- Terry Kupers is a practicing psychiatrist, an expert
on long-term isolated prison confinement, author of numerous articles on
the subject as well as his book titled, "Prison Madness: The Mental
Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It." He's also
a frequent expert witness in related cases, serves as a consultant, and
is currently Institute Professor in the Graduate School of Psychology at
Wright Institute, Berkeley, CA. More on his work below.
- Social scientists have studied the effects for years,
social psychologist Hans Toch coining the term "isolation panic"
to describe symptoms he observed in men he interviewed, including panic,
rage, a sense of total loss of control, emotional breakdown, regressive
behavior, and self-mutiliation. He distinguished between difficult but
tolerable incarceration and intolerable long-term isolation.
- An October 14, 2007 Scott Pelley's 60 Minutes report
called Supermax prisons "A Clean Version of Hell," referring
to the only federal one, the US Penitentiary Florence (ADMAX) Facility,
Florence, Colorado, entirely a Supermax facility. He called it secretive,
closed to the public, the media, and 60 Minutes only could approach the
perimeter and be able to interview former warden Robert Hood, in charge
from 2002 - 2005.
- He called it "the Harvard of the system....except
that (its) ivory towers may be easier to get into." Allegedly, most
inmates are too violent to be kept elsewhere, and over 40 (as of October
2007) were convicted "terrorists." Based on this writer's work,
most, if not all, are innocent victims of police state justice.
- Garrett Linderman was released. Pelly interviewed him
and asked how it's different from other lockups. "Your connections
to the outside. Your family. Through phone calls, visits, all those are
pretty much stopped at the ADX. There's no comparison. It breaks down the
human spirit. It breaks down the human psyche. It breaks your mind. (It's
the) perfection of isolation, painted pretty." (They) perfected it
- 60 Minutes learned of an even higher confinement level
inside, sort of an "ultramax" group of cells with virtually no
human contact, not even with guards, housing only two prisoners considered
so dangerous they're in "Range 13." One is Tommy Silverstein
who killed a prison guard. The other is alleged World Trade Center bomber
- According to Hood, Yousef is there because "He has
that Charlie Manson look. He just has the eyes. He has some charisma about
him. He's in uniform. But you know that there's a powerful person that
you're looking at."
- Other prominent Supermax prisoners include unabomber
Ted Kaczynski; Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh (before his execution)
and Terry Nichols; Robert Hanssen, the FBI supervisor turned Soviet spy;
Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber, alleged Al Qaeda terrorists who
bombed US African embassies, and mob informant Sammy "The Bull"
- Perhaps heading there are the Fort Hood shooter, and
alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and his four co-conspirators,
now at Guantanamo. They'll likely be tried in rigged military tribunals
with no right of appeal, are already pre-judged guilty, face certain convictions
and the death penalty, followed by isolated confinement until executed
- even though no evidence substantiates their guilt.
- So-called "terrorists" are denied due process
and judicial fairness. Charges against them are bogus. The rule of law
is undermined. Secret evidence is unavailable to the defense. Extremist
judges allow it. Major media reports are viciously biased, and juries are
intimidated to convict.
- The US Department of Justice (DOJ) National Institute
of Corrections calls the term "supermax" the most common one
to describe "special housing unit(s), maxi-maxi, maximum control facilit(ies),
secured housing unit(s), intensive management unit(s), and administrative
maximum penitentiar(ies.)." It describes them as:
- "a highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit
within a secure facility....that isolates inmates from the general prison
population and from each other due to grievous crimes, repetitive assaultive
or violent institutional behavior, the threat of escape or actual escape
from high-custody facility(s), or inciting or threatening to incite disturbances
in a correctional institution."
- In a 1999 report titled, "Supermax Prisons: Overview
and General Considerations," the DOJ said although "concentration,
dispersal, and isolation are not new, the development of 'supermax' prisons
is a relatively recent trend." Prisons always had "prisons within
the prison" for their worst inmates (usually called administrative
segregation), and most states operate one or more facilities for their
"most threatening inmates." Florence, CO is the sole federal
one and 100% Supermax.
- Other definitions describes "control-unit"
prisons, or units within prisons providing the most secure levels of custody
for the "worst of the worst" criminals and those threatening
national security. They're maximum security facilities or prison wings
in which inmates are held in long-term solitary confinement under constant
surveillance by closed-circuit TV.
- Alcatraz was the prototype until it closed in 1963. In
1861, it was used for civil war prisoners. In 1867, a brick jailhouse was
built, and in 1868, it was officially designated a long-term detention
facility for military prisoners. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake,
it housed civilian prisoners, but remained a military facility until 1933
when it was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
- Supermax facilities evolved from a "get tough on
crime" philosophy, keeping hardened offenders separate from the rest,
the greater prison population safer, and the public also because they're
"escape-proof." In addition, they provide high-paying jobs in
isolated areas that would have far fewer ones otherwise. Over the last
two decades, nearly 60 facilities were built in over 40 states, currently
housing over 20,000 inmates. They represent a huge investment because they're
expensive to build and operate, two to three times more than a conventional
- They have high-tech security features. Walls, floors,
ceilings and doors are built out of reinforced materials. Complex electronic
systems minimize officer-inmate contact. Moving inmates requires multiple
officers. They're confined in windowless single cells about 7 by 12 feet
for up to 23 hours a day, with a shower and concrete bed. The staff-to-prisoner
ratio is much higher than in conventional prisons. Inmates have few if
any programs. Very little constructive activity is offered on a daily basis.
Few visits are allowed, though almost no contact ones.
- Overall, there's very little human contact. Most inmates
are incarcerated for life but other sentences are determinate. No federal
entry or release standard is observed. Some states use Supermax facilities
for different reasons, including when a shortage of segregation beds exist
- Money spent on them reduces amounts for other facilities.
Long-term isolation contributes to anti-social behavior and mental illness,
so released inmates may be violent and unemployable. Yet proponents say
they're the most effective way to deal with dangerous offenders. Opponents
believe they do more harm than good, and the expense compounds the problem.
- They're designed for society's most incorrigible (or
ones authorities want to punish for political or other reasons) on the
notion that solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, and punitive treatment
will change behavior, only for the worst according to experts.
- The facilities are extremely harsh. They crush the human
spirit, mind and body through isolation and cruelty. Physical abuse and
extreme deprivation are common, inflicted as punishment. Inmate contact
with staff is restricted and none allowed with other prisoners. They're
confined in windowless cells 23 hours a day, have no work, social contact,
education, recreation, rehabilitation or personal privacy. Nearly everything
is delivered - food, medical supplies and other materials. Outside their
cells, they're escorted by 4-man teams, painfully handcuffed and shacked.
Over time, it causes
- -- severe anxiety;
- -- panic attacks;
- -- lethargy;
- -- insomnia;
- -- nightmares;
- -- dizziness;
- -- irrational anger, at time uncontrollable;
- -- confusion;
- -- social withdrawal;
- -- memory loss;
- -- appetite loss;
- -- delusions and hallucinations;
- -- mutilations;
- -- profound despair and hopelessness;
- -- suicidal thoughts;
- -- paranoia; and
- -- for many, a totally dysfunctional state and inability
ever to live normally outside of confinement.
- Prisoner anecdotes describe the experience:
- -- "People come in here with a few problems and
will leave sociopaths;
- -- You're like a "caged animal. I've seen people
just crack and either scream for hours on end or cry."
- -- Isolation "creates monsters (who) want revenge
- -- We "have a sense of hopelessness. Plus my anger
(is) a silent rage....I am beginning to really hate people."
- -- "They....try to break a person down mentally
(and) mental abuse leaves no evidence behind (like) physical abuse."
- -- Others say isolation is like being buried alive and
living in a tomb.
- When long-term, it often causes irreversible psychological
trauma and harm, a condition no society should inflict on anyone, nor should
lawmakers allow it.
- That's why forced isolation violates the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights, the UN Torture Convention, and the UN Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In 1995, the UN Human
Rights Committee called long-term prison isolation incompatible with international
standards, and in 1996, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment agreed.
- Kupers on "How to Create Madness in Prisons"
- Isolating inmates in windowless cells 23 hours a day
makes it easy. Even the strongest-willed can break. Try it in a windowless
room for 24 hours with enough food and water for one day. Imagine the desperation
to get out. Then imagine it for many years or life.
- Mental asylum can have the same effect, Kuper using this
example as evidence:
- -- family members confine their son in one;
- -- he loudly protests his sanity and his parents for
wanting him confined;
- -- the psychiatric evaluation misinterprets his anger
- -- after being involuntarily confined, his protests become
louder and more desperate;
- -- staff members say its more evidence of illness, place
him in a locked ward, and deprive him of ways to express himself;
- -- his greater anger convinces staff he's crazy; they
put him in isolation with no clothes, pens or writing materials;
- -- even more desperate, he smears feces on the wall and
writes messages with his finger to express himself.
- Kuper cites this to show the effects of institutionalized
isolation. In fact, he says:
- "in the USA, there are more people suffering from
serious mental illness in the jails and prisons than there are in psychiatric
hospitals. And the bizarre scenarios enacted in correctional settings today
can make the 'back wards' of 1940's asylums look tame in comparison."
- Besides the destructive effects of Supermax isolation,
imagine the greater harm when a "disturbed/disruptive prisoner winds
up in some form of punitive segregation, typically in a supermaximum security
unit where he remains isolated and idle in his cell nearly 24 hours a day."
- It produces psychiatric symptoms in even healthy prisoners
because of feelings of being overwhelmed. As a result:
- "The walls may seem to be moving in on him....He
may begin to suffer from panic attacks wherein he cannot breathe and he
thinks his heart is beating so fast he is going to die."
- They can't focus on tasks, sleep, and fear their anxiety
will boil over into rage. Many isolated prisoners say they can't contain
it and fear greater punishment will result.
- "Eventually, and often rather quickly, a prisoner's
psychiatric condition deteriorates (to) where he inexplicably refuses to
return his food tray, cuts himself or pastes paper over the small window
in his solid metal door, causing security staff to trigger an emergency
'take-down' or 'cell extraction.' "
- At supermaximum security prisons, it happens as often
as 10 times a week because total isolation breaks the human spirit and
causes bizarre behavior. Madness is easy to create under these conditions:
- -- overcrowd prisons and impose long sentences;
- -- dismantle rehabilitation and education programs;
- -- create forced idleness;
- -- some prisoners already are mentally ill;
- -- obstruct or restrict visitations and other human contact;
- -- punish violence and psychosis by total isolation;
- -- ignore prison traumas like rape;
- -- call mental disorder "malingering" and out-of-control
- -- deny them treatment; and
- -- isolate them in supermaximum security units.
- The effect of prison life is rising recidivism and "a
new breed of incorrigible criminals and 'superpredators'..One had only
to tour a prison to understand how violence and madness were bred by the
crowding." Then consider the effects of prolonged isolated confinement
and the violence and madness it produces.
- The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates at least 283,000
inmates have significant emotional problems and need treatment. In prison,
they don't get it. Instead, they're confined to cells and given psychiatric
- Prison violence is a major problem. Supermax confinement
was designed to limit it. "There is ample evidence that long-term
cell-confinement with almost no social interactions and no meaningful activities
has very destructive psychological effects," including mental disorders,
violence, and high suicide rates.
- Long-term isolation builds "uncontrollable rage....A
disproportionate number of prisoners with serious mental illness wind up
in punitive segregation." The effect is "to exacerbate the general
level of pandemonium." Frustrated staff become more insensitive, lose
their tempers, and take it out on inmates. "The bottom line is that
we seem to have reproduced some of the worst aspects of an earlier epoch's
snake pit mental asylums in the isolation units of our modern prisons."
- Prison mismanagement is the cause, using Supermax facilities
punitively, not for rehabilitation, and in conventional institutions, creating
harmful overcrowding that produces violence and harsher punishments. "We
need to stop blaming the victim's innate 'badness' for failed" prison
- The Shame of America's Prison System
- America has the largest prison population in the world,
greater than China with four times as many people, and 22% of all those
incarcerated globally. At 738 in 2006, it has the highest rate per 100,000.
Most Western European nations have under 100. Japan has 62. Canada 107.
Bolivia under Evo Morales 83, and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez 74.
- Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics show
over 2.4 million imprisoned Americans at yearend 2008. They include inmates
in federal and state facilities, local jails, Indian, juvenile, and military
ones, US territories, and numbers held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE). In addition, another 7.3 million are under correctional supervision,
and 13 million pass through US jails annually. Half of them are for non-violent
offenses. Half of those are drug-related. In 1980, 40,000 drug offenders
were in prison. Today, it's over 500,000, the result of the "war on
drugs," that's part of the war on civil liberties.
- Since 1970, the prison population exploded from under
300,000 to eight times that number now. In the December 1998 Atlantic,
Eric Schlosser called it "The Prison-Industrial Complex," a recent
phenomenon with about 1,000 new prisons and jails built in the 1980s and
90s, and the trend continues in the new millennium, not because of more
crime, because of getting "tough" on it against more people getting
longer sentences under harsher conditions.
- Marc Mauer, author of "Race to Incarcerate,"
says America locks up people at five to eight times the rate of other industrialized
nations, including many who shouldn't be there in the first place. Nearly
two-thirds are blacks and Latinos. The vast majority are poor and disadvantaged.
One in three black males and one in six Latino males will be imprisoned
at some point in their lives. Black males are imprisoned at nine times
the rate for whites, and in some states up to 26 times. Penalties include
"mandatory minimums, one size fits all (and) three strikes and you're
- Yet from 1970 - 1994, violent crime rates were stable,
and the overall rate fell. The murder rate is the lowest since 1966, and
from 1980 - 2000 it dropped 43%. It costs as much or more to imprison someone
as send them to college and for older inmates three times as much. Higher
incarceration rates for longer periods is unrelated to the crime rate.
The prison-industrial complex is one of America's biggest growth industries,
exceeding $60 billion annually, and private security adds another $100
billion. Crime fighters and prisoners comprise around 4% of the workforce.
- Schlosser called America's prison-industrial complex:
- "not only a set of interest groups and institutions.
It is also a state of mind. The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's
criminal-justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive
for higher profits."
- It borders on the extreme, defiles the rule of law and
core democratic notions, exploits people as commodities, uses incarcerations
for profit, a way to create jobs, punish not rehabilitate, crush the human
spirit, lets politicians look tough and get elected, and according to former
New York State legislator, Daniel Feldman: "When legislators cry 'Lock
'em up!,' they mean (do it) in my district."
- America has more prisoners than farmers. In 2001, writer
Vince Beiser in Mother Jones asked, "How did the Land of the Free
become the world's leading jailer?" Zen Buddhist priest Kobutsu Shindo
Kevin C. Malone calls America's prison industrial complex an "Investment
in Slavery," permitted under the 13th Amendment, Section 1 stating:
- "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except
as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,
shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
- The result is a burgeoning prison population and building
boom to accommodate it, rural communities begging for them, because of
declines in farming, mining, manufacturing, corporate downsizing, a shift
to low-paying service jobs, and a troubled economy. Besides Wall Street
bailouts, foreign wars, and a growing national security apparatus, what
better economic stimulus than to lock up poor blacks and Latinos, Muslims
called terrorists, then target political dissidents; human, civil and anti-war
activists; and courageous opponents of Washington and corporate malfeasance.
- As well-known Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff used to
say about America, "What a country!" He also said in Soviet Russia,
the "government control(led) corporations. In America, corporations
control the government," and profiteering prison-industrial complex
ones have plenty of say. Only in America.
- Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre
for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at
- Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and
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