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Americans Face Guantanamo-Like Torture Everyday in a Super-Max Prison Near You

To little public outcry, tens of thousands of citizens are being held in horrific conditions in super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons.

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But prison officials and the state attorney general’s office saw the verdict as another kind of landmark: never before in Maine had a convict been committed to the mental hospital after being tried for assault on guards. In the view of the corrections establishment, James would be escaping his deserved punishment, and this would send the wrong signal to prisoners. Officials refused to send him to the hospital, arguing he first had to serve the remaining nine years of his sentence.

Steinberger wrote to Maine’s governor—John Baldacci, a Democrat—begging him to intervene and send James to the hospital:

He continually slits open his arms and legs with chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and his cell with feces, strangles himself to unconsciousness with his clothing. . . . He also bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards.

This behavior was never in dispute, but the governor declined to intervene.

After a year of court battles, Steinberger finally succeeded in getting James into the hospital, though the judge conceded to the Department of Corrections that his time there would not count against his sentence. So James faces nine years in prison after however long it takes to bring him to a sane mental state.

Can supermax treatment legitimately be called torture? The most widely accepted legal definition of torture is in the  United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment—a treaty to which the United States is party, and is therefore U.S. law. In this definition, torture is treatment that causes “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” when it is inflicted by officials for purposes of punishment or coercion.

Severe pain and suffering as punishment are plainly the norm in supermaxes, and prison officials use isolation to coerce inmates into ratting on each other or confessing to crimes committed in prison. (A Maine prisoner told me about a deputy warden who threw him in the most brutal cellblock of the supermax and repeatedly interrogated him about an escape plot, which he denied any knowledge of.) Even in the careful words of diplomacy, and even when only mental suffering is considered, supermax conditions, especially solitary confinement of American prisoners for extended periods, have increasingly been described by UN agencies and non-governmental human rights organizations as cruel, inhuman, degrading, verging on torture, or outright torture. In 2008 the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak,  recommended that solitary confinement “be kept to a minimum, used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort”—limits that U.S. supermaxes violate in the course of normal operation. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which has been active in opposing abuses at Guantánamo, recently began describing supermax conditions as torture. And American judges have recognized solitary confinement of the mentally ill as equivalent to torture. A key case is  the 1995 federal court ruling in  Madrid v. Gomez that forbade keeping mentally ill prisoners in the notorious Security Housing Unit of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

Solitary confinement is by far the worst torture in the supermax. Human minds fare poorly in isolation, which “often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before,” Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and authority on solitary confinement, writes in  a brief for the  Madrid case. Grassian believes supermaxes produce a syndrome characterized by “agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.” He also notes memory lapses, “primitive aggressive fantasies,” paranoia, and hallucinations.