2 Essays for Human Rights Day

The blogger Between the Bars asked two political Prisoners in WSPF to Write essays on Solitary confinement.

 The international community has deemed what US does here is cruel and inhuman. FFUP works with many prisons and any one in the “free world to end the abuse and overuse of segregation. 
Essay one
2-18-2013Beyond Solitary Confinement: Evolving the Standards of Decency
      By : Mustafa- EL K.A. Agala
I. Introduction
      Punishment for crime is the
loss of liberty, not humanity. Deprivation of the latter is not only cruel and unusual, but it is the denial of a human right; one the evolving standards of decency in today’s society should no longer permit. Then, why am I a witness to
it daily? I am imprisoned in Wisconsin Supermax, solitary confinement, where I’ve spent over a decade total on what I call “Psychological Death Row” for all around me is psychological death; prisoners who have literally been destroyed, annilated mentally. The assault on one’s sanity here is constant, and requires constant guard, sometimes to the expense of physical health. However, this is not an address to the panel to simply decry the conditions of this form of confinement, but rather for professional and legal aid, and  ACTION – to strike while the iron is hot and
end these inhuman conditions. We have the international community declaring long term solitary confinement as torture, a human rights violation, the U.S. congress taking up the issue, and an expose’ on Nightline , NO WAY OUT [inside solitary confinement – 9-20-2012] , reporting on the physical [including brain damage] and pschological damages of such treatment. Below is what I attest to before you, and will do so under oath, and  what I’ve been fighting as prisoner –to- prisoner legal aid, what I’m now fighting, and where your help is needed. Now is the time.
 II. Psychological  Deathrow
      As early as 2001, over a decade, in a case that I and another prisoner initiated, Jones-el[Agala] v.
Berge., 164  7 supp2d 1096[w,d,wis 2001)
, the federal court determined(based on expert testimony] that Wisconsin Supermax conditions bordered on the barbarous in its treatment of the mentally ill, and enjoined them from being confined here. That injunction expired  in 2008 and was never fully honored. Both then and now you had [and have] prisoners who have been diagnosed  as psychotic, who repeatedly attempt suicide, who have multiple personalities, who
argue with and fight themselves, smear their own feces, and crank out persistently[bang on metal sinks, toilets, or shout incessantly] to the point of causing mental illnesses [anxiety disorder, psychosis,  dysomnia, etc.] in other prisoners who had not been mentally ill. Medication is dispensed almost like candy, and many admit to taking psychotropic drugs just to sleep.
     It is psychological deathrow because it kills the sanity, and not by any mistake. The prisoners the administration think are strong mentally, particularly litigators, culturally conscious, politically astute, that challenge their status quo, they keep here indefintely – until forced to release due to release from prison or until they’ve destroyed them so bad mentally that they are attempting death, or even the clinical/psychological staff has said ‘enough”! [which is rare.]. Consider
the following 2 cases from here: GILLIS V LITSCHER,468 f.3d 658 (7th cir. 2006)7TH circuit described this place as a soviet style gulag. Gillis, not mentally ill, was driven mentally ill, began to engage in self mutilation [case settled for over $400,000], BARRETT VS. WALLACE, et. al.,12-CV-24-bbc (w.d. wis)   [now pending]. Sane prisoner driven insane,
repeated suicide attempts, c.o. who dispensed medication  gave him PCP[medical reports on him – public record, exhibited in the case on court docket.) I’m currently his only assistance. He’s pro se,  had the case
filed without my knowledge, now counsel and an expert witness in psychology is needed.
III.  Physical Harm
     Prisoners here for the long term [2-3 years and beyond, some much less] almost invariably suffer vision
loss; nearsightted, which oneoptometrist stated comes from only being permitted to see objects the short distances that
an 8×12 cell sllows for years on end.  I am one of those whose perfect vision has been destroyed.  Another visual ailment gotten here is a condition in which we sometimes see a white mass float across  the vision, similar to the “seeing stars “ phenomenon- just a white mass instead. The walls  here are all white[no objects permitted to be hung on them]; very diminished visual, as well as overall perceptual stimulation. High blood pressure development among previous fit ,
young men, who had ideal pressure[self included] prior to going here is also rampant, as is high blood pressure related heart problems, aggravated asthmatic condition and vitamin D deficiency due to the lack of meaningful exposure to
sunlight [2 1/2  hours or less, often less or none a week] – which affects sleep, blood pressure, vision and other functions.
    Moreover, excessive force is rampant. Two cases I helped litigate[draft and civil complaint, motions, briefs, etc. for pro se prisoners up to trial or counsel appointment] are indicative of this: Jackson v.Gerl, 2008 US District. Lexis 37672, para 10-14, published at 662 7 Supp2d 738 (w.d.wis. 2009) [lethal stinger grenade detonated in the cell on a prisoner 5’8’’, 135lbs. for covering up his window and disrespecting staff, left personal damage, settled for $50,000-attached exhibit #1 -#3, public records show the aftermath. It was unprecedented  in prison history]; Bracey V. Grondin 1#10-c-287-BBC(w.d.wis)( nearly 60 year old prisoner who was shackled, handcuffed behind his back, in waist
restraints, tethered to the cell door, on his knees, was punched in the face, rammed into the steel door, rammed into the concrete wall. , brutally attacked by several  c.o’s, left with lacerations and a lump on his head the size of an egg. He refused the state’s settlement offer, and is now in the 7th cir. Appeals court over the issue of spoilation– defendants destroyed the video] Now as I write this , the prevalent method is to charge the prisoner with asslaut/battery and disorderly conduct- outside criminal charges, when the staff uses force against them. The D.A. returns to press charges against the staff, but charges victimized prisoners regularly and usually offers a low plea deal, which most take and bar
themselves out of civil court. A U.S. Justice Dept. investigation is underway.
   IV Racial Discrimation
        WSPF [Wisconsin Secure Program Facility} , this Supermax, has approximately 100 prisoners on administrative Confinement[A.C.], overwhelmingly  Alkabulani[Black/African American], and that has been the case since its Nov. 1999 opening. We [prisoners] did a count Jan. 2010 and found out of 100 cells there were 72 Alkabulani, 12 Caucasian, 11 Latin and 3 Native prisoners on A.C. [2 cells were empty], These eliminate “chance” , and far exceed the standard deviation measured in Santiago v. Miles, 774 f supp.775(w.d.n.y. 1991) , where a similar practice was
enjoined. I am Muslim and Alkabulani, and they are targeting our racial class for this inhumane treatment and other deprivations – so many( like parole, which I’ve been eligible for since Jan. 2009] that the A.C. placement affects.
Racial slurs are spewed at times, including the following to me: “kill yourself nigger”, a message left in my clothes roll (prepared by staff,  in ink we can’t have), and for which my complaint was alterred. Civil action has been initiated on the race issue.
V  Help Needed
    Now pending, as 072-9-2013 [mailing], is Mustafa-El K.A. Agala. Etal V Rick Raemisch, et all.
#13-CV-BBC (w.d.wis) , a class action  on 2 issues: [1] Racial discrimination in A.C. segregation/solitary confinement
overall, in disciplinary write-ups, maximum security and supermax placement, and [2] that A.C. and other long term solitary confinement is per se, in todays evolved standard of decency, unconstitutional, cruel and unusual, and a human
rights violation. In order for class certification to be granted we need counsel , and we will need expert testimony on the psychological effects, and physiological affects of this confinement. The court has already held these conditions,
at this  very prison, are unconstitutional for the “mentally ill”, who are still housed here, so the illegality is clear; but, now is the time to show that it is the conditions themselves that also drive prisoners mentally ill and are , therefore, per se unconstitutional.
Do review the civil somplaint from the court docket – the “filing” date should be 2-12-2013, or we can arrange for a copy to be sent. Please do contact
me, or ms. Peggy Swan [local advocate, Forum for Understanding Prisons], as follows:
    Musafa-el K.A. Agala,#223971
[a.k.a. Dennis R Jones-el] P.O. Box 9900
–  WSPF , Boscobel, Wi.
53805-9900. [608 375-5656]- prison’s no. for arranging atty. Calls]
    Forum for Understanding
Prisons [FFUP] c/o Peg Swan,29631 Wild Rose Dr. Blue River, Wi. 53518’  [608] 5363993 (we are  not working with others, and seeking to network more)
Mustafa –el K. A. Agala
essay Two:  U.S. Prisoners Not Human?
Reply ID: B1og
RE:      International Human Rights (HR) Day. (12/10/20
TO:     Between The Bars P.O. Box 425103
Cambridge, MA
DATE: November 20th, 2012
1)1 put forth the proposition to all you Bloggsters out in the Blog theater, if American governments, both state and federal, can exempt American prisoners from the same standards of human rights (HR) as it advocates and agrees and demands from all “so-called” civilized and industrialzed, and, most importantly, technologically superb advanced countries, does that not mean, at least in name and letter of
the American law, and from the point of view of lawmakers, prisoners are not human!
2) Because only “non humans”would be exempt, correct?
3) In American prisons everyday,in one prison or another, is an “Abu Ghraib” prison experience. And the courts, from high to low, (See: CACI Premier Tech,Inc. vs.Rhodes, 536, F 3d 280), have not only permitted such civil and human rights abuse, they have developed
specialized jurisprudence to dehumanize this misanthropism body of law and practice. (See: Hamelin
vs. Michigan, 501, U.S. 957, at 962-65 (1991)). Also, Celia Rumann, Tortured History: Finding Our Way Back to the Lost Origins of the Eight Amendment, 31 Pepp. 2, Rev. 661, at 684-93 (2004).(Describing the courts interpretations of the word “punishment” in the Eighth Amendment).
4) Then, see: Mikel-Meredith Weidman’s The Culture of Judicial Deference and The Problem of Sut,ennax Prisons 51 UCLA L. Rev. 1505, 1517-21(2004).(Describing the high threshold that prisoners must meet to succeed in constitutional claims).
5) Which exempt American prisoners from the universal standards of HR that the U.S. demands from others.
6) Here is a concrete pointer of HR abuse this writer has witnessed and experienced personally:
(1) Harmful and torturous long term solitary confinement. Personally, 12 years straight And going, of supermax torture for
ones political,
cultural, and spiritual rights, advocating HR for prisoners.
(2) Electronic intrusions for no reason other than intimidation and attrit. 24 hour voyeuristic perversion when guards can watch
you shower and use the bathroom.
(3) Exploitation of social and medical phoebias which are recognized as disabilities, but not by the prisons, such as
prophesies and paruesis, collectively known as shy bladder, which they turn into
their tools of torture by using the perv-cam in (2).
(4) They feed you so punitively that you are always famished but yet enough to meet the minimum standards of health. Yet, if you
are a grown person, and not a child, exercise, and try to stay active,you need more than just eh minimum. You need more.
(5) Due to lack of food, you stop exercising and, not only do you start to suffer physically, but also intellectually and psychologically. Exercise, when entombed for 24 hours for decades, is not only necessary, it is medical.
(6) Courts allow prison officials to censor and suppress any and all dissent from prisoners on the HR for prison reform under the pretext of security and ethnocentric stylized re-education, clothed as rehab, yet when pouring out their retributionisms, they say rehabilitation and torture is one and the same.
(7) In Elizabeth vasilides, scholarly and compassionately, law review titled: “Solitary Cofinement and International Human Rights: Why the U.S. Prison System Fails Global Standards”, in American University International Law Review, Article #5, She highlights
this inhumaness, that is silently overlooked and kept secret, or people just don’t care to know.
(8) She explains the abusive history of the subject matter throughout U.S. history, (P. 73). She breaks down, with case law evidence too disturbing for those without horror movie stomachs, how confinement like this is creating psyche-incinerator that
are burning and destroying the minds in them. 
(P. 76).
(9) Suicide in SHU and Supermax(s) are the highest in the world. In the U.S., Wisconsin is highest in the nation. Yet, U.S. Court Appeals for the Cit., claims the prison can censor prisoners for pointing out this fact and abuse. In fact, this article here is
contraband under their philosophy
and can be censored under their case law. As anyone familiar with HR’s abuse know,
censorship is the tool used to conceal and control it and
perfect the same. (See: WI.DOC.com, Wisconsin Prison Suicide Twice the National Average. 28 from 2001 2005).
(10)1 have been told personally by a sitting U.S. Federal District Court that HR do not apply to me, to U.S. prisoners. I am currently appealing said ruling to U.S. 7th Court of Appeals. But I have no Stockholm delusions they will side with prisoners. But the law of the U.N. and other treaties say we are entitled. (See: U.N. Charter, Art. 55 (c), (p. 80).
(11) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),  states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (G.A. Res. 217A, at fl, U.N. GAOR, 3d Seas., 1~ plen. Mtg., U.N. Doc A/81o (1948).
(12) the deceptions will spin you when they spiel you by claiming prisoners HR’s are protected and perfected by the U.S. 8thAmendment (8th Amd). That the 8th Amendment has the same language. But that is a creative lie, because, remember that specialized developed jurisprudence I spoke of. Yeah, well, that body of law has been emasculated and castrated, and devitalized, impoverished and
undermined that it affords a prisoner no more protection than a slave. (Modern slaves). That’s right, the sacred
8th Amendment has
specialized standards that are weakened stylized for application to prisoners.
(13) U.S. as a member of the OAS’ has agreed to specific prisoner rights in a more regional context. This agency put forth Article ~ and ~, that says, “every prisoner has the right to be free from cruel, infamous, or unusual punishment”, (p. 82).Organization of American States.3 (bloggers note: some of these have numbers missing_ will supply soon)
(14) OAS also created the “American Convention on HR”, which Article ~ states that “every person has the right to have his phisical, mental, and moral integrity respected2. It also prohibits torture or cruel inhuman or degrading punishment.” Id.
(15) ICCPR
(International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), created in 1966, offers t
he same protection language previously discussed.
(16) In 1992, the U.S. ratified the ICCPR, yet they invoked exclusion clauses with said reservations providing the U.S. to put conditional enforcements on Article ~, prohibitions on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment3( editors note_ numbers 17 and 18 are missing article numbers- clarifications coming) (17)  These conditional enforcements say that Art. – must afford prisoners (U.S. prisoners the rights that are defined by the U.S. ~, ~,and i4~ Amendment rights~ Now this is where the creative lies come in. These U.S. Amendments, as explained before, have been diluted specifically in definition and directly when in relations to prisoner, to be modified so badly that the standards are not the same as the ICCPR. So that Articles ~ ~ and ~3j. of the ICCPR has two standards.
One that is universal and the other the diluted American/selective version, which is the Catch 22. That Catch 22 is that, ICCPR does not apply to all American prisoners.(18) Also, Congress incorporated escape clauses (Article ~.Q (2), which permit’s a state to declare that it is not bound
by Article ~Q (1); (convention against torture, p.
85). (19) There is a colossal difference between the U.N. Charter ICCPR and convention against torture kinds of protection and that of the 8th Amendment. The 8th, for one, does not “protect the treatment of prisoners”. And this is based upon the case law and the rulings in which prisoner’s rights and abuses inflicted have been justifiably upheld4.
(20) You would think that in modern America this kind of abuse would not happen. Especially when the guiding principle and standard theory of the courts is that the 8th draws it’s meaning from “the evolving standards of decency”. Yet this does not fluidly
apply to prisoners, only to people not in prison or perhaps people with money and connections.
(21) The U.S. Supreme Court in Rhodes vs. Chai,man, 452 U.S. 337, at 349 (1981); reasoning that prisoners level of discomfort is a matter that politicians (get tough on crime people). The always bankable, and cheap/safe campaign election ploy that people swallow and pe~son officials (the rejected wannabe cops, wife abusers, unexposed sadists, and angry unemployed or rural neglected who hate their jobs but love the money) to decide. So, it is not surprising why this evolving standard of decency has been static and severely diluted.
(22) The only relief comes if you are mentally ill and, so, you have to not only sit in the SHU or Supermax for decades, but endure the maltreatment, dehumanization, and torture, until they break you and you either die or go crazy. And I’m not
either of those.
(23) In summation, I did not even go into the death penalty and it’s suspect use. But since it is “Thanksgiving” tomorrow, and Xmas the discipljnary month, it is worth noting that with over a thousand people on death row in America, it is an interesting perspective to see Obama play out a Thanksgiving ritual of pardoning a turkey while no real Christian forgiveness is extended within the next week of month by these so-called Christians who selectively apply their versions of Jesus (Isa peace upon) teachings.
(24) But in the end, I blame the 2.10 million or so prisoners in America who pretty much do not a thing to stand up for the treatment they say they deserve and want. Yet they do nothing. This is the coldest slavery to ever exist. Because, continue to
walk into the game and play a laced and loaded game, knowing they are being “hunted”. As Thurgood Marshal reportedly once said, before joining the enemy’s table, “If you cannot articulate what your rights are, then you don’t have any.” (Paraphrased). Because those in power are not going to treat you fair and equal when that equal and fairness rides against their own greedy interest;
weakens ~f takes power out of their hands.
(25) Taking that further, if you don’t believe and stand up, talk up, write and act like you have and deserve to be treated like a human being, then who can be blamed when others don’t treat you the same?
(26) This is not Pollyanna struggle. This is real political and legal war. They are not playing, so nor shall we. The pain and suffering are real. And the dehumanization is mind blowing literally.
(27) The cruelest thing I’ve seen so far is watching and starting to feel like the beast and monster they falsely and hyperbolized you to be, for your traumatic mind ration, at least, the abuse already being iaflicted, will be a consequence of you actually doing something as opposed to them abusing you for free right.
(28) As Nietzsche said, “You stare into the abyss too long, and the abyss will manifest back in you. Stare in the eyes and face of the monster and you become one.”Well, you treat a man like an animal and strip him of his humanity, eventually a beast will emerge. For no man or woman or child, nor even an animal, will endure constant abuse too long before backdrafting. Not even a slave is that
(29) If I may make a call to action for all you bloggsters out there, in the ether, I say let the President and Wisconsin DOC, and other officials, hear your voice by sending a tsunami of emails until action is taken. The ACLU in D.C., and others, have
made comprehensive recommendations that have been ignored. Send the tsunami’s of letters.

Send in the “NAMI’s”

A Voice From the Fire

Ras Atum-Ra Uhuru Mutawakkil

P.O. Box 9900 #228971

Boscobel, WI 53805

Norman C. Green JR U.S.A.



footnotes:2Nov., 1969, Art. 74 f2), O.A.S. T.S., NO ~.

~ See: John Hemy Stone’s “The International Convenant on Civil Political Rights and U.S. Reservation”- 7 U.C. Davis J. hit. LL & Pol’y 1, 9 10(2001). (Positing that these reservations allow the U.S. govt. to make laws in contravention of ICCPR standards).

4David Heffeman’s “America, The Cruel and Unusual?” An analysis of the Eighth Amendment under international law, 45 Cath. U.L. Rev. 481, 540 (1996) (quoting Manfred Nowak, U.N. Convenant CCPR commentary.



2011 CO bill tried to stop solitary maddness

Mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement: New bill seeks to stop the madness

By Alan Prendergast Wed., Mar. 2 2011 at 3:59 PM

Roughly four out of every ten prisoners in solitary confinement in Colorado is either developmentally disabled or mentally ill, a figure that’s been rising steadily over the past decade. Senate Bill 176, headed for a statehouse committee review later this week, seeks to drastically reduce that number — and slash prison costs in the bargain.

It costs between $15,000 and $21,500 more per year to house an inmate in 23-hour lockdown than in the general prison population. But that’s only part of the staggering price of warehousing prisoners with mental health needs in supermax cells, according to the bill’s Democrat sponsors, state senator Morgan Carroll (Aurora) and state representative Claire Levy (Boulder). The current path just leads to “increased costs for incarceration, increased recidivism rates and reduced public safety,” Carroll says.

SB 176 would require prisoners to undergo a mental evaluation before placement in solitary confinement; those deemed seriously mentally ill couldn’t be placed there. Prisoners in lockdown would undergo monthly mental health assessments — much more frequently than in the current system. (See my feature “Head Games” for some inmate accounts of how little contact with mental health professionals they have in the Colorado State Penitentiary.)

The bill also sets an accelerated schedule for prisoners in solitary to be returned to general population — particularly if they’re coming up for release. At present, more than 40 percent of the “administrative segregation” population goes straight from a solitary cell to the street, a situation that often leads to parole failures and new crimes.

The Colorado Department of Corrections already has a special prison for the mentally ill, San Carlos, but it’s full — with a long waiting list. While the state has now partially opened a second supermax, no additional facilities dedicated to the mentally ill are planned. Indeed, the DOC’s own study of its supermax population concluded that solitary confinement did no harm and might even have short-term psychological benefits. But that report has been blasted by experts in the field as deeply flawed.

In an era of severe budget-cutting, can DOC officials afford to do anything with disruptive, mentally ill prisoners besides lock them down? They can’t afford not to, says Rosemary Harris Lytle of the ACLU of Colorado, which is championing the bill. “This is the most expensive form of confinement there is,” she notes. “Doing the proper evaluations and making other placement available will greatly reduce costs.”

For more on mental illness in the state prison system, visit our Crime and Punishment archive.


solitarywatch.com looks at lawsuit/conditions


News from a Nation in Lockdown

Lawsuit Challenges Conditions at ADX Federal Supermax

June 25, 2012

tags: ADX Florence, solitary confinement, lawsuit, supermax prison, Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

by Shae Cali

On Monday, June 18th, a class action lawsuit, Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisonswas filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons on behalf of five plaintiffs, all of them inmates at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum–commonly known as ADX–in Florence,  Colorado. A must-read three-part series of articles by Andrew Cohen, published this week by The Atlantic, covers details of the lawsuit and the treatment of prisoners with mental illness living inside the facility.

In the first two articles in the series, Cohen excellently summarizes the lawsuit as well as emphasizing the horrific conditions in which mentally ill inmates at ADX languish. The lawsuit maintains that the five plaintiffs, along with six other “interested individuals” housed in ADX, all have mental illness or mental retardation, and have been denied adequate treatment. The details regarding their treatment, or lack thereof, are shocking, and outlined in graphic detail. Tragically, the gruesome descriptions may have a familiar ring for those versed in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement in supermax prisons and special housing units across the country.

Cohen quotes from the lawsuit: “Prisoners interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects.”

Another section of the lawsuit states that “in 2010, a severely and chronically depressed prisoner who had attempted to kill himself a few months earlier was escorted to the ADX [Special Housing Unit] after throwing milk at a corrections officer. He was placed in a cell just vacated by another chronically ill prisoner who had smeared the cell’s floors, walls, bed and mattress with feces. The prisoner was given no cleaning supplies, and was not issued a blanket, towel or sheet. He used a roll of toilet paper in the cell to try to wipe the feces off of a spot on the floor that was large enough to enable him to lie down. For two days, he remained lying on that single ‘clean’ space.”

ADX, known as “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” is the nation’s most secure supermax prison, and its 490 residents live in extreme isolation. It is supposedly intended to hold the “worst of the worst,” and is never supposed to house the seriously mentally ill, according to Bureau of Prisons policy. However, individuals with mental illness often end up there or, argues the lawsuit, become mentally ill during their confinement at ADX, largely due to the isolation and deprivation suffered there.

The third article in the series focuses on the lawsuit and The Eighth Amendment. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages for the plaintiffs; rather, it calls for an injunction to improve the treatment of inmates with mental illness in federal facilities. Cohen highlights one of the most salient problems with the United States prison system: the profound lack of accountability or oversight. While the Federal Bureau of Prisons website states that it “protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens,” the rapidly increasing public concern over abuses inside federal facilities reflects the abject failure of the BOP to uphold its commitment.

The lawsuit was filed during the same week as the Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, and directly contradicts some of the testimony provided by BOP head Charles Samuels. Solitary confinement is being examined with unprecedented scrutiny on a federal level, and, as Cohen notes, this particular lawsuit was filed by attorneys and organizations who have experience and expertise in prison reform litigation, including the DC Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm of Arnold & Porter. Solitary Watch will continue to report on emerging developments.


from → mental illness, lawsuits/litigation, solitary confinement, psychological effects, supermax prisons, federal prisons, Eighth Amendment, civil liberties/civil rights, Constitution


Talk of the Nation on NPR/ Supermax truths

The Grim Realities Of Life In Supermax Prisons

June 21, 2012;Talk of the Nation;[30 min 7 sec]


Laura Sullivan, investigative correspondent, NPR
Walter Dickey, professor, University of Wisconsin Law School
George Welborn, first warden at Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois

A lawsuit alleges severe abuse of federal prisoners at ADX-Florence in Colorado, what’s known as a supermax facility where many inmates are housed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. It charges the government violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Copyright © 2012 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, HOST: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Over the past 25 years, the number and percentage of prisoners held in isolation has exploded at both state and federal penitentiaries. At a Senate subcommittee hearing this, Senator Richard Durbin argued that the dramatic expansion of the use of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore.

Ever prison has solitary confinement units for prisoners who attack staff or other inmates, who try to escape or cause other kinds of trouble, and then there are supermax prisons, places designed to house the worst of the worst, where inmates are held in isolation 23 hours a day.

This week, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of several inmates the ADX Florence supermax in Colorado, the nation’s most locked-down federal prison. The suit charges that the mentally ill there are denied drugs and counseling and held in conditions that amount to abuse, cruelty and torture.

       Several states are now reconsidering the cost of supermax prisons, their impact on inmates, and their effectiveness. If you’ve been in the penal system on either side of the bars, what don’t we understand about solitary confinement and supermax prisons? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That’s at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

. We begin with NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan. Nice to have you back on the program.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And you went inside a supermax prison in California several years ago, Pelican Bay, and painted a very scary picture of the psych unit. We’ve posted a link to your full story at our website. But I just wanted to play your description of that unit from your story.


SULLIVAN: In the psychiatric shoe, one inmate is standing in the middle of his cell, hollering at no one. Another is banging his head against the cell door. The psychiatric shoe is full, all 128 beds. One of out every 10 inmates in segregation is housed here in the psychiatric unit. There’s even a waiting list.

Here many of the inmates are naked. Some are exposing themselves. The extent of the psychological problems here is laid out on a marker board outside the unit.

CONAN: And Laura Sullivan, listening to that and seeing that, 24 hours, it’s got to be terrifying.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, and what’s interesting is that they – this is the world that they see 24 hours a day. Even in the psychiatric ward, there’s very little time for them to be allowed for that, even that prerequisite hour and a half outside. This facility in Pelican Bay, you have to picture spokes on a wheel, and in the center of the spoke is a correctional officer who sits behind computers and runs the system with buttons, and he’s behind glass.

And then down the spokes are just cell after cell after cell, and the inmates are in these eight-by-eight-foot-long cells, just – it’s all concrete, a stainless steel desk and a chair, and there’s very little else in these cells. And the officer will then push a button and allow the inmate out for the hour and a half, what they call outside.

Outside is a large concrete box, you could probably fit maybe two cars in it, and it has 20-foot walls, and on the top is a grate. And so if you look straight up, you can see the sky. Maybe if it was high noon, you might get a glimpse of the sun, but really outside there’s no balls or anything to do.

And then the officer will allow – press the button. You will walk back into your cell, and that’s that. And you will not speak with the officer, you’re not going to interact with anybody. You’re going to pass by the other cells, but the doors are made of solid steel, and they have nickel-sized holes in them. So you can really just maybe see the eyes or some figures behind the wall, but you’re not interacting with other inmates, you’re not interacting with the officers.

And then three times a day somebody comes by and slides a food tray through the slot in the door. You don’t really talk to that person. And most of the people that – I spoke to dozens of the people that were at Pelican Bay, and they hadn’t spoke to anybody outside this very narrow space in years, let alone touched anybody.

CONAN: So there’s the shower inside the cell as well.

SULLIVAN: The shower – no, the shower is down the hall. So the officer behind the glass will look down at that spoke of the wheel, push the button. It’s that inmate’s time to shower three times a week. He walks down to the shower, and then he comes back and goes into his cell. And only one inmate is allowed out of their cell along that spoke at any given time.

CONAN: So what is the purpose of these kinds of conditions?

SULLIVAN: So this started, this became very popular across the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was to – it was a tough-on-crime policy, we’re really going to lock up the worst of the worst offenders, and we’re going to put them in these isolative units. For some states like California, this became a response to their incredible gang problem.

Over 70 percent of the inmates in California they believe are members of a gang. So they said we’re going to put anybody that’s causing trouble into these solitary confinement cells.

CONAN: You had another clip from your piece at Pelican Bay. You talked to a couple of members, former members of the Aryan – do you ever – former? I don’t know. But anyway, who just defected from the gang, explaining the kind of pressure that they’re under in prison.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, they keep killing people, you’re going to do what they tell you do. Out of fear, out of self-preservation. If you’re 90 days at the house, and a gang member tells you, you go stab that dude right there, or you should go back in and stab your cellie, you’re going to do what you’re told because if you don’t, you’re going to be killed.

CONAN: So again, there’s a link to the full story at our website, npr.org.

SULLIVAN: And these two inmates said that they were not actually – they weren’t actually – they didn’t believe, call themselves racist. It wasn’t something that they believed in. It was just, it was a security thing, that when you showed up at prison, you had to take a side, and you just picked your side based on your color.

And that’s what they did, and they had just recently been let out of solitary confinement, which is very rare, by doing something called debriefing, which means snitching on all of your fellow gang members. This put a bounty on their heads within the prison, and it also put a bounty on the heads of their family members outside the facility.

So if you want to come out of solitary confinement – they had both been in for five, six years a piece – you have to put your family in danger and yourself in danger, and that’s really the only way out.

CONAN: So supermax prisons in part designed to – well, you’ve got to put gang leaders someplace, right?

SULLIVAN: Exactly, but there are a lot of states that don’t have huge gang problems that also use solitary confinement. The interesting thing about California is that California said we did this because the violence rates were so high, we had to lock up the worst of the worst.

But if you look at 20 years of solitary confinement in California, the violence rates, they are locking up more people in solitary confinement than they ever have, and the violence rates have continued to go up. So it’s not – it hasn’t had an impact on violence inside the facilities, and their gang problem is worse than it has ever been.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you with experience on either side of the bars in solitary confinement and supermax, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We’ll start with Paul, and Paul’s on the line with us from Grand Rapids.

PAUL: Hi, I’m a corrections officer who worked at Michigan’s supermax prison for the last 12 years now. We’ve since downgraded from supermax to a sort of more open setting because of these types of lawsuits, and we’re, as staff, coming to quickly regret this because our prison system is becoming increasingly violent with increasing amounts of gang assaults.

And combined with the public sector basically saying we don’t want to pay for these expensive prisons anymore, we’re taking more and more services away from the prisoners and the staff, which means we just exacerbate the problem. There have been more gunshots fired by staff members down in the prison yard in the last year than there has been in the last 20 years in the Department of Corrections, and it’s getting very dangerous and to the point where we’re going to lose a prison at some point.

CONAN: What does lose – you mean in a riot?

PAUL: Yes, sir. They’re cutting the food. They’re cutting the services. They’re cutting the staff members at each prison. They’re downgrading the security level of these prisoners. So a guy who used to be, say, maximum security is now medium security, and they’re putting them out on parole faster and faster and faster.

What we’re running into is now Michigan has four of the most violent cities in North America, and that’s because we’re not doing what we need to do.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call.

PAUL: By the way, I just wanted to say that I do agree with your speaker that there are some things about this, locking somebody down 23 hours of the day and doing nothing with them, that doesn’t work. If we’re going to do this, we need to also provide programs and services to them.

So it’s not like staff members working inside these prisons think that these guys need to be treated like monsters. We understand that they’re coming home to our neighborhoods.

CONAN: And that’s, Laura Sullivan, a point. A lot of people think if you’re in supermax, you’re never coming out.

SULLIVAN: That you’re there forever, but in fact 95 percent of the people that we have incarcerated in our supermax prisons in this country will be walking out into our communities one day, 95 percent of them.

CONAN: Walter Dickey is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He led the Wisconsin Division of Corrections in the 1980s and joins us by phone from Hawaii. And Walter Dickey, we’re glad you were willing to interrupt your vacation to speak with us.

WALTER DICKEY: Glad to be here.

CONAN: And again, the argument for building these supermax facilities, has that held up?

DICKEY: Well, you know, I think, first of all, there are no doubt behavioral problems that give rise to the need for close custody or solitary confinement or the like. You know, I think, though, that using terms like worst of the worst, that’s a kind of rhetorical as opposed to behavioral description.

And I think one of the things that’s happened, at least in a lot of states, Wisconsin’s one of them, is I think we grossly exaggerated the need for the supermax prison and overbuilt it, and I think, not surprisingly, when you’ve got empty cells in a crowded prison system, you tend to fill them up.

But I don’t know that they’re necessarily the worst of the worst. You get a whole amalgam of people into these kinds of institutions. Some of them are violent, some of them mentally ill, some of them are difficult to manage for a variety of different reasons, but I think it’s unfortunate that the classification systems don’t necessarily function the way we’d like to get the people in them that should be and keep out of them the people that shouldn’t.

CONAN: So in other words, if it’s a 200-cell prison, and only 180 prisoners are there, they like to keep it efficient, fill up those other 20 cells even if those prisoners don’t necessarily – wouldn’t necessarily qualify for the supermax otherwise.

DICKEY: I think it has more to do with human nature. If you’ve got an overcrowded prison system, and one prison has got empty cells, even if it’s a supermax prison, classification is going to find a way to use those cells. I don’t know that it’s necessarily because there’s some evil intent, but it’s a desire to try to in a sense mitigate the difficulties at the other institutions by making as efficient use as you can of the cells that are available.

CONAN: Stay with us, if you will. Laura Sullivan will stay with us as well. We’re talking about the purpose and price of supermax prisons. In a few moments we’ll also talk with the former warden of a supermax facility in Illinois that’s set to close. He calls that prison an important part of the state’s strategy to reduce violence in an overcrowded system.

If you’ve been in the penal system on either side of the bars, what don’t we understand about supermax prisons? Give us a call. I’m Neal Conan. Stay with us. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now we’re talking with NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan. She’s reported a number of stories in supermax prisons. Links to those stories at our website. Also with us, Walter Dickey, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, who served as secretary for corrections in the state of Wisconsin in the 1980s, as well as the court-appointed federal monitor for the supermax prison as Boscobel in Wisconsin, a prison that converted to maximum security.

If you’ve been in the penal system on either side of the bars, what don’t we understand about solitary confinement and supermax prisons? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Walter Dickey, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the politics of supermax prisons. If they are expensive, if questions are being asked about their efficacy, what’s – why don’t more legislatures vote to close them down?

DICKEY: Well, you know, first of all, I think the politics of them are difficult. You know, to start with, some of them were built not because we needed them but because political leaders wanted to appear tough on crime, and building a supermax prison was a sign of how tough you were on crime. Once you’ve got it built, and you’re using it, expensive as it may be, there are powerful forces at work that make it hard to close them.

You know, among them are the fact that many of them were built in small towns, and they’re a prominent employer. The union often is against closing them down. You know, there’s a lot of claims made for their effectiveness when there’s not necessarily very much empirical proof, but those kinds of claims are made.

And if you’re a politician running for office, it’s too easy to put ads on the television saying that you voted to close the prison that housed the worst of the worst, and a lot of people don’t want to be painted in that way, and therefore as a political matter it’s awfully difficult to close them once you’ve started them.

CONAN: Seven percent of the prisoners in federal penitentiaries, Laura Sullivan, are in supermax. That number is declining in some states, down to 1.4 percent in Mississippi.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, there are a number of states – Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Mississippi, are all either doing away with one of their supermax prisons or downgrading it or trying to take as many inmates as they can out of it. There’s – it’s the beginning of a movement away from supermax. We’re not seeing the sort of rush to build them that we saw 10 years ago or 15 years ago. It’s beginning to shift, but it’s still at the very beginning.

CONAN: Let’s get another caller in, this is Jack, and Jack’s on the line with us from Cleveland.

JACK: Hi, yeah, I was in (unintelligible) correctional facility. It was not a supermax facility, but it was a maximum-security facility, and I was placed in what they call segregation, which was very similar to what you guys described. It was – I was in there for my own protection because I was in on a bad charge, and I feel like the guards foster a community of violence towards prisoners, and you can’t do your time and you can’t get out of prison without placing yourself at great risk.

And the time I had in segregation was the only safe time I had in my time in jail. I mean, it’s punishment, but I mean you need to be able to get out of it alive.

CONAN: And so in that respect you’re grateful, but what kind of an experience was it otherwise?

JACK: Otherwise it was basically a constant state of fear. Thankfully, my cellie, the cellies which I did have, I had about three of them, they were OK with me, but the second they would open up the doors for what they call range(ph) time, which would happen for about six hours every day, in which I was in the courtyard room without about 30 other inmates, was just absolute fear, because if they would get on you about whatever charge or whatever issue they had with you, or it could not even be about you charges, about the outside world, it could be about some internal politic in that range.

And then notes slipped from one range to another range through the access doors could result in you being killed or beaten up severely.

CONAN: Well, Jack, thanks very much for the call, glad you got out.

JACK: Thanks.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, Laura Sullivan, about the lawsuit that was filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates at the federal supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, earlier this week. And in the past these kinds of lawsuits have not progressed very far in federal court.

SULLIVAN: No, there have been some lawsuits from inmates who would file on their own behalf, or they would – there were a few sporadic lawsuits. They never seem to go very far. But right now you have this lawsuit that you were just talking about in Colorado. You also have a lawsuit in California that has gained a lot of traction.

It started off as a lawsuit by a number of inmates who had gone on a hunger strike in Pelican Bay. It has now been picked up by a nonprofit who has filed on their behalf, a very strong lawsuit with lot of experts and documentation, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they go, because these lawsuits have gained a lot more traction than we’ve seen in the past.

CONAN: Let’s see if we can get Leanne(ph) on the line, Leanne with us from San Francisco.

LEANNE: Hi, yes. I was calling just to say that with maximum security, a lot of inmates will actually pretend to be mentally ill just to get in there to – it’s called – oh gosh, I forget what it’s called (unintelligible) to up their security level because they are at risk from their fellow inmates. And I think to help reduce that population – and I’ve worked at a number of institutions for a very long time in the state of California – is they need to quit overpaying a lot of underworked, lazy officers and redirect that money to programs that actually do go towards rehabilitating inmates.

And they say that they do that, but frankly, they don’t, and what should really happen too, a lot of times inmates will go in and with the revolving door, the rate of recidivism, it’s just – it’s off the board. And inmates, they’ll go in for six months or eight months. They won’t let them get into vocational training programs or educational to get their GED or anything like that because they aren’t going to be in long enough. And it’s just…

CONAN: And Laura – sorry to interrupt, but Laura, I think she’s right, those kinds of programs, not just in California, vastly reduced.

SULLIVAN: The interesting thing that happened, and most experts will point out, that this idea of supermax facilities in California started at the same time that they began eliminating all the rehabilitation programs, all the education, all the extracurricular programs that kept inmates busy.

When you took all of that away, you ended up with a pile of inmates with nothing to do all day long, and the gangs took its place. It became the activity. And so then they responded to that with supermax. But the problem was that when the inmates are either trying to come out of supermax or to send them back to regular population, there’s no program to help them do that, and there’s no programs really in most of California’s facilities at this point.

CONAN: In Illinois this week, Governor Pat Quinn announced the closure of Tamms Correctional Center, the state’s only supermax facility. George Welborn, Tamms’ first warden, argued in an op-ed in the Newton Press Monitor that the closure could be disastrous. He joins us now by phone from Phoenix. George Welborn, good of you to be with us today.

GEORGE WELBORN: You’re more than welcome.

CONAN: And you wrote in that op-ed piece: Like it or not, Tamms has done exactly what it was intended to do, reduced violence. How does it do that?

WELBORN: Well, the Illinois Department of Corrections had an epidemic of violence, late ’70s, ’80s, and through the early ’90s. I worked at the Menard Correctional Center, I was the warden at Menard prior to coming to Tamms, and my last year at Tamms, we were on deadlock for 270 days due basically to gang violence.

And at that time we simply did not have a resource to handle the most – and we all admit it’s a very small proportion of inmates that cause the vast amount of problems. We at that time did not have a mechanism to isolate those relatively few troublemakers. We would send them from one maximum-security prison to another, and they would – they were just passing each other on the highway, virtually.

Tamms gave up that opportunity, and it has reduced violence. It has reduced staff and inmate assaults, and it certainly – we don’t see our prisons going on deadlock for 270 days anymore.

CONAN: Deadlock meaning shutdown, lockdown?

WELBORN: Exactly, through violence, yes. You would put the entire two or three thousand inmate population on deadlock because of a few knuckleheads.

CONAN: And it costs $26 million a year to operate Tamms, as I understand it, and obviously Illinois is in a budget squeeze. Is that the reason it’s being closed?

WELBORN: Well, that’s what it’s portrayed at, but I think it’s – this is a political decision. This is our governor’s way to placate his base constituency in Chicago. Like all supermaxes, Tamms has been heavily litigated, and there are many organizations in Chicago who have tried and tried and tried to get Tamms shut down. I think the governor is simply using this as a political process.

Yeah, it’s going to save $26 million a year, but at what cost? If our maximum-security prisons couldn’t handle these type of inmates 10 or 12 years ago, what does the governor think – why does he now think that they can?

CONAN: And what’s going to happen to the prisoners who are in Tamms now when it’s closed down?

WELBORN: They are going to Pontiac Correctional Center and Menard Correctional Center, both of which are terribly overcrowded now. It’s a fear among staff at those prisons. It truly is. As I said, Tamms was the mechanism to isolate those people – again, those relatively few people – who caused the vast amount of problems, staff should be afraid of (unintelligible). These inmates are dangerous. They’re violent. They were violent 10 or 12 years ago. They’re violent today.

CONAN: Walter Dickey, I wanted to bring you back into the conversation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the situation in Illinois, but this same kind of principle I’m sure applies in other states.

DICKEY: Oh, I think it does. And I don’t question the judgment that there are violent inmates or dangerous inmates who need to be isolated from the general population from other inmates. I think there definitely are. I think, you know, how many you’ve got in a particular system is not easy to know, but it’s important to try to determine it carefully. And I agree with the warden that separating those inmates from other inmates is important to allow for order and control in the institutions.

One thing I’d say is, you know, I think there’s great variation amongst the states. Illinois and California are not Wisconsin and are not Kansas, and so this variation in the behavioral problems that are presented in institutions and therefore variations in what numbers of closed custody cells you need and how are those are most widely – wisely used. The other thing I’d say, you know, is the point about, you know, they don’t have to be brutal and terrible where all that happens is that suffering is inflicted on people.

A well-run, professionally run institution, supermax or otherwise shouldn’t be engaging in that. I’m not suggesting that Tamms or any other one was. But that doesn’t have to be.

CONAN: And some probably are, and some probably aren’t.

DICKEY: Yeah. I mean, I’d expect so. I, you know, the description of the situation in Pelican Bay is shocking and, I think, very disturbing. And to be sure, we certainly had problems at our supermax in Wisconsin. We had mentally ill prisoners there that shouldn’t have been there, and that we tried to get to other places. But there are ways that one can devise to try to create incentives to get out. The people who run the institution should want the people who can function in the general population to get back to the general population and only continue to isolate those who most need it.

CONAN: That’s Walter Dickey, professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, former secretary for corrections for the state of Wisconsin. Also with us is George Welborn, the first warden at Tamms Correctional Center, the Illinois only supermax facility, and NPR investigative reporter Laura Sullivan is with us here in Studio 3A. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let’s see if we can go to – this is David. David with us from Salem, Oregon.DAVID: Yes, correct. You sound like Neal Conan.CONAN: It is.

DAVID: Hi.CONAN: Hi.DAVID: Well, I don’t know – am I on now? CONAN: You are.

DAVID: Oh, I just want to say my nephew went into a max facility, and he was not in solitary the whole time. But he went in happy-go-lucky, and he came out – all my brothers and sisters feel like he’s become a zombie. And what little we’ve been able to get him to speak about is that this is a time of such horrible despair that I believe so strongly that this is an Eighth Amendment violation from hell, and you should do something to repeal – get rid of these things all over the country.

CONAN: Eighth Amendment, of course, bars cruel and unusual punishment. Laura Sullivan, are there any studies done on the psychological effects of supermax conditions?

SULLIVAN: There’s been a lot of work done on this. And study after study after study shows that if you have a psychological condition going into a solitary confinement supermax situation that that condition will be exacerbated by those conditions. And what I saw in Pelican Bay was also that a lot of very psychologically stable people were also having a very difficult time struggling with such unbelievable isolation, to not have human contact in six, seven years. Some of the people in Pelican Bay have been there for almost 30 years. It’s hard to understand how you can walk out of that facility and rejoin society 24 hours later.

CONAN: Let’s see if we can get another caller in. This is Austin. Austin is with us from Kansas City.

AUSTIN: Hey. How are you guys doing? I just want to comment on a thing. I’m actually – we call it SOAR, but it’s pretty much like SWAT, special operations and response team in our supermax. And what I just want to touch on is you have all these new kids coming in into prison, into the, you know, supermax, maximum. They want to go to segregation. As soon as they get in, they already know about it. That gains them all kinds of credit inside the prison walls. As soon as they get out, they have much more respect than what they would have if they, you know, just would have been in a normal housing authority.

CONAN: George Welborn, is that right that some inmates think it’s cool to go to supermax?

WELBORN: Well, I certainly didn’t find that. No, I didn’t have – we didn’t have any inmates in Illinois lining up to go to supermax.

CONAN: And, Austin, what do you for a – during your time, during your day there at the supermax?

AUSTIN: I take care of any kind of shakedowns or emergency situations or inmate-on-inmate fights or any – your day-to-day serious things.

CONAN: That’s interesting but dangerous work.

AUSTIN: Yeah. I mean, it – I guess, I’m going to retract my comments to say it’s not cool. But if you want to survive and you’re 20, 21 years old, that’s how you’re going to – in my opinion, that’s how you’re going to do it.

CONAN: All right.

AUSTIN: And talking to inmates every day that that’s their plan.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call…

AUSTIN: All right.

CONAN: …and be careful, OK?

AUSTIN: Yup. Thank you.

CONAN: And, Laura Sullivan, these lawsuits, the budget pressure on many states and indeed on the federal government too, is there any – as we look at the trend, do you think that this is going to be swinging back the other way?

SULLIVAN: Well, it costs about $60,000 more per inmate per year to put an inmate into solitary confinement or supermax compared to general population. So there’s a huge argument that you could spend that money on programs and rehabilitation and education and take an inmate who would have joined a gang or would have caused problems and instead redirect that inmate with that money into something more positive that they could do later on for society when they get out of prison. So that seems to be the direction that we’re headed now and – but, you know, it depends on the crime trends.

CONAN: Laura Sullivan, thanks very much for your time today. Our thanks as well to Walter Dickey at the University of Wisconsin and George Welborn, the former warden at Tamms Correctional Center. And, gentlemen, thank you very much for your time today.

DICKEY: You’re welcome.

WELBORN: You’re welcome.

CONAN: When we come back, the last in our series of Silverdocs films. Today, the often violent oppression of gays in Uganda. The film is called “Call Me Kuchu.” Stay with us. I’m Neal Conan. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Solitary confinement should be banned in most cases, UN expert says

Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez


18 October 2011 –

A United Nations expert on torture today called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez told the General Assembly’s third committee, which deals with social, humanitarian and cultural affairs, saying the practice could amount to torture.

Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique

“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” he stressed in presenting his first interim report on the practice, calling it global in nature and subject to widespread abuse.

Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition, he added, citing scientific studies that have established that some lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation.

“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he warned.

The practice should be used only in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, he stressed. “In the exceptional circumstances in which its use is legitimate, procedural safeguards must be followed. I urge States to apply a set of guiding principles when using solitary confinement,” he said.

He told a later news conference these circumstances could include the protection of inmates in cases where they are gay, lesbian or bisexual or otherwise threatened by prison gangs.

There is no universal definition for solitary confinement since the degree of social isolation varies with different practices, but Mr. Méndez defined it as any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others, except guards, for at least 22 hours a day.

In his report he noted that in the United States an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 individuals are being held in isolation, while in Argentina a prevention of violent behaviour programme consists of isolation for at least nine months and, according to prison monitors, is frequently extended.

He warned of an increased risk of torture in these cases because of the absence of witnesses and said some detainees have been held in solitary confinement facilities for years, without any charge and without trial, as well as in secret detention centres.

Mr. Méndez told the news conference that he had been following the case of US soldier Bradley Manning, detained in connection with his alleged leaking of secret cables to the WikiLeaks website. Mr. Manning was held in solitary confinement for eight months but has now been moved and is no longer subject to the same restrictions, he noted, adding that he would release a report on the issue in a few weeks.

Examples he cited in his report from around the world included Kazakhstan where solitary confinement can last for more than two months, and the US terrorist detention centre in Guantánamo Bay, where experts found that although 30 days of isolation was the maximum period permissible, some detainees were returned to isolation after very short breaks over a period of up to 18 months.

Elsewhere, two prisoners are reported to have been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana, US, for 40 years after attempts for a judicial appeal of their conditions failed, he noted. In China an individual sentenced for “unlawfully supplying State secrets or intelligence to entities outside China” was allegedly held in solitary confinement for two years of her eight-year sentence.

“Social isolation is one of the harmful elements of solitary confinement and its main objective. It reduces meaningful social contact to an absolute minimum,” Mr. Méndez told the committee, noting that a significant number of individuals will experience serious health problems regardless of specific conditions of time, place, and pre-existing personal factors.

He called for an end to solitary confinement in pre-trial detention based solely on the seriousness of the alleged offence, as well as a complete ban on its use for juveniles and persons with mental disabilities.

Solitary confinement for shorter terms or for legitimate disciplinary reasons can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases where the physical conditions of prisons, such as sanitation and access to food and water, violate the inherent dignity of the human person and cause severe mental and physical pain or suffering.

Today’s news conference also heard from Claudio Grossman, chair of the UN Committee against Torture, and Malcolm Evans, chair of the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture.