ADX Florida, one of America's 'Supermax' prisons

ADX Florida, one of America's 'Supermax' prisons

Yesterday I spent a fun day in sunny Glasgow as part of the Aye Write! literature festival. One of the speakers was the always entertaining and witty Steve Jones, the geneticist and writer from UCL and alumnus of Edinburgh University. He spoke on modern aspects of evolution and genetics, but what stuck most in my mind most from his talk was nothing about science, but something on US penal policy instead.

When discussing the social behaviour of animals, Professor Jones made reference to Richard Reid, the infamous shoebomber. Unable to be put to death, he was instead sentenced to life imprisonment in one of America’s ‘Supermax’ prisons, ADX Florida. Within these, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement under surveillance via close-circuit TV; they are only allowed to leave their cell for one hour a day and this is usually for exercise, which has to be done alone. Cells are soundproofed, gray and featureless, and inmates are fed on ‘junk loaf’; food containing no stimulating flavour whatsoever.

In other words, the whole experience is made to deprive all prisoners of stimuli and contact with other humans. When Richard Reid was sentenced, the judge told him “You will die alone, the only sound you will hear is your own whimpering”. “Except,” warned Prof. Jones, “No-one in these prisons ever dies with a whimper but with loud screaming, as they inevitably lose their minds.” Humans, like most animals, are social creatures; we thrive and live on the contact we make with other members of our species. Remove that contact, and we would not know what to do. Except lose our minds and souls.

Further evidence of Supermax prison’s damaging effects is present in this rather weighty report by Craig Hanley of the University of California, Santa Cruz. (Unfortunately in order to read the whole thing you need access through an academic account, which is always inconvenient and silly.) At 34 pages long, it outlines in painful detail the individual mental, physical and sociological problems caused by these intense prisons. As such, it is more depressing then listening to Portishead whilst residing in a bedsit in Slough.

More specifically, he found that prisoners in these cells suffer from increased rates of “Negative attitudes and affect; insomnia; withdrawal; hypersensitivity; ruminations; cognitive dysfunction; hallucinations; loss of control; irritability, aggression, and rage; paranoia; hopelessness; lethargy; depression; a sense of impending emotional breakdown; self-mutilation; and suicidal ideation and behaviour.” So nothing too major then.

In fact, as part of his literature review, he found that “Many of the negative effects of solitary confinement are analogous to the acute reactions suffered by torture and trauma victims, including post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD and the kind of psychiatric sequelae that plague victims of what are called ‘deprivation and constraint’ torture techniques.”

Overall it was found that all studies in which prisoners were placed in supermax prisons with no control over their release showed increased rate of mental illness. Now, some of the more skeptical readers may ask, “Is this the fault of the prisons themselves though?” This should be addressed, as more aggressive criminals would be placed in supermax prisons and are the people more likely to suffer from mental illness. This may account for an increased rate, but this cannot be helped and is surely worsened by the increased social stress and isolation which supermax prisons impose. (There is also the increased rate of physical illness that occurs, which does not seem to correlate with criminal behaviour.)

To me, supermax prisons are a shame on America’s penal system and a shocking form of punishment in a so-called developed country; the United Nations has already described them as “inhuman and degrading”. I’m sure you’ll join me in agreeing that penal systems are their to punish but also rehabilitate; how the hell can this be possible when the inmates are effectively tortured for years and their mental state systematically broken down? If you’re as angry as I am with this, I’m not sure what I can suggest to improve this situation except note that there is a link to Amnesty International to the right.

(Reference: Hanley C., “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement”, Crime & Delinquency 49(1), 124-156 (2003). DOI: 10.1177/0011128702239239)