• U.S.

Are Prisons Driving Prisoners Mad?

7 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

There’s no such thing as a good day for a prisoner at the highest level of security within the Ohio State Penitentiary, a 504-bed supermax prison in Youngstown, Ohio. Every inmate lives alone in a 7-ft. by 14-ft. cell that resembles nothing so much as a large, concrete closet, equipped with a sink, a toilet, a desk and a molded stool and sleep platform covered by a thin mattress. The solid metal door is outfitted with strips around the sides and bottom, muffling conversation with inmates in adjacent cells. Three times a day, a tray of food is delivered and is eaten alone. The prisoner may spend 23 hours a day in lockdown, emerging to exercise once a day. The lights in the cell never go off, although they may be dimmed a bit at night.

If there’s not much to like about the conditions in Youngstown, there’s not much to like about the people confined there either. These are the men corrections folks like to call “the worst of the worst,” the kind of felons who dealt drugs or led gangs or killed on the outside and continued to do so in prison. For them, maximum security would not be enough–only supermax would do. And say what you will about the draconian environment, it keeps them under control. (See pictures from inside Guantanamo Bay’s detention facilities.)

But that level of control may be counterproductive. It’s possible that the very steps we’re taking to keep society safe and such prisoners in check are achieving just the opposite. The U.S. holds about 2 million people under lock and key, and 20,000 of them are confined in the 31 supermaxes operated by the states and the Federal Government. That may represent only 1% of the inmate population, but it’s a volatile 1%. Push any punishment too far and mental breakdown–or at least a claim of mental breakdown–is sure to follow. When that happens, a constitutional challenge can’t be far behind.

In December, officials in Texas and California conceded that the suicide rates in their prisons are on the rise, with the majority occurring among inmates in solitary. This prompted an outcry against both systems. Lawyers for accused terrorist facilitator Jose Padilla challenged his fitness last month to stand trial, arguing that his 3½ years in solitary lockdown at a South Carolina military brig have rendered him unable to assist in his own defense. Around the same time, convicted bomber Eric Rudolph began corresponding with a reporter for a Colorado newspaper, describing his days in his 7-ft. by 12-ft. cell as a form of confinement “designed to inflict as much misery and pain as constitutionally permissible.”

But is it constitutionally permissible? And even if it is, is this the kind of open-ended mental-health experiment the government should be running? “We have to ask ourselves why we’re doing this,” says psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and a consultant in criminal cases. “These aren’t a bunch of cold, controlled James Cagneys. We’re taking criminals who are already unstable and driving them crazy.”

The origin of solitary confinement in the U.S. is actually benign. It was the Philadelphia Quakers of the 19th century who dreamed up the idea, establishing a program at the city’s Walnut Street prison under which inmates were housed in isolation in the hope of providing them with an opportunity for quiet contemplation during which they would develop insight into their crimes. That’s not what has happened.

By the 1830s, evidence began to accumulate that the extended solitude was leading to emotional disintegration, certainly in higher numbers than in communal prisons. In 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, deploring solitary confinement for the “semi-fatuous condition” in which it left prisoners. The case was narrow enough that its effect was merely to overturn a single law in a single state, but the court’s distaste for the idea of solitary was clear. “The justices saw it as a form of what some people now call no-touch torture,” says Alfred W. McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of the book A Question of Torture. “It sends prisoners in one of two directions: catatonia or rage.”

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Modern science has confirmed this, with electroencephalograms showing that after a few days in solitary, prisoners’ brain waves shift toward a pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium. When sensory deprivation is added–as when Padilla was seen being led from his cell wearing a blindfold and sound-deadening earphones–the breakdown is even worse. As long ago as 1952, studies at Montreal’s McGill University showed that when researchers eliminate sight, sound and, with the use of padded gloves, tactile stimulation, subjects can descend into a hallucinatory state in as little as 48 hours.

All of this is providing legal traction for constitutional lawyers. The most obvious point of attack is the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. One suit involving prisoners in a Wisconsin supermax has led to rulings requiring that mentally ill inmates be kept out of such facilities. The state is challenging the decisions, and arguments will be heard in February, but at least six other states have fought similar suits, and all of them have failed. “So far, the prisoners are batting a thousand on the issue of mentally ill inmates,” says David Fathi, a senior staff counsel with the A.C.L.U.

Another approach–one that’s a bit of a constitutional bank shot–is to rely on the 14th Amendment’s requirement of a due-process hearing before the state denies an inmate a “liberty interest,” something courts define as a reasonable expectation of a freedom or right. People confined to prison have few liberty interests left and thus have little ground to challenge assignment to a strict level of security. Confinement to supermax, however, may be so qualitatively different that it does require a hearing. That’s the argument Ohio inmates made in 2005, and that’s the argument a unanimous Supreme Court bought, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing that supermax isolation imposes such an “atypical and significant hardship” that prisoners must have a formal opportunity to make their case against the assignment before prison officials decide.

The eventual ruling on Padilla’s fitness could liberalize things further, and similar suits are sure to follow. Even so, no one thinks the supermax system is going away soon. For all the debate the prisons generate, it may not take much to make them more palatable to civil libertarians. TVs or radios, reading material and clocks, as well as a bit of natural lighting–which provides critical time-of-day orientation–would help stabilize inmates. So would human contact with guards or other prisoners.

“Just how sterile do you have to make that cell?” asks retired prison expert Chase Riveland, who spent his career as an official in the Colorado, Wisconsin and Washington prison systems.

What’s more, inmates aren’t the only ones hurt by extreme incarceration. People like Padilla or the Guantánamo Bay detainees are, in theory, resources for information about the extremist groups with which they are putatively associated. “To an overwhelming degree, such people are not threats behind bars. They’re opportunities,” says Grassian. “We hurt ourselves by destroying their sanity.” Closer to home, prisoners serving sentences for more mundane crimes do sometimes get released. Demolish their psyches while they’re in prison, and nobody’s safer when they get out.

Part of the reason we build prisons at all has always been the retributive urge. Those who do very bad things while they walk among us should lead very hard lives after they have been removed. That makes a lot of emotional sense. Whether it always makes practical sense is something else entirely.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com