Not to be missed by Solitary Watchers is a new article on supermax confinement published in the Boston Review. The piece is by Lance Tapley, known for his investigative reporting on the subject from Maine in the Portland Phoenix. This comprehensive piece, which deserves to be read in full, makes a strong case for identifying solitary confinement–and the abusive practices that accompany it–as torture. Tapley points to “an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of ‘war on terrorism’ prisoners at Guantánamo”:
To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. The Obama administration— somewhat unsteadily—plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though this would mark a substantive change. In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity. Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, and they receive meager health services. The isolation frequently leads to insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.
Tapley’s reporting has helped make public the brutality of “cell extraction”–the act of removing a prisoner from his cell, which is often done with excessive force, regardless of whether the prisoner resists. In the Boston Review article, he describes one prisoners’ experiences, and includes a leaked video of a cell extraction in Maine:
“They beat the shit out of you,” Mike James said, hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison.
“They push you, knee you, poke you,” he said, his voice faint but ardent through the speaker. “They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you’re cuffed.” He lifted his manacled hands to a scar on his chin. “They split it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”…
James experienced frequent cell extractions—on one occasion, five of them in a single day. In this procedure, five hollering guards wearing helmets and body armor charge into the cell. The point man smashes a big shield into the prisoner. The others spray mace into his face, push him onto the bed, and twist his arms behind his back to handcuff him, connecting the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. As they continue to mace him, the guards carry him screaming to an observation room, where they bind him to a special chair. He remains there for hours.
A scene such as this might have taken place at supposedly aberrant Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described by prisoners and guards and vividly revealed in a leaked video (the Maine prison records these events to ensure that inmates are not mistreated), an extraction is the supermax’s normal, zero-tolerance reaction to prisoner disobedience, which may be as minor as protesting bad food by covering the cell door’s tiny window with a piece of paper. Such extractions occur all the time, not just in Maine but throughout the country. The principle applied is total control of a prisoner’s actions. Even if the inmate has no history of violence, when he leaves the cell he’s in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with a guard on either side.
But he doesn’t often leave the cell. In Maine’s supermax, which is typical, an inmate spends 23 hours a day alone in a 6.5-by-14-foot space. When the weather is good, he’ll spend an hour a day, five days a week, usually alone, in a small dog run outdoors. Radios and TVs are forbidden. Cell lights are on night and day. When the cold food is shoved through the door slot, prisoners fear it is contaminated by the feces, urine, and blood splattered on the cell door and corridor surfaces by the many mentally ill or enraged inmates. The prisoner is not allowed a toothbrush but is provided a plastic nub to use on a fingertip. Mental-health care usually amounts to a five-minute, through-the-steel-door conversation with a social worker once or twice a week. The prisoner gets a shower a few times a week, a brief telephone call every week or two, and occasional “no-contact” access to a visitor. Variations in these conditions exist: for example, in some states TVs or radios are allowed.
The article also debunks the myth that prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement are “the worst of the worst.”
When supermaxes were built across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, they were theoretically for “the worst of the worst,” the most violent prisoners. But an inmate may be put in one for possession of contraband such as marijuana, if accused by another inmate of being a gang member, for hesitating to follow a guard’s order, and even for protection from other inmates. Several prisoners are in the Maine supermax because they got themselves tattooed. By many accounts mental illness is the most common denominator; mentally ill inmates have a hard time following prison rules. A Wisconsin study found that three-quarters of the prisoners in one solitary-confinement unit were mentally ill. In Maine, over half of supermax inmates are classified as having a serious mental illness.