rally in support of inmates on hunger strike [REUTERS]
“People walked by and asked: ‘How are you doing?’ I answered: ‘How am I supposed to be doing? That’s the craziest question I ever heard.’ The mental health people asked: ‘Are you having any suicidal ideation? What are you thinking right now?’ I said: ‘Where the f*** am I? That’s what I’m thinking. Ain’t this America?'”

– Brian Nelson, on his transfer to Tamms supermax prison in Illinois. He was locked, chained and naked in a holding cell.  

The recent hunger strike at Pelican Bay supermax prison in California exposed for three weeks the carefully planned and executed barbarism of life in supermax America. The utter desperation of the human cargo behind the concertina wire, buried deep inside concrete coffins was gut wrenching and heart breaking. Hunger strikes are a tactic of last resort for the completely subjugated; a slow, painful, non-flammable version of self-immolation.

Brian Nelson, a survivor of 12 years in solitary confinement at Tamms supermax prison in Illinois, understands the conditions that drove the men in Pelican Bay to stop eating. Distraught and anxious, Nelson paced in his cell for more than ten hours a day – causing severe, bloody blisters on the soles of his feet. He tried to hang himself. In the year 2000, Nelson went on hunger strike for 42 days with four other prisoners to protest many of the same conditions that exist at Pelican Bay.

The demands of Tamm’s hunger strikers were similar, too: better food, shoes with arches, appropriate clothing, access to education, inmates with mental illness be transferred out, bilingual staff and abolition of the “renunciation policy” – the “debriefing policy” related to gangs that Pelican Bay prisoners demanded be abolished. Guards tried to break the hunger strike at Tamms by leaving carts of fried chicken and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies on the wing. The delicious smells didn’t break Nelson.

Supermax prisoners’ daily lives are chock full of alienating and undignified experiences, so empty of positive human interaction, thousands are willing to risk death than endure such inhumane conditions. That alone speaks volumes about the reality of life in supermax prisons.   

One of the most humiliating aspects of life for inmates are the frequent strip searches – forced to be naked, ordered to bend over by guards and spread the buttocks apart to have the anus inspected for contraband while coughing. Strip searches are the old normal. The photos of nude prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq shocked the world, but to be stripped naked for hours or even days is standard operating procedure in supermaxes. 

Nelson explained: “Every time you leave your cell you’re strip searched … They do this to degrade and shock you…Sometimes the guards would make ‘homosexual’ comments like: ‘Hey baby, spread your cheeks’. Darrell Cannon, a survivor of a nine-year stretch in Tamms, described the strip search: ‘They tell you to open your mouth, raise your tongue, hold your hands up, they go through your fingers and toes and tell you to turn around and spread your cheeks up against the chuckhole … It’s degrading to have two other human beings looking at you like you’re some kind of specimen. It is extremely degrading.”

Rehabilitation not an option

Prisoners on suicide watch are routinely left naked in their cells. And inmates have been punished by “caging”, they’re held naked or partially clothed in outdoor holding cages in inclement weather. 

There is no pretence of rehabilitation in supermax prisons; the purpose is harsh punishment. Prisoners endure supersized portions of psychological punishment as a result of strict and prolonged solitary confinement. Inmates are confined for 23 to 24 hours a day, every day, in cells that measure 7-by-12 square feet. It is psychological torture.

Supermax prisons are intended to isolate prisoners and to deny human contact. Cannon said: “Everything you do, you do alone … It [supermax] was designed to break you mentally, by not allowing you to have another human being right there with you that you can interact with.”

This extreme environment of sensory deprivation and social seclusion makes men go mad. Supermax prisons are filled with inmates with mental illnesses diagnosed. Laurie “It is a form of insanity to put people in a place that provokes mental illness … Either they went in crazy, or they go crazy once they are there,” said Jo Reynolds, an organiser for the Tamms Ten Year Committee and a Soros Justice Fellow.

Prisoners resort to cutting their flesh: A form of self-mutilation that results in thick scarring. Small shavings of concrete, plastic ‘sporks’ or paper clips are used to cut and cause bleeding to arms, legs and genitals. Cannon remembers some prisoners cutting themselves, “just to feel something … they were willing to do anything to get out of their cell and into the infirmary to be around other people”.

Nelson recalled an inmate who continually tightened a piece of string around his finger. It became gangrenous and was amputated. Men who injured themselves told him: “I need the pain, to feel real”.

‘They’re not faking’

“Gassing” is also common in supermax prisons. It is a word used to describe prisoners throwing urine and faeces at guards. Gassing is treated as a security threat and is met with excessive force by a tactical team.  

Prison mental health staff label inmates who engage in cutting and gassing as malingering and “acting out”, not as suffering from mental illness. And yet there is decades of indisputable, well-documented evidence that solitary confinement causes mental breakdown and self-injurious behaviour. 

Dr Terry A Kupers, a psychologist who has conducted hundreds of assessments of prisoners in supermax prisons, explained in an article in the Belleville News-Democrat. “Twenty-three hours a day alone in a cell causes many inmates to brutally attack themselves,” he wrote. “In the adult male population of the United States, self-mutilation occurs only in solitary confinement. It’s an epidemic across the country. They’re not faking.” 

“If prisoners stray off the yellow line walking to the shower or exercise cage, they can be shot” 

Supermax prisons are modern, high-tech, taxpayer funded concentration camps. The architecture is a twisted blend of Fascist-Stripped-Classical and Functionalist designed to facilitate the One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest punishment of inmates. They are located in rural areas in small, conservative, majority white towns desperate for jobs. Pelican Bay was built on an abandoned logging site and is completely cut off from its surroundings. Tamms supermax is located in the far corner of Illinois in the village of Tamms, population: 724. The remote location of supermax prisons keeps them hidden and away from public scrutiny and protest. Media are not allowed in.

On the perimeter of supermax prisons loom large and imposing guard towers with gun turrets and floodlights that resemble German Flak towers.

The interior of supermax prisons is built on the architectural principles of isolation, surveillance and über-control. Doors and gates are controlled electronically. A panoptic central guard tower is encircled by prisoner “pods” and closed-circuit TV cameras allow guards to see into every cell. Privacy is nonexistent. Concrete cells contain a poured concrete bed, immovable concrete desk/stool, stainless steel sink, toilet and mirror. Metal wire mesh cell doors have a slot to deliver food and other items. Some doors have Plexiglas covers that insulate cells from sound, air and vision.

Architects have partnered with penal authorities to create austere, hermetically sealed dungeons devoid of natural light, colour or beauty. They are milieus full of monotony, guaranteed to provoke mental despair. Architects who build prisons call themselves “justice” architects. In response to that outrageous claim and to the boom in prison building, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (AAPSR) launched a prison design boycott. The organisation acknowledges the barbaric consequences of supermax incarceration and encourages architects to sign a pledge not to do any work that “furthers the construction of prisons or jails”. 

Daily routines in supermax prisons are rigidly controlled. Prison guards and administration have total power and domination over every aspect of prisoners’ lives through a series of capricious rules and regulations that, if broken, result in “tickets”, loss of privileges or additional prison time. Inmates’ bodies, belongings and cells are subjected to relentless searches, inspection and video monitoring. Authorities decide the number of showers per week (one to five) and the amount of time (15 minutes), exercise time (1 hour), clothes, TV/radio access, food, visitation rights – and can withdraw medication. Inmates aren’t allowed to speak to other inmates when outside their cells. If prisoners stray off the yellow line walking to the shower or exercise cage, they can be shot.

The hunger strikers in Pelican Bay sent the world a distress signal: A supermax SOS. They are buried alive but still able to fight against the most appalling prison conditions imaginable. Those of us on the outside have a moral and ethical responsibility to hear and answer that call and fight to shut every supermax prison down. 

Helen Redmond is a US-based journalist, commentator, and drug and health policy analyst.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.