A steel door separates the Department Disciplinary Unit from the rest of the prison of Walpole, Massachusetts. Inmates confined in the DDU are considered management problems by staff. It is a prison within a prison: convicts housed here have no contact with each offer or with other inmates at Walpole. They spend all of their waking hours alone in 8-by-10-foot cells, each with a narrow window in the back wall permitting minimal sunlight. They eat alone, are denied access to work or educational programs, and are entitled to five hours a week of solitary recreation in an empty 6-by-30-foot outdoor exercise cage surrounded by a chain-link fence. When the weather is bad, there is no recreation time at all. They can have no more than four books in their cells People can be sentenced here for a maximum of 10 years but can spend longer than that if they disobey the rules. Serious infractions lead to disciplinary isolation, where they are permitted no phone calls, no visitors, no access to radio or television, no legal materials, no books, and, until recently, no exercise, it is possible to serve consecutive sentences in isolation, sometimes for a year or more.
Slowly, and with few people outside
of corrections noticing, America's
most secure prisons are locking down
"problem" inmates 23 hours a day
behind solid steel doors.
Whether they are called supermax or control units, punitive or administrative segregation areas, the conditions of confinement are usually the same. Inmates are housed in solitary. They eat and exercise alone. They are never allowed contact visits and are permitted few, if any, in-cell educational or vocational programs. Thirty-six states have embraced the idea of lockdown for their "problem" inmates; some have built spanking-new high-tech supermax prisons, while others have added high-security units like the DDU to existing facilities. In the newer prisons, most of the traditional jobs performed by staff-such as opening cell doors, listening to complaints, and surveillance-are now totally automated. With prison gangs now considered to be the greatest threat to institutional safety, correctional administrators have not hesitated to fill these supermax units with suspected members, even if they have committed no infractions. Some mental-health researchers say that mentally ill inmates are disproportionately represented in supermaxes, since they are often unable to control their disruptive behavior. Inmates are doing years in lockdown and then being released from supermaxes directly onto the streets with no pre-release programming.
In Massachusetts, for example, as of September 1995, 39 inmates had been released from the DDU without any pre-release counseling, according to Massachusetts Department of Corrections officials. "Imagine taking a dog that has bitten someone, and kicking and beating and abusing it in a cage for a year," says Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist who examined 32 DDU inmates for a suit pending against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. "Then you take that cage and you put it in the middle of a city, you open it, and you hightail it out of there. That's what you're doing to these people.... This is not a service for public safety." He describes inmates who have spent long periods in supermax units as being high-strung, irritable, anti-social, potentially violent, sometimes mentally ill, and definitely at risk of recidivating. "I would not want to be the neighbors of the individuals that I knew and saw leave the DDU," says Robert Dellelo, 54, who is now serving a five-year DDU sentence for an escape attempt. "I have not only seen inmates who were aggressive and hostile but actually psychotic released onto the streets," Robert Verdeyen of the American Correctional Association acknowledges that it is "a pretty scary thought" to consider that supermax prisoners can be released directly into the community. But he adds, "If people serve every bit of time they're supposed to do, there's nothing anyone can do.... They're just released. They've paid their debt to society."
The courts have proved the sole avenue for penal reform. The Massachusetts litigation alleges cruel and unusual punishment in the DDU and is part of a larger trend of suits challenging supermax confinement on mental-health grounds. Historically, the judiciary has allowed great discretion to prison administrators in designing and operating correctional programs of their choosing. The courts have also never ruled that solitary confinement was so damaging to inmates' psyches that it constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Nevertheless, in Madrid v. Gomez, a recent, well-publicized suit challenging conditions at northern California's Pelican Bay State Prison, a U.S. district court judge ruled that confinement in lockdown units was harmful to certain inmates, notably those with mental illnesses or those at risk of developing them.
In 1996, lawyers for mentally ill inmates confined in New Jersey prisons filed a class-action suit charging that the state Department of Corrections failed to provide them with adequate psychiatric care. The suit claims that the corrections department's own records show that a substantial proportion of inmates admitted to the state psychiatric hospital came from supermax units. Meanwhile, other supermaxes are coming under increasing scrutiny. A Colorado prisoners' rights group has just issued a report on the Colorado State Penitentiary, a Canon City supermax, noting that a quarter of the inmates housed there are on some form of anti-psychotic medication; they are also never allowed outdoors under any circumstances. The group has asked for a Department of Justice investigation.
Also in 1996, a Department of Justice inspection of the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, a Baltimore supermax, noted potential constitutional violations. The report pointed out that inmates were subjected to "extreme social isolation" and were kept alone in their cells 24 hours a day, except for a brief period (less than an hour) every two to three days when they were permitted to shower and walk around an indoor area. The Department of Justice noted that this isolation was "the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe"
The modern America penitentiary
was born in the 1820s and 1830s and
imbued with a moral...