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The Grim Realities Of Life In Supermax Prisons


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.

Later in the program, back to the SilverDocs festival for a new documentary on the oppression of gays in Uganda, "Call Me Kuchu." But first, supermax prisons. 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: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. And before we get back to our conversation about supermax prisons and solitary confinement, a correction. During the show yesterday on Latino voters, one of our guests said that President Obama had once claimed he did not have the authority to issue an immigration waiver like the one he announced last week.

As many of you wrote to tell us, President Obama meant he could not sign the DREAM Act unless Congress passed it, but he did specifically say he did have the authority to prioritize enforcement. And thanks for the corrections.

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: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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